Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Mother and the Moth: Searching for Meaning in the Cinema of Aleksandr Sokurov

As Gudrun Geyer, the eponymous matriarch of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son (Mat i syn, 1997) reclines, preparing for an afternoon nap, she notices a canary yellow moth perched on her limp right hand. Sliding her left middle finger under the insect, she carefully lifts the creature, pulling her hand toward her face. As she attentively examines her discovery, a slight grin emerges at the corners of her mouth. Geyer then lowers her left hand onto her folded right, settling back to rest with the creature still clinging to her finger. The actress closes her eyes and Sokurov fades to black.

When next we return to Geyer, Sokurov frames only her lifeless right hand, with the now dead insect stuck to her pallid flesh. The life imbuing both has disappeared, leaving only their bodily shells. In fact, as the continued appearance of the moth indicates, this evanesced presence did not evaporate; it did not float away with the winged creature. Sokurov has denied the salience of the conventional metaphor explicitly. He has refused to show the spirit migrating to its heavenly dwelling place. Rather, life, which is to say all that animates a being, both somatic and spiritual, has been extinguished. If there is another life, it rejects material instantiation, even on the level of the symbolic.

A moment later, her son (Aleksei Ananishnov) enters the composition, first filling the background with his navy blue pullover, and then by touching her skin with his right hand. As he pushes his finger tips across the surface of her flesh, we see its increasing elasticity with the liver-spotted skin bunching as his fingers cross the back of her hand. Her skin has loosened. It is now little more than a container for the once animate contents that it continues to house.

Ananishnov then rotates his hand to the left, the tips of his fingers gently brushing Geyer’s skin as he reaches her knuckles. With his fingers now facing the camera, Ananishnov bends down into the frame and attempts to push the creature off her hand with a lengthy exhalation. The moth remains motionless and he relents, lowering his right cheek onto his mother’s inanimate hand.

After blowing at the creature again, still unsuccessfully, he lifts his head. With his face now off camera, Ananishnov lets loose a sudden moan, his elongated neck muscles straining as his grief spreads upward. Sokurov follows this image with a dissolve to Ananishnov’s face in close-up, his lips cropped on the bottom of the frame as he promises his mother that they “will meet” again in the place they “agreed.” He implores her, “wait for me; be patient my dear mother,” and the film concludes. As the credits roll over a black screen, we hear flies buzzing, water running, claps of thunder and the film’s faint classical score, all of which decrescendo before the titles finish.

In the preceding pair of sequences, the distinctiveness of Aleksandr Sokurov’s cinematic practice is manifest, securing expression in both the director’s rejection of conventional iconography and also in the forms he employs to convey the film’s themes. With respect to the latter, Mother and Son features the director’s archetypal spatial manipulations in its stretched, smeared compositions; his predilection for long takes – the seventy-plus minute feature contains fifty-nine shots; and his dialed-up, polyphonic soundscapes that position the director as an heir to Robert Bresson’s sonically-focused art cinema.

Still, it is not exactly in the above passages’ stylistic proximity to the director’s broader corpus that they emerge as exemplary. Instead, it is in the paired scenes’ thematic typification that they become cardinal for Sokurov’s craft: namely, in their emphases on death – the great theme of the filmmaker’s work – corporeal presence and the soul’s imminence. Indeed these passages reveal nothing less than Sokurov’s singularity as an artist. Nevertheless, before returning to this locus of the Sokurovian aesthetic, the formal practices and subject matter listed above will be treated in greater depth, utilizing the entirety of Mother and Son as a point of departure for the subsequent auteurist investigation of Aleksandr Sokurov’s cinema. Once the breadth of his corpus is detailed, its distillation within the above scenes will be parsed.

“I Destroy Real Nature and Create My Own”

In Mother and Son’s opening image, we see the titular leads in medium shot. Ananishnov’s Son holds his mother who lies with her feet facing the camera, her body noticeably foreshortened. The composition is horizontally stretched, which is an effect that the director replicates throughout Mother and Son. To this end, Sokurov also vertically elongates a tight, medium-close-up framing of the pair in tall grass later in the film, where the female protagonist struggles to breathe; similarly, Sokurov employs this technique in a long-shot framing of Ananishnov carrying Geyer through a birch grove. In both cases, Sokurov distorts the image, blurring the edges of the frame. Similarly, in the ten second shot following the opening long take, Sokurov cuts to a tableau of fir trees on the upper edge of an incline. In this case, the image resembles a faded sepia photograph, with the edges emitting a darker shade of auburn.

To achieve the above effects Sokurov admits to using “a couple of simple mirrors, large panes of glass, as well as brush and paint.”[1] As he explained in an interview to Paul Schrader, the director placed the glass “in front [of the lens] and on the side, and behind, placing them on different support structures.”[2] With these surfaces in place, the director applied the pigment with “very thin, delicate” brush strokes – as opposed to spraying the paint on to the glass, which Sokurov claimed “would look very harsh.”[3] Thereafter he shot these surfaces to secure the aforesaid distortions. These techniques, the director goes on to explain, served his intention of “creating” nature rather than “shooting a concrete picture of [it].”[4] For the director, “there is just one principle” guiding Mother and Son and it is a “very important one”: “I have stopped pretending that the image onscreen is dimensional. My first goal is that images have to be flat, as well as horizontal.”[5]

In this way, Sokurov confirms an interest in transforming cinema into a medium that shares painting’s ability to refigure space, within two dimensions, rather than affirming its indexical operation of replicating verisimilitude. At the same time, Sokurov (as of the time of Mother and Son’s making at least) refuses manipulation of the image in post-production;[6] as he puts it “computer art is a completely different type of visual art.”[7] Instead, the image is to be created during the shoot.

