Conflict Resolutions: Alexander Sokurov, Alexandra and the Survival of the Human

By James Norton

alexandra-alexander-sokurov.jpgAlexandra, 2007

Alexander Sokurov recently visited London to accept this year’s ‘Time for Peace’ film award for his latest feature Alexandra. The prize is given to works which promote humanist ideals, and Sokurov’s film, with its moments of fragile peace grasped from the savage conflict in Chechnya, is a worthy winner, with a remarkable central performance by operatic grande dame Galina Vishnevskaya.

Throughout his career Sokurov has interspersed dramatic features with a series of ‘Elegy’, documentary tributes to the potent shadows cast by his artistic heroes, including Tarkovsky, Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn. He denies that neglect of great artists is a particularly Russian affliction. “I believe that the lack of appreciation of great artists in their own countries is a normal phenomenon which transcends all time and culture. We couldn’t say for example that Benjamin Britten is more valued in the UK than Chelsea football club! And we believe he was a great, great composer.” The choice of the term ‘elegy’ is “just an intonation, an example of a certain tone. I believe that in cinema a great part of the oeuvre is the intonation. Cinema can create an atmosphere like no other art. These are the main individual features of a film. An elegiac mood suggests the memory of something or someone who has gone and will return and it’s a very warm feeling and that’s how I feel about the people I make my ‘Elegy’ films about.”

alexandra-alexander-sokurov-2.jpgAlexandra, 2007

Making a fascinating companion piece to Alexandra is Sokurov’s latest documentary Elegy of Life, devoted to Vishnevskaya and Mstislav Rostropovich, first couple of Russian classical music and consisting of moving interviews with each of them at their opulent home in St. Petersburg. These contrast with the hardships of their youth and exile as punishment for sheltering Solzhenitsyn, who occasionally observes the interviews in split-screen. Sokurov’s intention with this film is a kind of cultural biography of the past Russian century - “they coincided with their time” - an elegiac defence of a shared humanist European culture, which he now sees as threatened, and a celebration of the depth and endlessness of the Russian soul and its dangerous energies. “A Russian man has too much of everything in him.”

Now a real elegy since the recent death of Rostropovich, it illuminates Alexandra, itself both a historical document and bitterly contemporary. In the Elegy, Vishnevskaya is seen in all her war-paint as a grand diva. In Alexandra she is almost unrecognisable as a scrubbed, haggard grandmother making the gruelling trek to a hot, dusty army camp in Chechnya, the antithesis or ‘other’ of Russian civilisation, shot mostly bleached of colours or in saturated nocturnes. Classical music flows like an underwater current bearing remnants of the core culture; like the weather, or a remembered quotation. An old woman wanders around a Spartan army camp, filmed at a real camp in Chechnya in dangerous conditions, visiting her grandson, stirring a sympathetic sadness deploring this war that grinds away off-screen. It’s a superbly understated and un-operatic performance.

The setting of Alexandra recalls the dishevelled Central Asian frontier town of Sokurov’s masterpiece, Days of Eclipse, a kind of Burroughsian inter-zone, where the doctor protagonist encounters an alien culture and a kind of hallucinatory spirituality. And, with its army living in tents in the heat and dust, with its vehicles the only sign of modernity, and mothers who could be mothers from any age, it could just as well be set in antiquity, amongst the warring camps of Greeks and Persians. The war is both timeless and terrifyingly present-tense.

alexandra-alexander-sokurov-3.jpgAlexandra, 2007

Scion of an army family, Sokurov grew up in a military town in Turkmenia, and is one of cinema’s leading chroniclers of military life. In 1995 he accompanied an army patrol in mountainous border country to create the meditative six hour long documentary Spiritual Voices, which combines a record of the soldiers mostly during long periods of listless waiting, with his own interior monologues. He is however keen to emphasise the difference between this documentary and his current feature. “There’s a big difference because in Spiritual Voices I was a participant in those events myself; I did not create them. I did not know what to expect, while in Alexandra I wrote the script myself, it was a controllable process, I created the atmosphere, I populated it with certain characters”. The first film had little influence on the second, except “maybe in some reflexive way. Everything that proceeds now definitely somehow becomes a composite part of it to some extent. You know, our childhood affects our adult years. I expect that a certain indirect influence was there. (But) what is created by documentary means and tools have a different nature to what is created by fiction tools or means”.

In 1998 Sokurov made Confession, another lengthy quasi-documentary, a Conradian voyage aboard a naval vessel in the icy Barents Sea, crafting poetry out of the banality of onboard routine and the philosophical musings of the ship’s captain. A line in the film encapsulates Sokurov’s interest in the military; “the army is a theatre of characters and nowhere else does character reveal itself so openly.” Sokurov comments, “it is not so much about the war situation, it’s about people who serve in the army. I know these people very well, they are not an unknown land for me. It is a very important part of life in Russia generally, unfortunately.”

