Russian Arks

By Graeme Hobbs and Gareth Evans

mother-aleksandr-sokurov.jpgMother and Son, 1997

Aleksandr Sokurov’s cinema is one of absolute attention

Mama, did you hear the wail of the train
when I fetched water?
It sang with the birds
and it drew the wind
and the wind stroked the grasses as it passed.
White smoke rose and vanished
into a sky of rose-grey storms
and the grass was green and gold.

Mama, the plum blossom
is too white for this music that you hear
that sounds like shadows on the wall.
This wood that crackles
with the draw of air through the fire,
let it warm your thoughts
as I comb the tangles from your hair
and listen to your breath.
Mama, should I carry you now?

The swifts are shrieking
thunder is in the air
and sand is swirling from the paths.
Stay with me and I will read to you,
rest your head on my arm
and I will read to you from your past.
We shall be still and we shall journey together.

Mama, while you were sleeping I wept.
I walked past the quarries
and into the beech woods.
I looked out to the ocean which was steel,
the air was thick with your faint singing
and I could not rise until a woodpecker
hammered a pathway for me
and I was no longer afraid.

Mama, do not be afraid.

A son lies with his dying mother who is breathing softly. He smiles, then tells her his dream, the thread and the words of which she then continues. He combs her hair. She says that she wants to go for a walk. ‘Are you only pretending to be ill?’ he says. ‘Yes, I’m pretending,’ she whispers.

Mother and Son is a place of intermingled dreams and memories, where the waves heard behind the opening credits belong to the lines read later from an old postcard, and where the wind, flowing like water through the long grass as the son watches a passing train, recalls his mother's hand gently ruffling his hair as he reads to her. The film’s timescale is irrelevant, as time becomes during the dying of a loved one. Its time is one of learning – of learning to leave a son, and of learning to live without a mother. This has its own time.

The loving intimacy here is that which comes with the approach of death, where we learn anew the shape and feel of another’s body, as with the son stroking his mother's papery skin or combing the tangles from her hair. When he wraps her in a shawl, and carries her through a landscape distorted to resemble a painting, cradling her from the dust stirred up by the wind, it is theirs alone. There is the sight and sound of a distant train, and once, a person walking on the skyline, but otherwise nothing intrudes on their world of sounds, thoughts and memories, which we share on the level of their breathing and whispers.

When he walks alone, a ship far out on the grey sea provokes animal grief in the son, while in her bed the mother sleeps a butterfly at rest on her finger.

Stalking Moloch

By Gareth Evans

Post-Tarkovskian Russian auteur Aleksandr Sokurov knows a thing or two about atmosphere. His elegaic Mother and Son, like fluid stained glass, caught the melancholy beauty of the earth as little else ever has. But there the mood served the meaning. Here it threatens to overwhelm the action, which should be of great moment. It’s 1942, and the titular beast (Hitler) is ensconced in his Alpine bunker for a weekend of food and conversation with deputies and, crucially, mistress Eva Braun. If it feels like the end of the world, or way above it, that’s due in no small part to the extraordinary mistiness – High, undoubtedly German and very ‘Romantic’ – of the mountainscape, which feels here, shot as if the gloom were a pacing animal, like a rural sibling to the sinister apartment interiors of David Lynch’s Lost Highway. It’s genuinely unsettling, vertiginous with threat and the sense of the protagonists’ removal from the implications of, and responsibility for, the terrible events unfolding in the valleys of Europe below.

But the human encounters among the peaks convey considerably less about the psychology of either the Führer or those closest to, and enabling, him. The first in Sokurov’s trilogy about twentieth century dictators (Stalin and Hirohito were to follow), Moloch, seeking to locate and to a degree humanise the monster, seems lost in the fog of history, let alone war.

Mother and Son is available on dvd from Artificial Eye.

Moloch is available on dvd from Soda Pictures.

Graeme Hobbs writes and gardens and makes chapbooks in the Borderlands.