Actually, this remaking of the spatial field is evident elsewhere in the director’s corpus, though not always to the same end. For example, in Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg, 2002), the director transforms on-camera space by pairing his forward tracking camera with zooms that effectively flatten or stretch the space in view, which establishes a visual analogy for the historical transformations that shape the narrative – that is, to the extent that we are watching different historical moments folding into one another in the singular space of the Hermitage.

More characteristic, however, is the director’s technique in Oriental Elegy (Vostochnaya elegiya, 1996) where colors are made to bleed into one another, procuring an effect that is comparable to animated watercolor painting.[8] This same quality – though less in watercolors than in oils[9] – is evident in Mother and Son as well, as for instance in the framing of the pair amidst the birches once again. Here, Ananishnov sets his mother against one of the trees, as both persons rest on the hillside. Sokurov’s one minute-five second shot features smearing on its left edge, while it is clear that the image itself is reflected in one of the aforementioned mirrors. The movements of the protagonists are slowed throughout the shot as they often are in Mother and Son, thereby calling attention to the literal animation of the images – which is to say that we see the seemingly static figures slowly changing position. Given again the distortions that are introduced into the images, it is as if we are seeing paintings brought to life therefore, rather than still photographs.

Of course, while the director’s compositions may evoke painting, Sokurov’s connection to this medium is more explicit in both Elegy of a Voyage (Elegiya dorogi, 2001) and Russian Ark. In each, the director tours through a major European museum – the Boijmans in Rotterdam and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg respectively – zooming into and across the canvases of well-known works of post-Renaissance European art (as for instance, in his isolation of Rembrandt’s “The Prodigal Son” in Russian Ark). Even more directly, the filmmaker’s non-fiction Hubert Robert: A Fortunate Life (Robert. Schastlivaya zhizn, 1996) also features a selection of the painter’s works filmed in the Hermitage.[10] Together these works highlight Tarkovsky’s influence – most notably of Andrei Rublev (Andrey Rublyov, 1966) where the Soviet auteur depicts the life of the titular icon painter – inasmuch as they adopt the director’s strategy of scanning the works in extreme close-up.

Then again, it is not simply painting that the Mother and Son calls to mind, but further nineteenth-century photographic sources, as for example during the sepia tableau mentioned above. As this static, wind-swept composition continues, we hear the sound of a train whistle blowing in the distance. The director then cuts to an overhead framing of a golden-hued wheat field across which a steam engine soon passes. Again, this image is discolored around the edges, while remaining incandescent in the center. In this way Sokurov’s imagery suggests photography’s beginning in the era of the daguerreotype – due to both the visual qualities of the images and also in the film’s evocation of the guiding metaphor of this era, the locomotive. Moreover, J. Hoberman argues that “Sokurov’s uncanny references to Caspar David Friedrich, the German romantic painter who died just as photography was developed,” achieve the same effect.[11] Hence, if Mother and Son possesses an allegorical meaning, which Hoberman all-the-same resists, it may be as Ken Jacobs suggests that the mother’s death figures the death of cinema (at the birth of digital technologies).[12]

A Buzzing Transistor: Unsettling Sound in Sokurov

To move to the auditory component for the moment, it may be worth beginning outside of Mother and Son where the director’s strategies are most radical, as for instance in The Sun (Solntse, 2004). In this film, as in the director’s The Second Circle (Krug vtoroy, 1990), we consistently hear high-pitched, metallic sounds and the buzzing of a radio tuner that create an unsettled atmosphere surrounding the collapsing Empire – and in the case of The Second Circle, the father’s death. Likewise, in the Emperor’s initial exit from his residence, we again here radio static, in addition to the sound of aerial bombers, the broad American accents of the occupying soldiers and the dialed-up squawking of the crane that rushes about the yard. In each of these examples, sound has been de-spatialized, extracted from its visual source – to the extent the above sound effects suggest a different set of depth cues than is apparent. In much the same way, The Sun’s dialogue introduces an element of discord in its peculiar usage of post-sync dubbing: Sokurov’s microphoned speakers do not reinforce the figures’ placement in space, but rather call attention to the disharmony between the audio and visual tracks.

