Retrospectives

The Elegies of Aleksandr Sokurov (2003)

eveningEvening Sacrifice (1987). Evening Sacrifice is tonally composed of two indelibly entrancing and hypnotically fluid images: a color sequence that captures the methodical precision of a military regiment deploying fireworks over the Neva River to the melancholic serenade of a nostalgic, old-fashioned ballad, that transitions to a sepia-toned footage of a crowd indiscriminately dispersing into the street amidst a frenetic assortment of effervescent pop tunes, most identifiably, The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love. As the sound of canon fire dissipates in the cacophony of ambient street noise, the solemn oratorio of Boris Khristov’s haunting, full-bodied bass voice rises above the din. Juxtaposing the sound of a traditional, Russian Orthodox Byzantine chant to the image of a chaotic human spectacle, Aleksandr Sokurov creates an understatedly poignant and meditative filmic prayer for a disordered, aimless, and despiritualized modern world.

dolceOriental Elegy (1996). Visually impressionistic, atmospherically dense, and narratively opaque, Oriental Elegy is the surreal journey of a displaced spirit (Aleksandr Sokurov) as he wanders in the interminable darkness through the temporal landscape of a quaint and isolated feudal-era fishing village. Guided by a series of faintly illuminated rooms, the wandering spirit comes upon ancient souls who take on physical forms as they recount their personal stories of daily existence, loss, and tragedy in the peasant community. Intrigued by his initial visit to a curiously distracted elderly woman, the spirit returns to her home in order to ask a fundamental question – “What is happiness?” – an existential query that is innocently answered with innate humility and accepted unknowingness. Through abstractly textured imagery and indelibly hypnotic dreamscapes, Sokurov composes a metaphoric, sensual, and evocative tone poem on a soul’s search for enlightenment and the essential survival of human consciousness.

Dolce (2000). Dolce opens to a clinical biographical overview of writer and poet Toshio Shimao (1917-1986) as the narrator (Aleksandr Sokurov) thumbs through a family photo album, describing Shimao’s privileged life as the heir of an affluent merchant family, before enlisting in the Japanese military as a kamikaze pilot during the Pacific War. Stationed on a remote southern island while awaiting orders to be deployed for his suicide mission, Shimao falls in love with a local young woman from a prominent samurai family named Miho and, in a fortuitous twist of fate, is ordered to abandon his campaign as Japan moves closer towards conceding defeat. Toshio and Miho adjust to postwar life by settling in Kobe and starting a family-run business of publishing Shimao’s literary work. It is a seemingly content life until one day when Miho reads Toshio’s diary and learns that he has a mistress: a devastating revelation that leads to the institutionalization of Miho and also Toshio, and perhaps may have subsequently contributed to the grave illness of their daughter, Maya that resulted in a permanent disability. Attempting to recapture the purity of their relationship and rehabilitate their wounded spirit, Toshio relocates the family to Miho’s home in the insular island of Amami Oshima, where the Shimao family has remained since. From this fascinating introductory framework, Sokurov creates a haunting, sensual, and contemplative portrait of the intimate and profoundly connected isolated lives of the late writer’s surviving family on the remote island. Sokurov’s effective incorporation of allusive sounds – the abrasion of hands against a rough textured wall (as Miho longingly reflects on the passing of her parents decades earlier), the creaking of wood floors (as Maya traverses the staircase), the matting of sisal rug fibers under the weight of footsteps, the crashing of waves against the projecting rocks of the shoreline, the whispered chant of daily prayer, the gentle drops of water on a koi fish pond – create an understatedly powerful metaphor for the resilient, aging widow’s symbiotic, instinctual, and acutely evolved metaphysical communication with her austere environment.

