Communing with the Image
Alexander Sokurov doesn't so much make films as objects of contemplation. His work frequently generates a meditative space that suggests the freedom of thought one has in front of a painting; the possibility to think one's own thoughts when listening to music. We don't want to exaggerate this freedom, however, but it is equally important not to underestimate it. Sokurov's perception of cinema is that it is a lowly art form. "Films shouldn't be intrusive, aggressive, they have to be humble and remain at their place on the vertical of the global culture. Somewhere low. At the bottom. Literature, painting, music, architecture, science and so on are at the top." (Senses of Cinema) We needn't agree with Sokurov's claims to find his argument nevertheless interesting in relation to his own work. When he adds "the visual can ruin man's entire inner world", we can see that by insisting his oeuvre creates a space for thought he searches out the means by which to elevate film from its status as visual entertainment. Though many how-to books on cinema will talk of the importance of the visual over the verbal, the need to show rather than tell, Sokurov would see this as part of cinema's problem and not its solution. When well-respected script guru William C. Martell discusses particular moments in Vertigo, he says, "none of these three scenes have any dialogue, yet all are deeply emotional. They SHOW us what Stewart's character is feeling. When he hangs around outside Ernie's, we know he's heart broken. He doesn't have to say a word." (Script Secrets) They are moments, as in many of Hitchcock's films, where the maestro works with the visual over the verbal, but we shouldn't overemphasize this subtlety of expression, since Hitchcock happily uses Bernard Herrmann's music on the audio track to make it clear how Stewart's character is feeling. As Adam Mars-Jones astutely puts it in the Guardian, "The film score, as we have come to know it, is like the "friend" who finishes your sentences for you." Vertigo is a great film, but not because it shows rather than tells, but by the way in which it shows and tells: Scottie seeing Madeleine in the restaurant is showing and telling. It is audio-visual as it helps finish our sentences for us.
Perhaps Sokurov's problem with cinema is that it finds too many ways in which to finish our sentences, whether it happens to be telegraphing narrative events to come, expository dialogue, reaction shots or music imposed on the soundtrack. How can cinema, with so many easy devices, become a major art form? It does so chiefly by communing rather than communicating, by asking questions of the viewer rather than answering them too readily. When Sokurov insists that "a film doesn't need a viewer, a viewer needs a film" (Senses ofCinema), it is consistent with an aesthetic approach that asks the viewer to come towards the experience rather than sitting back and waiting for it.
To explain better Sokurov's aesthetic, let us think initially of three of the directors' films: the first section of Spiritual Voices, Mother and Son and Moloch. In Spiritual Voices, Sokurov opens with a meditation on the life of Mozart, explaining his struggles, his brilliance and his ugliness, while the wintry images in the background change almost imperceptibly over the forty minute section. "He [Mozart] achieved the consummate mastery to which his work bears witness. Charming and universally loved, they cannot but remind us of the irreparable loss to music that his death represents." This is the voice over that hints at the opinionated but is delivered in a beseeching tone indicating the opposite. All the while the image doesn't so much change as modify: over the sequence the light shifts, a train passes in the rear of the shot and so on. The soundtrack suggests the concentration required for radio, and the image the attention we should devote to a painting. If many a film feels like a 'friend' finishing our sentences, Sokurov's work instead functions like the instigation of a conversation. Whether he asks us to listen carefully to Mozart's music, talks about the difference between Mozart and a modernist composer such as Messiaen, so the film appeals to us, but does not dictate. When we listen to Mozart here it is an invitation to hear the music, not a demand; just as the images change little, as if asking us to take our time, to contemplate what is in front of our eyes as it might allude to thoughts in the back of our minds. This is communion rather than communication, aptly expressed when Sokurov says in a fine interview with Kirill Galetski that he sees "film not as a means of communication, but film as another life." (Cineaste, xxvi, no3)
In Mother and Son, Sokurov focuses on a mother passing away. The temporal structure is indeterminate as she is cared for by her offspring, and the film shows a death thoroughly dignified and de-medicalised. The gap between man and nature is closed as Sokurov 'achieves death'. An odd formulation perhaps, but where most films show a character's demise, the Russian director manages to capture a human dying rather as a leaf falls off a tree and lies frangible. As he offers a score that is heard as if through an open window, and images that are warped by distorting lenses, Sokurov warns us, as if with a whisper, of the nature of death. And yet the word warning sounds a little too strong, as Sokurov offers the film with the wisdom of the Ancients. "It is more necessary for the soul to be cured than the body; for it is better to die than to live badly." (The Discourses) Epictetus is talking here of the spiritual dimension of being that is more important than the bodily aspect, but does not the medicalised death often remove this sense of a body preparing to die as it focuses instead on keeping it very much alive, no matter how badly one ends up then living?