In this way Sokurov’s aesthetic echoes that of his master Andre Tarkovsky and the latter’s development of a “compelling language based on sound’s potential for ambiguity and abstraction.”[13] Sokurov, like Tarkovsky, “probes sound’s ability to function both literally – attached to an object – and abstractly – independent of any recognizable source. In these films, sound moves beyond its traditional role as a secondary support for the image, at times even surpassing the visual in its ability to convey certain types of meaning.”[14] As an example of its independent expressive potential, we occasionally hear discordant metallic sounds in Russian Ark, produced by stringed instruments. These moments figure temporal transitions within the director’s one-take representation of three hundred years of Russian history. For instance, Sokurov includes this theme between two separate orchestral performances conducted in the same spot roughly that occur at different moments in the museum’s history (as indicated by the costuming of the actors). Thus, Sokurov uses sound to delimit various times within this single space, just as he paired forward tracking shots and zooms to similarly remake the space of the palace. Through both techniques, Sokurov figures the impossible.

Then again, Sokurov’s soundtrack does not always figure detachment between sound and image. For instance, when we see a clerk taking notes after a meeting between Hirohito and his cabinet ministers, Sokurov amplifies the audio of a pencil dictating on paper. In this respect, Sokurov’s aural strategy derives from Robert Bresson’s exaggerated ambient soundtrack (perhaps through Tarkovsky who maintains the same equality between audio and visual components). Indeed, much of the director’s manipulation of sound in Mother and Son fits this schema: as an amplification of the nature that permeates the work.

Sound & Creative Geography in Mother and Son

At the same time, Mother and Son features innovation of its own: namely in its creation of impossible landscape. In the above sequence, Sokurov bridges presumably contiguous spaces through his use of off-camera sound – in this case, via the train whistle. However, Sokurov’s utilization of this technique is often far less conventional as in the extended passage sandwiched by the two scenes featuring the dying mother and moth. In this sequence, Ananishnov departs, climbing a light-colored dirt road with dark gray storm clouds filling the upper registers of the frame. In both this and the subsequent image the frame is stretched vertically with a gossamer mist covering the left and right edges of the composition; in the second of these compositions, we again hear a train whistle. Sokurov then cuts to a long shot of the lead in a wheat field with the train deep in the distance, thus replicating the earlier strategy. However, the director then cuts to Ananishnov standing on a narrow path intersecting a steep limestone cliff, with the steam whistle again sounding. As such, Sokurov sutures two spaces that seem at odds with our sense of the film’s geography: in short order, we move not only from flat wheat fields to a shear hillside but from Russia to Germany.

The director then pans across the mountainous forest that abuts this incline, returning to Ananishnov as he reemerges at the bottom of the frame. After another extremely gauzy Baltic landscape, Sokurov cuts to a creek bottom covered by a thick forest canopy. Light passes through the dense trees, pooling in the narrow ravine. A moment later, we see smoke filtering into the space, which just as quickly dissipates. As the lead walks further into the darkness, we hear a single chime followed by another train whistle that continues for a longer duration this time. Thus, Sokurov implies the relative proximity of these spaces, or at least accessibility to Ananishnov, in spite of the difference in terrain.

However, Sokurov next cuts to an overhead shot of a mountainous landscape with thick fog descending on the tree-covered slopes. Sokurov represent this space with sudden flashes of black alternately passing before the lens; in this way, he implies that the camera’s position is a literal bird’s-eye view, with the creatures’ wings flapping in front of the lens. Consequently, Sokurov breaks the intimation that the landscapes presented are those covered by the male protagonist. What we see is an impossible sequence of landscapes or “creative geography.”[15]

“Creation, You Are Wonderful!”: The Problem of Metaphor in Sokurov’s Landscapes

To represent nature truthfully, in spite of its impossible configurations and its mediation through the techniques listed above, is nevertheless central to Sokurov’s purpose in Mother and Son. In fact, Sokurov attempts to create an imprint of nature that is not limited to its physical appearance, but further captures its extra-visual qualities, namely the tactility of the places Sokurov films. As an example one might cite the scene wherein Ananishnov lowers Geyer onto a bench in the grassy courtyard. Here, the dark shadows produced by the thick wooded canopy, the diffuse afternoon light, the sudden, howling gusts of wind that pass through the tall grass and the distant insect choruses all combine to produce the sensation of a cool late-spring day, which is further intimated by the pullovers worn by the protagonists. Elsewhere in the director’s corpus, this attempt to procure a sense of a place is similarly strong, especially in his Japanese cycle. Speaking of Oriental Elegy, Sokurov invokes the peculiar atmosphere of its setting: “…What a strange dream; the outlines of the houses ooze through the mist. They huddle together, rocking with the light wave — and it begins to seem that all this town is a small island, drifting in the space of the immense Ocean…”[16] Likewise, in the director’s subsequent dolce… (2000) Japan is again rendered in a palpable, all-consuming mist; rain pours on the secluded country home, conveying a mood commensurate with the film’s mournful subject – namely, of the day-to-day life of a widow and her physically handicapped daughter at their sequestered island home. Sokurov registers these spaces in extended long-takes that reproduce their atmospheres accumulatively.

Significantly, the director also utilizes these long takes in his static Betacam compositions of his protagonists’ faces. As Tuchinskaya puts it: “video is used here in an ‘intimate’ way, to capture the inner worlds of the characters… The film-maker here reveals the contours of memory, the contrasts of feelings and the nuances of the psyche in an impressionist manner.”[17] That is, we cannot read precise emotions on the lead’s face, though the cumulative effect of Sokurov’s close-up portraits twined with dolce…’s “lyrical monologue” and the film’s rain-soaked landscapes combine to create an inner portrait, even as none of these elements contain semantic meaning in their own right.[18] Hence, when we see a rain-soaked forest late in the film, followed by a superimposition of the protagonist’s face over this same landscape, it becomes clear that the director has distilled emotion into his representations of the external world.