A Humble Life (1997). A Humble Life is a languidly paced and serenely patient chronicle of the austere and simple, yet noble life of an elderly woman (later identified in the end credits as Umeno Mathuyoshi from the village of Aska in the Nara prefecture) living a solitary, Zen-like existence in the mountains. Aleksandr Sokurov’s static camera reverently lingers (at times, perhaps too indulgently) over Umeno’s quiet, reserved, and gentle presence as she goes through her daily ritual: neatly arranging her hair (more out of practical necessity than vanity), starting a fire on the stove, hand sewing a funeral kimono for income (and being briefly interrupted in a subtly humorous episode by a group of persistent itinerant monks seeking charity), intermittently warming her hands over a nearby vessel containing her seaming iron, preparing her meal, dining in complete silence (except for a passing, unarticulated thought that results in momentary enigmatic laughter), and incanting a brief after-meal prayer. The film concludes with a series of haiku poems recited by Umeno that reveal a longing for her late husband, an accepted separation from her married daughter, a graceful optimism for a predicted turn in the weather, and the inevitable changing of seasons in the eternal cycle of life.

Elegy of a Voyage (2001). An obscured, unnamed narrator journeys across morphing, ethereal landscapes of frenetic and impersonal European cities before seeking refuge from the inclement weather at a desolate, neglected museum in an unidentified European town. Wandering through the austere and soulless rooms, the narrator’s silhouette melancholically hovers over paintings like a brooding, unreconciled ghost, organically reflecting in a resigned stream of consciousness on masterpieces from Pieter the Elder Brueghel’s emotionally charged Tower of Babel to Pieter Saenredam’s idyllic Saint Mary’s Square (accompanied by the achingly elegiac sound of Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder). Aleksandr Sokurov incorporates somber hues, underlighting, and visual distortion to create a pervasive atmosphere of transience that is reflected in the sensorial images of seeming perpetual motion: bustling cities, street traffic, ocean voyages, and windmills are contrasted against the stasis and anonymity of the lifeless museum. In the end, as the narrator rapturously declares, “Above all is life. Eternal life.” before the Saenredam painting even as his own recollections of the recorded image behind the moment of creation seems personally irreconcilable, Elegy of a Voyage becomes an evocative, sensual, and understatedly ironic meditation on the ephemeral nature of art, spirituality, existence, and memory.

Sonata for Hitler (1989). Sonata for Hitler is a curious and indelible montage of dissociative images that intercut historical footage of wartime Germany and the Soviet Union: a somber Adolf Hitler habitually wringing his hands; blind or unfocused, distracted factory workers mechanically assembling military arsenal; fervored crowds erupting into spontaneous salute as an expression of national solidarity. Composed of a series of surreal images that depict the parallel dictatorships of Hitler and Joseph Stalin during World War II, Aleksandr Sokurov creates an abstract and fragmented, but ultimately provocative and internally cohesive statement on isolationism, militarism, fanaticism, and tyranny.

petersburg Petersburg Elegy (1989). Ostensibly a documentary on the art, passion, and privileged life of famed Russian actor and singer Fyodor Chaliapin who emigrated to Europe after the dissolution of the Russian monarchy, and whose surviving family embarked on a long-awaited homecoming after a 60 year absence to their home in glasnost-era, market economy Russia, Petersburg Elegy is a fascinating, albeit tediously belabored chronicle of the transience of history. Interchanging color and monochromatic film and using organic, long take static shots reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s 1970s documentaries (particularly Hotel Monterey and News from Home), but pushed to near intolerable viewing extremes with maddeningly hyperextended, lingering dead space sequences of the now-elderly Chaliapin children sitting motionless in the spiritless, empty rooms of their St. Petersburg home, Aleksandr Sokurov provides an early glimpse of what would prove to be a recurring element in his nonfiction oeuvre: the ethereal imagery of corporeal souls inhabiting real space and time (most recently explored in Russian Ark). By contrasting the stasis and inertia of the once-vibrant Chaliapin children in visible physical decline to the chaotic bustle of urban life in modern-day Russia, Sokurov creates an intriguing portrait of obsolete, temporal relics left in the wake of a profoundly changing and turbulent Russian history.