“When I deal with the life of military people, for me the most important thing is the person. It’s not the word ‘military’, it’s a person who happens to be in the army. And sometimes military people are not happy about it when you start talking about them just as generic people rather than as the military. In literature they were not interested in a military shirt but what was under the shirt. Literature shows us what the true values are. And this value is man himself. Of course it is very interesting to observe what corrections somebody’s profession makes to their character. But what is really interesting is what kind of a person they are. For example, if you take two people in military uniform, one of them may shoot civilians, the other one will not. Thousands of examples like that. They may both wear military uniforms, but their human acts are different. It’s not that simple, but (also) we shouldn’t overcomplicate it because it will lead us to a dead end, because there are always very simple answers to the most difficult, complicated questions. But they may not be comfortable for some people.”

alexandra-alexander-sokurov-4.jpgAlexandra, 2007

Nevertheless, Alexandra concerns the war in Chechnya, a subject mired in deadly controversy, and which Sokurov has been criticised for not sufficiently condemning. “’I’m very grateful to you that you haven’t started with the Chechen thing! Because it’s only the background of the story, because even in the experience of my generation alone Russians have participated in so many wars, it is only one of those wars. And it’s maybe one of those cases when not so much the way the war is conducted but the roots of this war have certain reasons behind them. We know that it started with the need to oppress a rebellion, it was a classic rebellion. The situation with criminality was incredibly bad at the beginning of Perestroika in the south of Russia, not only in Chechnya, and because it wasn’t snuffed out immediately the situation got out of control with pure criminality, which led to the army intervening in the situation and the army, well, they don’t have any limits to what they can do. They are unable not to bomb and they are unable to choose which bomb to use. Given the choice they are going to use the biggest bomb. And they are not just going to shoot at one particular specified target; they’re just going to shoot all around them. That’s how they acted in Viet Nam, that’s how the armies are behaving in Afghanistan, in Iraq; unfortunately that’s how all armies behave. It’s a disaster, it’s a nightmare, and it’s a crime. That’s why I couldn’t just ignore these Chechen events, and I of course look at the events through the eyes of the lead character. When Vishnevskaya came to Grozny in Chechnya she was taken around the city in a vehicle, and she said, “I’ve seen this before” because she was in Leningrad during the blockade, she saw the war before, she lost her son in the war, so she’d seen all that. That’s why she could not remain indifferent to what she saw and she could not also accept the war as some sort of rightful type of activity. You can see it throughout the film.”

The decor of the film notably features no solid architecture, only ruined buildings or tents and market stalls where people conceal themselves beneath canopies. This is the architecture of war in general but also relates to Sokurov’s fascination with the French 18th Century painter Hubert Robert whose principal subject was both genuine and fantastical ruined buildings. As Andreas Schönle has noted, ruins have a distinct significance in Russian culture. “They occur and disappear as a result of political will, they serve as exemplars of imperial legitimacy and might, they reveal the vulnerability of Russia’s identity between east and west, and they betoken the crushing of utopian projects and the magnitude of historical devastation.”

Sokurov comments on this both transient and concrete aspect of the film; “usually films about the Chechen war are made not in Chechnya but in nearby areas where there is no war as such but it looks similar and there are military people there. We could have built these tent settlements near St. Petersburg or even at the Lenfilm studios but we needed the atmosphere and the real people. They are not just actors in the film, there is an enormous amount of people who actually serve and work there and the market is a real market with the real women who work there and the military are the real military people who come there and check and observe everything. In this film I preserved the atmosphere of this life which is actually changing, it’s becoming history. The way people are dressed is changing, people’s characters change, their mood changes, the buildings change and in this respect we also worked as historians of life, we have preserved a piece of life. I know in American films about war they build whole villages which are supposed to be in Iraq, they plant trees… We didn’t follow this kind of route, we just went there. It was very complicated but it was honest. We could face people, events, life directly, which was very important for us because whatever happened, however the project developed, we knew we had to avoid two things, being untrue about life artistically and on an everyday basis how life is.”

alexandra-alexander-sokurov-5.jpgAlexandra, 2007

As another film about a mother and a son, another film about war, Alexandra seems both to complete a trilogy and mark a convergence of all Sokurov’s principal themes. “Alexandra is very close to the trilogy - which has not been finished yet - of Mother and Son and Father and Son but I would still like to make a film about two brothers and a sister in that trilogy, which means there’ll be four films, actually”.

Sokurov is famous for his vaporous optical distortions but the image is much clearer in Alexandra. “Spiritual Voices and Confession were also filmed in similar conditions where these events actually took place but I had a different objective working on those films. In those films we needed to see life in the broadest sense of the word, and here we attempted to get inside. This is one of the features and strengths of fiction cinema as distinct from documentary, because with documentary films you often face that kind of moral, ethical issue. We don’t always have the right to get too deep inside our characters. It’s a very important feature.”

James Norton is a researcher, producer and director for television. With thanks to Vitaly Yerenkov.