Similarly, the majority of the long-shot compositions framing Mother and Son together in nature emit metaphoric significance – particularly in his graphic transformations of his skies. Here, Sokurov darkens these registers to affect melancholy and intimate the approaching tragedy. To this end, Sokurov splits one of his landscapes horizontally, maintaining natural sunlight in the lower half where Ananishnov crouches, holding Geyer, while doctored thunder clouds loom above and in the distance, casting a painted shadow over the upper half of the image. Likewise, Sokurov veils the warm summer light of another composition where we see Ananishnov carrying the female lead down into a ditch; here, he has applied paint to the corners of the surface, generating a dark pall that counteracts the apparent sun light. Again, Sokurov has manipulated the image to represent the imminent sadness of the narrative, thereby providing an external corollary to the protagonists’ disquietude. To quote Sergei Eisenstein from his “Fourth Dimension in Cinema,” “an emotional structure [is] applied to non-emotional material” in Mother and Son.[19] Sokurov’s “montage is built exclusively on the emotional ‘resonance’ of individual shots, i.e. on the rhythmic vibrations that do not produce spatial transportations.”[20]

Nevertheless, this reducibility to symbols is not always evident in Sokurov’s cinema. For instance in the director’s Elegy of a Voyage, we see nocturnal images of snowflakes falling on a black sea, beneath a rocking lamp and illuminated by auto headlights on the streets of an anonymous European city. In each Sokurov highlights the grave beauty of the visual, detached from any metaphorical significance – the narrative concerns an obscure Dutch painter’s recognition of his true identity. Likewise, Mother and Son’s extended sequence of disparate landscapes detailed above, while coinciding with the Mother’s death, does not clearly figure this incident. We see nothing that would indicate the narrative significance of the passage. Rather we again witness images of unmistakable beauty, though with Ananishnov’s presence largely anchoring these spaces. However, without imagery that can be imputed to psychological states, which is to say external representations of human interiority – such as the rain-sodden landscapes of dolce... or Mother and Son’s darkened skies Mother and Son’s final exterior sequence operates instead on the basis of phenomenological equivalences. In other words, Sokurov’s landscapes, conveyed in extended, static takes, evoke the same visceral experiences obtainable in similar places.

However, far from being psychologically-coded, these experiences are, to use Andrei Tarkovsky’s terminology, “supra-emotional.”[21] That is, Sokurov’s landscapes facilitate ‘spiritual’ sensations that compare more closely to the feelings generated by music than to the sympathies and empathy aroused in storytelling. The spectator feels the image as they would a piece of Romantic music. As Eisenstein puts it in the same essay quoted above, the viewer’s perception is enhanced, moving “from a melodically emotional colouring to a direct physiological sensation.”[22] The purpose of these landscapes is no longer to imply the emotional states of the protagonists but rather to evoke the ‘physiological’ experiences that the protagonist shares with the viewer, which is to say supra-emotional or spiritual sensation.

A Short History of the Body in Sokurov

Implicit in the above formulation is the body’s cardinality to landscape in Mother and Son, whether the body is literally instantiated within the film’s spaces or whether the body is instead simulated as an accompaniment to the spectators gaze. Either way, Mother and Son highlights physiological experience. So too does the body serve as a ubiquitous subject of Sokurov’s work, from a comparison of young and old bodies in the non-fiction Maria (Mariya, 1978-88) to the presence of the sun god incarnate in the director’s more recent The Sun. In both of these, as in many of Sokurov’s remaining works, the body is both a key visual motif and a primary thematic concern.

Completed the same year as Maria, Days of Eclipse (Dni zatmeniya, 1988) emphasizes the bronze, athletic physique of Aleksei Ananishnov – the latter-day protagonist of Mother and Son, which was his only other film role. We see the listless protagonist shirtless throughout much of the film, where he serves as “an archaic symbol of the former power of the collapsed Soviet empire.”[23] Similarly imbued with metaphoric significance, we see the deceased body of a writer, as well as the terrestrial, child-like form of an alien visitor, who like the corpse talks to Ananishnov.

By comparison, the director’s signature The Second Circle remains steadfastly free of otherworldly phenomena, focusing instead upon a son’s duty to bury his father. The latter’s corpse is present throughout the majority of the film, though it is often cropped by the edges of the frame within which his son arranges for his burial. When eventually we do see the dead father’s face, his eyes come into view, possessing the mysterious absence of life that animated the figure before his death.