Dmitri Shostakovich: Viola Sonata (1986). Co-directed by Aleksandr Sokurov and Semen Aranovich, Dmitri Shostakovich: Viola Sonata is an emotionally lucid, understated, textural, and reverent biography of the highly influential, Soviet-era composer and pianist, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich. Using allusive, recurring imagery of a photograph of a young, physically fragile Shostakovich resting on his mother’s lap and a delirious shot of an amusement park turntable-like merry-go-round spinning ever increasingly faster as people struggle to hold on, the film traces the life of a proud national and complex artist through personal documents, recorded appearances, and public performances of his work juxtaposed against historical footage of everyday existence in the Soviet Union. Embodying a life experience that evolved from early critical acclaim to political and public disfavor under Stalinist Russia to re-evaluated celebration of his body of work in contemporary Soviet Union (culminating in his acceptance of the second Order of Lenin ever awarded after Shostakovich graciously removed his name from consideration a year earlier in order to enable the first Order of Lenin to be posthumously awarded to Igor Stravinsky), Sokurov and Aranovich capture the venerated composer’s passion and uncompromising creative integrity as he sought to cultivate art appreciation for the masses and consequently, elevated the cultural heritage and legacy of the Russian people.

Moscow Elegy (1988). More allusive and evocative than biographical in content, Moscow Elegy is Aleksandr Sokurov’s tribute documentary to Russian filmmaker, friend, and mentor, Andrei Tarkovsky that concentrates on the iconic filmmaker’s final years in Western Europe. Incorporating thematically representative scenes from Tarkovsky’s last two, deeply spiritual, non-Russian films, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice, as well as behind the scenes footage that show a contemplative, but inexhaustibly driven creative visionary (reviewing the script for Nostalghia with screenwriter Tonino Guerra in Italy and discussing the mechanics of an exterior shot with cinematographer Sven Nyquist on the set of The Sacrifice in Sweden), juxtaposed against traumatic political events in the Soviet Union (specifically, the deaths of Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov), Sokurov illustrates Tarkovsky’s continued struggle between individual expression and a bureaucratically-induced artistic suppression in the Soviet Union that led to his reluctant exile. Through pervasive sepia tones, lingering images of empty spaces from Tarkovsky’s past, and a haunting and ethereal bookend shot of Tarkovsky’s late mother, Maya Ivanovna Vishnyakova, Sokurov poignantly reflects on the melancholic longing and palpable void of Tarkovsky’s absence – first personally, as Sokurov awaits the return of his colleague and cinematic kindred spirit to their beloved motherland, then globally, as the international community responds to the tragic news of Tarkovsky’s untimely death.

Mariya (1988). Aleksandr Sokurov creates a visually poetic, elegant, and unforgettable synthesis of art and life in Mariya. The lush and textural initial sequence, shot using color film, presents the austere life of the titular Mariya – a robust, genial, and hard-working middle-aged collective farmer with an engaging smile – during an arduous flax harvest season in the summer of 1975: operating heavy machinery, sharing a meal at a communal table with fellow workers, visiting her young son’s grave, enjoying a lazy afternoon by the lake with her family on her day off, and proudly (and uninhibitedly) describing her responsibilities and work ethic before the camera. The film then jarringly cuts to a somber, monochromatic, blue-filtered concluding sequence recorded nine years later, as Sokurov returns to the peasant community in order to screen the 1975 documentary footage for several of the film’s participants, with the notable exception of Mariya who, in the interim, had passed away at the age of 45. Capturing a tenuous reconciliation between Mariya’s husband (who had since remarried) and now adult daughter after the screening of the film, and assembling a serene composition of haunting and innately expressive natural imagery – a vast, unharvested field, photographs of Mariya’s spare, but beautiful funeral ceremony, and affectionate shots of Mariya’s young grandchildren – Sokurov creates a powerful, profoundly moving, and graceful recorded document on the transience of time and the transcendence of the human soul.

Acquarello, 2003 [reprinted]

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