In a Guardian weekly article called "The Art of Dying Gracefully", the writer, Ken Murray, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine, speaks of a former colleague, who found a lump in his stomach. "He asked the surgeon to explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient's five year survival odds - from 5% to 15% - albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with his family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later he died at home. He received no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment." It is a death worthy of the Ancients, and not unlike perhaps the death of the mother in Sokurov's film. Have all the medical advances undeniably helped sustain life, but also contributed to us living badly - badly in the sense that we aren't so much at one with the nature that we will inevitably return to, buried under soil or reduced to ash, but kept alive by ever more artificial means of prolongation? When The Independent reported that a French widow was forced to pay costs after her late husband's pacemaker exploded and destroyed a crematorium, this is medical advancement as low comedy. It is a consequence of living, from a certain point of view, badly. This isn't the place of course to get into arguments about medical matters and what we need medically not only to live longer but make the life we are leading more bearable, but Sokurov offers a life lived and lost as natural. His purpose isn't to wonder at all over the specifics of disease and its possible cures, but to focus on the condition of nature over the medical condition.
Halfway through the film we see the son walking along a sandy path with his mother in his arms, as the sea wind is heard on the soundtrack and the grass trembles with its impact. The film cuts and we see him still carrying her but from the other direction, as if they are returning home. The wind is much fainter, and the grass no longer moving, before Sokurov cuts again to another shot of a field of grass blown half flat. From the wild to the tranquil with a cut, and back again to the wild, Sokurov shows nature as much as he shows a mother dying, as if to say that nature cannot always cure but it can always cradle. When near the beginning of the film they suggest going for a walk, the irony lies in that the son will be carrying the mother throughout: she is in no condition to walk, and there is little chance here of nature offering a restitutive dimension. Yet there is restitution in various forms. Sokurov is interested in the Epictetus idea of the soul being cured more than the body.
It is here in Mother and Son where art and nature meet. "Art prepares a person for death. It helps one to make peace with the fact of mortality." (Cineaste, xxvi, no.3) Sokurov indicates the importance of nature on the soul, but at the same time films nature through the medium of art, denying even the full potential of photographic realism to show the natural world. He instead chooses to flatten the image, to show its two-dimensional painterly aspect rather than indicate a depth to the image which would be more life-like. "I destroy real nature and create my own", he suggested in a Film Comment interview with Paul Schrader. The director might propose that nature replenishes the soul, but it comes through an aesthetic approach showing nature quite literally deformed. Shooting through panes of glass, using refracted light, the result is a flatter image than we usually expect. Sokurov may talk of the desire for a spherical approach to cinema, but here he offers the opposite, and yet this doesn't indicate contradiction, more cinematic contrariness. He wants to avoid the ease with which the image can give the impression of imitating life, and instead impresses upon us how the image can register more abstract faculties.
Perhaps one way of understanding this appeal to abstraction lies in comments Immanuel Kant makes concerning aesthetics and the sublime. In his brief, surprisingly intelligent book on Kant, Roger Scruton talks about the notion of aesthetic condensation. "For example", Scruton says, "when Milton explains the vengeful feelings of Satan, his smouldering words transport us. We feel that we are listening not to this or that, as one might say, 'contingent' emotion, but to the very essence of revenge. We seem to transcend the limitations contained in every natural example and to be made aware of something indescribable which they palely reflect." (Kant) If Sokurov had more naturalistically filmed the mother's demise in Mother and Son, we would have had an account of death which may have felt verisimilitudinous but might not have so readily achieved 'aesthetic condensation'. Sokurov's eschewal of realism allows for this intensification to take place.