Following Mother and Son chronologically, Sokurov’s Moloch (Molokh, 1999), the first of the filmmaker’s tetralogy, continues his emphasis on bodies, opening with Elena Rufanova’s nude gymnastics in the cavernous interiors and on the balconies of Adolf Hitler’s mountain-top retreat. The nubile body of Rufanova’s Eva Braun is established as a point of comparison to the saggy, pallid of form of Leonid Mozgovoy’s Hitler. As we soon learn, the latter is dying of cancer, his body disintegrating. As one character observes to the lead, “you are nothing more than a corpse.” Indeed, Sokurov’s film attaches metaphorical importance to the dictator’s body: as Tuchinskaya notes: “Hitler is presented as a product of the decay of the whole epoch of culture — as a personification of the highest possible stage of Power, as a symbol of the absurdity of all the universal desires of man.”[24] However, it is less this feeling for societal decay than it is the sense of the physical presence of the person that is imparted in Moloch. To put it another way, Moloch reminds us of Hitler’s bodily humanity without addressing the dictator’s crimes.[25]

In the third film of the series, The Sun, Sokurov’s subject is “a small, puny, thin–voiced scientist involved in hydrobiology,” who happened also to be the Emperor of Japan during the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war with the United States.[26] “Hirohito,” according to the director, “was the most unlikely tyrant… He didn’t look like a bloodthirsty god of war at all.”[27] Rather, in Sokurov’s embellished biography of the dictator, Hirohito (Issey Ogata) is a nebbishy figure who spends his time studying marine wildlife, writing poetry he cannot interpret and looking at photographs of Hollywood stars and starlets, when he is not fulfilling his official capacities as Emperor and living deity of the Japanese people. Similarly, this god among men often acts childishly, as for instance when he dances around an empty room, putting out lit candles with General Douglas MacArthur looking on furtively (in this latter regard, The Sun compares to Mother and Son and that film’s reversion to infancy) or when we see the actor puckering his lips to mimic the aquatic animals he studies.[28]

However, it is less any of Hirohito’s eccentricities ultimately than it is his role as god incarnate that defines The Sun and its connection to Sokurov’s larger corpus. Faced with the defeat of the Japanese army at the hands of the United States, Hirohito is confronted with the decision of whether or not to renounce his divinity, as is demanded by General MacArthur (Robert Dawson). The Emperor obliges, in spite of the objections of his servants. For Hirohito, the decision is presented as relatively unproblematic, a chance to be “free” and to lead a normal life with his wife and children. Indeed, Hirohito is presented as rational throughout, a man of science who early in the film acknowledges that his body is the same as everyone else’s – in spite of his occasional bizarre behavior. In fact, Hirohito conceives of the Japanese state as a “body” with the leader as the “brain.” This is to say that he is committed to his fundamental biological similarity with his subjects, as he is to Darwinian evolution (the leader has a bust of the biologist to stand beside those of Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln). Therefore, when he is asked by MacArthur what it feels like to be god, he responds, “I don’t know what to tell you,” because of course he does not feel that he is – or at least that he is no different than any of his subjects.

Still, up to his renunciation of divinity in the picture’s final passage, the Emperor remains God for the Japanese people. While Sokurov suggests that Hirohito himself knows better, we continue to observe a human body that at least theoretically conceals a divine substance (if we can assume that the historical Hirohito was no more divine in his appearance). That is, Hirohito’s divinity is represented potentially as an invisible presence, hidden before our eyes. It is a corollary to the human soul, the frequent subject of Sokurov’s cinema. Consequently, we are encouraged to search for its absence after Hirohito renounces his divinity, just as we search for its presence beforehand – and as we examine the corpses in The Second Circle and Mother and Son following the characters’ death. However, unlike with these lifeless figures, there is no difference in Hirohito after this change of status. Hirohito remains the same; his loss of divinity has failed to leave a trace.

Searching for the Soul in Sokurov

Importantly, a similar economy operates in the scenes depicting Geyer’s character’s death in Mother and Son. Here again Sokurov refuses us any indication of a transition from one state to the next – in the case of Mother and Son from the terrestrial to the spiritual. That is, he denies any symbols that might be construed as the soul’s migration in the aforesaid scene. In fact, in its incorporation of the moth motif, Mother and Son implies the lack of anything other than earth-bound existence, which ceases with the body’s demise. Death is, to use Sokurov’s own terminology, “non-existence.”[29]

Still, Sokurov does not deny the presence of a soul as such. To begin with, Sokurov uses the term in discussing the practice of being an artist. As he puts it, “art is the hard work of your soul… The history of an artist’s soul is a very sad history.”[30] Thus, Sokurov identifies an internal constitution that extends beyond intellect and personality that he instead chooses to describe in metaphysical terms. Further, Sokurov claims that what interests him as a filmmaker are “just those feelings that only a spiritual person could experience: the feelings of farewells and separations.”[31] He continues, attaching the theme of death to this spiritual capacity: “I think that the drama of death is the drama of separation.”[32] In this way Sokurov identifies an internal aptitude that is again neither intellectual nor emotional.

