the magical dreamworld of alexander sokurov
by Jaap Mees
Ingmar Bergman said once: "Andrei Tarkovski is for me the greatest, the man who discovered a new language, true to the nature of film as mirror of life, life as a dream."
For Tarkovski, you could easily fill in the name of Alexander Sokurov. What they have in common is that they are both Russian, spiritual filmmakers who studied at the Moscow Film School, but there stops the comparison, because each of them is a highly original film maker in his own right.
So far I have only seen three films of Sokurov: MOTHER AND SON, DAYS OF ECLIPSE and ORIENTAL ELEGY. All of these films were extremely fascinating, moving and gratifying experiences. MOTHER AND SON (97) is about a man who looks after his beloved mother in the last day’s of her life.
The mother and son are the only characters in the film, there is hardly any dialogue or story, but the film has such a strong atmosphere, created by Sokurov and his cameraman Aleksei Fyodorov and such a captivating universal theme, that you don’t need a narrative. According to Sokurov the relationship between mother and son is the most complicated love- relationship there is. He admits it’s a sort of rapport that is more difficult to understand for the Westerner. Sokurov "This particular parent and child have the intimacy of lovers. They seem to live in a magical, self-enclosed world all of their own. Even in Russia such relationships are rare." Sokurov asked about his own mother: "My mother is a very patient, soft, kind mother,… I’m lucky my mother is a tender and soulful woman."
The second film I saw was DAYS OF ECLIPSE, at the NFT in a Russian Season. It deals with an unemployed doctor, who is rather alienated from his surroundings. He looks after a little angelic looking orphan girl, who one day suddenly vanishes, was she real or just a hallucination in the doctor’s mind? Like in his other films Sokurov uses elements from nature like wind, lights ,changing clouds, trees combined with fragments of music in a truly poetic way. It maybe doesn’t sound very exciting, but you have to see his films on a big screen, describing his films is not only insufficient, but takes away from the magical, profound and spiritual reality this master filmmaker creates.
ORIENTAL ELEGY (96) was shown in the last London Film Festival, in this film Sokurov takes you to a jasmine scented island covered in fog. In a barely lit space sits an old Japanese woman talking about solitude, love and happiness. In a next shot we see an elegant crane (bird) sitting in a windowsill. This image has undoubtfully a symbolic meaning. In MOTHER AND SON, when the son carries the mother, it’s a reversed Pieta, Maria doesn’t support Christ, but the other way round. When his mother has died, the son sees a ship with white sails on the horizon. Exactly the same symbol as the painter William Turner used.
Talking about painters the main influence on this film is the German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, who portrayed the lonely man in a vast nature.
Another symbol is a train as symbol of life’s continuous run. Sokurov creates his own magic realistic world by means of beautiful images of nature. He doesn’t make striking images for it’s own sake, but personalises these images in a purifying and meaningful way. Sokurov: "Man is not the most important figure in this world, but just one of them. The mother ,the son, nature, the trees, they are all equal."
Martin Scorsese said after seeing MOTHER AND SON: "Why
can’t America make films like this? Writer Susan Sontag:
"Sokurov is what cinema can be at its greatest." And filmmaker Paul Schrader, who is a real connoisseur of spiritual cinema: "Mother and Son is 73 heartaching, luminescent minutes of pure cinema."
Alexander Sokurov gets at last the praise he thoroughly deserves. This hasn’t been always the situation, right from the start when his graduation-film THE LONELY VOICE OF MAN was refused and denied a screening, because it was a feature length film and not the required length of 20 minutes. Sokurov made then a number of documentaries, which were all shelved. His future was looking very bleak, but in 1986 the exiled Film maker Tarkovski spoke out in support of Sokurov and set up a fund to finance his films. This coincided with radical political changes under Gorbachev’s Perestroika. The film maker Elem Klimov, whose own films had been shelved, became First Secretary and he promised Sokurov to complete his unfinished films and he secured screenings for them.
In 1995 Sokurov spent several months with Russian soldiers on the front in the Afghanistan war to make the documentary SPIRITUAL VOICES (95). He says about this experience: "war is ugly. There is nothing aesthetic about it. When somebody is wounded and you happen to be next to them, they are either crying or shouting."
Alexander Sokurov is very much influenced by writers like Checkov, Flaubert and Dostoyevsky and painters as mentioned earlier. In an issue of the serious Dutch magazine SKRIEN he says: "the artist, when he/she is a genuine artist, is only responsible to his own soul, which is connected to God. What the artist’s soul and God discuss only they know. Never will they, to us simple mortals reveal the secret of their dialogue."
In the same article Sokurov says to object to "the preoccupation of modern filmmakers, from all parts of the world, for rituals of violence, murder and killing. A lot of directors are responsible for the dehumanisation of life in our century."
In my films I offer the audience a problem, which with they can play as a ball. I try to keep alive this searching of people. I try not to tell people something, but deal with a subject I’m struggling with in my own life. I ask my audience to understand the problems in life.
Thank goodness, there are still authentic filmmakers like Alexander Sokurov, who are true to themselves. His films are a continuous source of inspiration.