Therefore, to return to the previous discussion of death as ‘non-existence,’ Sokurov suggests that the spirit does not persist after death, though his discussion of the soul both in the film and in the accompanying literature indicates a spiritual existence beyond corporeality. With respect to his discussion of the soul in Mother and Son, it is necessary to highlight the contents of Ananishnov and Geyer’s shared dream which they discuss in the film’s opening take. In this joint vision, each of the two protagonists was asked independently to recite the following lines, which they proceed to do in a set of overlapping monologues: “I am seized by a suffocating nightmare; I awake terror-stricken; God, dwelling in my soul, affects only my consciousness; He never extends to the outer world, to the course of things.” As such, Sokurov again evokes a spiritual life that is once more tortured, as are his descriptions of the artist’s life. The soul as always is a site of pain and a place of unrest. It is for this reason that spiritual persons are the only people capable of experiencing ‘the feelings of farewells and separations.’

Of course, the above monologue also contains an element of divine revolt that appears elsewhere in Sokurov’s cinema. For instance in the director’s Elegy of a Voyage, the film’s narrator asks why Christ asked to have the cross taken from him, which he sees as an invalidation of Christian sacrifice. Similarly he questions the value of child baptism, shown on screen, claiming that the young person can know nothing of the sacrifice that this gesture entails. Moreover, he speaks disparagingly of the monks that perform the ritual, stating that “even Church-going hasn’t warmed them.”[33] In short, Sokurov demonstrates a skepticism in Elegy of a Voyage equivalent to that in Mother and Son, where once again God does not extend ‘to the course of things,’ and where the soul’s death accompanies the body’s death, figured in the expired creature that clings to the protagonists’ finger.

Searching for Meaning in Sokurov

So what then is meant by Ananishnov’s promise to his mother at the film’s conclusion: ‘We will meet… where we agreed. Wait for me. Be patient my dear mother?’ Are we to believe that they will commune in another life or is Ananishnov’s hope incommensurate with the logic Sokurov establishes elsewhere? The key once again resides in the moth’s deflation: does Sokurov’s symbol figure the soul’s cessation after death, its inclusion in this ‘non-existence,’ or does it instead articulate the inadequacy of physical symbols in conferring metaphysical being? Accordingly, it becomes essential to note those instances where immaterial presence is or is not represented. To this end, it is worth recalling a set of lines from the pair’s shared dream: ‘God, dwelling in my soul, affects only my consciousness; He never extends to the outer world, to the course of things.’ In other words, God emerges as a weight on human conscious, a source of anxiety, without revealing Himself through intercession in the events of the world. Therefore, it is not simply that God is metaphysical in his being, but further that he refuses to reveal himself.[34]

So too is the human spirit, but that does not explain the appearance of the moth in the twined sequences. Without the creature, Sokurov would have maintained the default skepticism inherent in the cinematic medium: that is an indexical art form, an art of mechanical reproduction and of surfaces that elides meta-physical being. Lacking this symbol we would not possess evidence one way or the other as to whether the soul migrated; this subject would remain beyond the medium’s facility. However in including this creature, Sokurov underlines transmigration as a theme, and thus its negation in the deceased insect. Life, the soul does not leave, it does not evaporate, rising into the sky and toward the heavens; rather body and soul simply cease, existence becomes non-existence.

Then again, without the final monologue, the above interpretation would be far less problematic inasmuch as Mother and Son would contain an argument for the soul’s termination at death without also raising the possibility of its persistence in the after life. Had Sokurov wanted to make this case unequivocally, he simply could have eliminated the concluding lines of speech. However, its’ inclusion, like the appearance of the moth, reveal Sokurov’s unique relationship to meaning. Sokurov employs symbolic forms without granting these forms full explanatory value. They act in concert with the content they reinforce, adding clarity to the films’ subjects without mitigating the questions they raise. For instance, Ogata’s fish-faced expressions in The Sun call our attention to the breath that his body conceals – just as his body potentially houses his divine nature – without confirming or denying this presence: that is, after he renounces his divinity, Hirohito seems to have neither gained nor lost anything; no change has been effected on the level of symbolic form. The visual motif Sokurov and Igawa employ reiterates the film’s key theme without contributing greater understanding. It simply repeats the same question. Similarly, the moth’s presence refines the issue at stake – the soul’s migration – without proposing an unambiguous solution.

At the same time, Sokurov does not exactly confer openness and unproblematic ambiguity either. He does not merely allow multiple interpretations of his films, but actively refuses this catholicity instead, introducing symbols and themes that problematize certain sets of interpretation. To put it simply, interpretation is not easily arrived at in Sokurov’s cinema; and at the same time, his films demand it. Sokurov’s work prompts questions that the same films actively refuse to answer – rather than say decline to answer as is true of the paradigmatically open narrative.[35]


So it remains to establish what kind of art Sokurov’s is if it denies both the novelistic organization of fiction in conventional storytelling and the associative logic of a poetic cinema exemplified by Andrei Tarkovsky and more recently by Abbas Kiarostami, to say nothing of Surrealist and Dadaist models.[36] If there is perhaps a single word to describe Sokurov’s counter-cinema, for which he may be the lone progenitor as of yet, that term is ‘impressionist,’ as Alexandra Tuchinskaya described the director’s ‘manner’ in dolce….[37] That is, Sokurov produces an imprint of reality that nevertheless departs from a verisimilitudinous reproduction in the director’s manipulation of the visual field. These landscapes take on the feelings of the director’s ‘spiritual’ subjects without always being reduced to the one-to-one correlatives of expressionist art. In contrast, Sokurov produces simulacra of feeling, of spiritual experience that addresses its spectators at the same ineffable level as its protagonists – in their souls. These sensations include both the corporeal feeling of the cool summer breeze and the heartbreak at a mother’s passing, though the two are often made indistinguishable, as in the passage that separates the two scenes featuring the mother and the moth.
It is in this respect once again that Sokurov’s cinema is exemplified in this moment: the cardinal body, the introduction of a complicating symbol and the drama of separation writ in the mother’s death. This is the purest expression of Aleksandr Sokurov’s cinema, and not surprisingly its most spiritual moment.

[1] Aleksandr Sokurov interviewed by Paul Schrader, “The history of an artists’ soul is a very sad history,” Film Comment 33, Iss. 6 (New York: Nov. / Dec. 1997): 23.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The director does utilize digital effects in The Sun (2005), most noticeably in his transformations of the sky into sea and in his reproductions of war-time Tokyo.
[7] Sokurov quoted by Schrader, 25.
[8] This same technique is also evident throughout dolce… (2000).
[9] Sokurov, according to critic J. Hoberman, synthesizes a range of locations “from the Russian woods to the sandy cliffs of Germany’s Baltic coast” into his “own version of early l9th-century Romantic landscape canvases.” Each of these compositions is “individually worked-out,” referring frequently to Caspar David Friedrich and J. M. W. Turner’s “quieter compositions in mist and light.” (J. Hoberman, “Flesh and Blood” in The Village Voice, Vol. 43, Iss. 6 (New York: February 10, 1998): 61.
[10] According to Alexandra Tuchinskaya, Hubert Robert: A Fortunate Life is “the first film of, and as of yet the only film in, a series planned by Hermitage Bridge Studios dedicated to the most important masters of European painting, whose works are included in the collection of the Hermitage Museum, the most famous of Russian museums. It in envisaged that the films will be made by the most prestigious of St. Petersburg’s film directors. Only Sokurov has already made his film.” Tuchinskaya, “Hubert Robert. A Fortunate Life” on The Island of Sokurov: An Official Website (
[11] Sokurov’s images “are a reminder of how much Friedrich’s luminously misty and transparent voids anticipate motion-picture projection Hoberman, “Going Down in History” in The Village Voice, Vol. 43, Iss. 53 (New York: January 5, 1999): 51.
[12] Ken Jacobs quoted by J. Hoberman, “Cold Comfort” in The Village Voice, Vol. 42, Iss. 10 (New York: March 11, 1997): 69.
[13] Andrea Truppin, “And Then There Was Sound: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky” in Sound Theory Sound Practice, ed. Rick Altman (New York: Routledge, 1992): 235.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Hoberman, “Flesh and Blood,” 61.
[16] Tuchinskaya, “Oriental Elegy” (
[17] Tuchinskaya, “dolce…” (
[18] Ibid.
[19] Sergei M. Eisenstein, S. M. Eisenstein: Selected Works, Vol. I: Writings, 1922-34, ed. and trans. Richard Taylor (London: British Film Institute, 1988): 190.
[20] Ibid., 189.
[21] Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2000): 40.
[22] Eisenstein, 191.
[23] Tuchinskaya, “Days of Eclipse” (
[24] Tuchinskaya, “Moloch” (
[25] Of course, as with each of the three entries into Sokurov’s tetralogy, “the key is the depiction of the hero who suffers a personal tragedy.” Hence, the political consequences of their lives remain secondary. As Sokurov puts it: “I don't make films about dictators, but I make films about those people who are more outstanding than the rest of them. They appeared to be in possession of ultimate power. But human frailty and passion affect their deeds more than the status and circumstances. Human qualities and character are higher than any historical situation — higher and stronger.” Sokurov quoted by Tuchinskaya, “The Sun” (
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Actually, this puckering gesture contains significance beyond its function in revealing Hirohito’s peculiarity. For example, when we see Ogata performing the action early in the film, it is almost as if the dictator is lacking the breath to speak to the servant who is dressing him. Consequently Ogata sniffs his fingers and exclaims that he has a strange taste and smell in his mouth. That is, he discovers something bizarre with respect to his breath, a signal of his internal presence and a key motif within Sokurov’s corpus. Among other instances of breath’s cardinality, The Second Circle features this element as a key graphic motif with the film’s living protagonist constantly exhaling in icy flat that also houses the film’s lifeless subject. Hence, in The Second Circle breath becomes life itself, an existence that has been taken from the lead’s father and Mother and Son’s female protagonist likewise. Moreover, Sokurov reaffirms the motif in his description of Russian Ark as a film made “in one breath.” (Knut Elstermann, In One Breath: Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark (2003) included in Wellspring’s presentation of Russian Ark for region 1 DVD.)
[29] In describing the tragedies that define his tetralogy, Sokurov uses the term twice (emphasis added): “Hitler brings the situation to a senseless tragedy: it is clear that the war is lost but, fulfilling his will, soldiers continue to die. He takes many lives with him to non–existence. And Lenin resists non–existence too — it's as if he casts into the future his dying despair, his intolerance.”
[30] Sokurov quoted by Schrader, “The history of an artists’ soul is a very sad history.”
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Speaking of his own religious experience, Sokurov claims “I never met anyone who helped me develop my spirituality and my soul. Let’s put it this way: I never met a priest to whom I would go for confession.” Thus, Sokurov seems to possess certain anti-clerical feelings that his Elegy of a Voyage narrator similarly expresses in the footnoted passage. (Sokurov quoted by Schrader, “The history of an artist’s soul is a very sad history,” 22.) However, he is also willing to admit that “God was probably assisting us at that time” in discussing the shooting of Mother and Son (23) or that he prayed and lit a candle during his filming of Russian Ark (Knut Elstermann, In One Breath: Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark). In both cases, Sokurov, contrary to the feelings of his characters, seems to acknowledge God’s hand in ‘the course of things.
[34] It is worth noting that immaterial beings have not always been denied physical presence in Sokurov’s work. Again, in the extra-terrestrial in Days of Eclipse is revealed in childhood form. As such, it may be possible to highlight a change in the director’s representation of metaphysical being, at least from the time of Days of Eclipse to Mother and Son.
[35] For an example of an ‘open narrative’ in contemporary world art cinema, the films of Abbas Kiarostami suffice. Particularly, it is the un-finished structure of films such as Close-up (1990), Through the Olive Trees (1994) and Taste of Cherry (1997) that reveal this structure. In Through the Olive Trees, for instance, Kiarostami refuses to make it clear whether or not his protagonists get together in the end of the film. While there is an indication that they do, Kiarostami’s mise-en-scène withholds this information. Similarly, Taste of Cherry does not establish definitely whether or not the protagonist commits suicide. In both cases, we are asked as the films’ spectators to finish the narrative as we see fit. Compare this strategy to Mother and Son once again where each interpretation has problems: if the soul does not migrate, then why does the male lead say what he does? Whereas if does migrate, then why does Sokurov include a symbol to suggest that it does not? Thus, Kiarostami broadens the potential interpretations of his films by withholding information, whereas Sokurov reduces their numbers by making each interpretation more problematic as Mother and Son exemplifies.
[36] Speaking of the second of these categories, to which Sokurov would seem the closest on the surface, Kiarostami provides the following definition: “The poetic film is like a puzzle where you put the pieces together and they don’t necessarily match. You can make whatever arrangement you like.” He goes on to claim Hou Hsiao-hsien, Andrei Tarkovsky, Federico Fellini (“in parts”) and Theo Angelopoulos as filmmakers working on this “wavelength.” Kiarostami interviewed by David Sterritt, “With Borrowed Eyes,” Film Comment 36, Iss. 4 (New York: July / August 2000): 25.
[37] Tuchinskaya, “dolce…”.


Nathaniel Drake Carlson said...

This is really a superb piece, Michael, giving time and consideration to a problematic aspect of Sokurov's cinema that too often goes unrecognized or unremarked upon. For what I suspect are the purposes of avoiding the issue I have seen most commentators align Sokurov with either unreflective skepticism or equally unreflective Orthodoxy when it would seem clear his engagement with these themes goes far deeper than that and is complicated in the way you indicate. For additional illumnination I would look to his Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn which contributes so much more toward our sense of his own intentions and foundational philosophic attitude.

Beyond the spiritual aspects I also note Sokurov's apparent shock and disdain at the idea of homoeroticism many Western critics saw in Father and Son. I have often wondered how legitimately we can take that reaction as Sokurov surely cannot be that surprised by such a response as he is too well acquainted with Western cultural tradition to be able to convincingly opt out of comprehension of where it is now. I adore Father and Son but when I reflect on that comment I wonder to what extent he was motivated by a desire to elicit just such a response and in doing so have reason to berate Western pruriance and the decadence of diminished vision. I don't altogether disagree with his sentiment but that kind of move troubles me a bit.

Kiarostami is a great point of comparison but I would also point to Oliveira's cinema as so much of that is characterized by a profound understanding of applicable irony, what it is and how best to employ it to deepen and enhance potential meaning or knowledge. As such he also complicates interpretation just as much as Sokurov though in a distinctly different way and with, I tend to think, a very different purpose (partially this is because he uses symbolic forms differently, interrogating them through language more thoroughly).

As to the religious angle, the Orthodox tradition in general, as compared to the Latin West, is more noted for its physicality and material aspect. There is a long standing sense of disapproval aimed at Catholic intellectualism which the Orthodox beleive diminishes the experiential quality of faith. This kind of thing informs well the distinction between Sokurov and Tarkovsky's flesh based spiritual mysticism and, say, Oliveira's quasi-Platonism. At any rate, as a model example of the difference, I always liked the contrast between the Catholic steeple, aspiring to a remote or invisible Heaven and the Orthodox dome, enclosing the community of believers and implying God's more direct participation in their lives. Still, as you say, this participation would seem to be something Sokurov remains skeptical of.

Radu Prisacaru said...

How long do you spend writing on your blog per month?

Michael J. Anderson said...

I'm really not certain how much time I put in each month, Radu. Very little at this point in fact. Hopefully, I will find more time in the coming weeks.

Nathaniel, as always thank you for your sterling input.