In our third example, Moloch, Sokurov focuses on a brief episode in Hitler's life, as we see him lightly bossed around by Eva Braun while staying at Berghof on the Austrian/German border. Sokurov does something unusual here, and contentiously proposes that Hitler is the last in the line of Romantics, perhaps the figure who ended it as a movement by the extremity of Teutonic neurosis; by turning it into a movement that simultaneously elevated a national consciousness and murdered millions who were not entitled to share in the exalted feelings that were the exclusive domain of the master race. Though there's an oddly telling scene where it seems Hitler knows nothing of the Death Camps, this doesn't mean that Sokurov offers special pleading towards the Austrian born dictator, more that he wants to capture the link between a Romanticism that starts with the individual communing with their own soul on high in the German tradition of Goethe, Hoffmann and Kleist; Caspar David Friedrich, Johan Christian Dahl and Joseph Anton Koch, and the mass hysteria of the collective soul as it manifested itself under the Nazis. The film's sorrowful irony resides in this gap between the images that still very much show the Romantic tradition as aesthetic contemplation, and Nazism. This is evident in the look of the film that is indebted to paintings like Koch's Schmadribach 'Waterfall', Dahl's 'Clouds' and Friedrich's 'Moonrise Over the Sea', but it is contained by the idea that Hitler is no longer entitled to that communion surely by virtue of what he had set in motion elsewhere. Whether this is alluded to in the comment about the camps, or in the newsreel footage played as if a home movie but containing human misery, has Hitler not simultaneously lost the right to attend to his own well being, and called into question the Romantic tradition that he fed off? It is terribly ironic that Hitler built his dream home (commissioned by Martin Bormann as a fiftieth birthday present for Adolf) as Romantic ideal, and stayed there whilst his political values were destroying its principles. Like Syberberg's lengthy and very dense Hitler: A Film From Germany, and unlike more conventional works like Hitler: A Career and Downfall, Sokurov searches out a quite different aesthetic condensation than in Mother and Son, but no less recklessly brief. Never leaving the confines of Eagle's Nest, the film focuses initially on Eva Braun as she wanders around the castle retreat naked, an encapsulation of the Romantic soul contained in an impressive Aryan body. When Hitler later arrives and shuffles around the building he is the twisted soul in a no less twisted body. The contrast between Braun and Hitler is marked, but rather than simply showing a powerful older man and the beautiful younger woman, Sokurov manages to condense aesthetically a much bigger problematic that illustrates less the fall of Hitler (Downfall's 'minor' purpose) than the demise of the German Romantic movement.
Again Sokurov's interest in communing over communication seems pertinent. Instead of insistently exploring Hitler's evil, the film suggestively examines Hitler's influence not as a monster but as a bumbler, provocatively focusing not on the damage he did to the Jewish race, but the damage he did instead to an aesthetic ideal. Though the film's title goes back to the bible, and is usually defined as a someone or something demanding a huge sacrifice, Sokurov proposes what was sacrificed wasn't only the Jewish people (a barely imaginable atrocity that for some years now great artists, writers and filmmakers have fretted over presenting), but also an easily illustrated sacrifice too: the loss of the romantic tradition. It is one thing to show the horrors of the death camps; another to show what became hard to justify imaginatively after WWII: the continuation of German Romanticism.
Indeed the former question is addressed by Jacques Ranciere in The Future of the Image, where he asks, in the title of one essay, 'Are Some things Unrepresentable?' Here Ranciere argues that the Holocaust is representable, but it is question of finding the means by which to represent it. Talking of Claude Lanzmann's masterful film, Shoah, he remarks, "the reality of the Holocaust that is filmed is indeed the reality of its disappearance, the reality of its incredible character." Shoah doesn't fail to represent the Death Camps, Ranciere says, but instead succeeds in finding ways in which to show the gap between for example a survivor returning to where his life was made hell, and the absence of the hell that this place once was." It finds methods to represent "the place in order to account for the reality of the extermination and the erasure of its traces." But if the focus in Shoah, and numerous far less impressive films, has been very understandably on the Jewish people and their near obliteration under the Nazis, then is there not also the need to question the wiping out of a certain sensibility in the wake of the atrocities too? At one moment Molochshows Hitler and others out on the mountainside, and Sokurov gives us an image of two Nazi officers seen from behind, in silhouette looking out onto the landscape. It offers more than a passing resemblance to the figure in Caspar David Friedrich's 'Wanderer above the Sea Fog.' Does Sokurov offer the image to say this is what has happened to German Romanticism?
Numerous films about Hitler and Nazism do not invite contemplation; they are more inclined to demand indignation. There are few stronger metonyms for evil than Hitler, yet this doesn't at all interest Sokurov. So much so that one wonders if the remark suggesting Hitler was ignorant of the Holocaust was put there not as special pleading by the director to offer a more sympathetic Hitler, but because Sokurov didn't want indignation over contemplation. What counts is to show someone who destroyed German Romanticism, rather than the Jewish race. Not because Sokurov is interested in denying aspects of the Holocaust, more that he wants us to confront the embers of the German Romantic tradition. Some could claim this is Sokurov as aesthete, an art for art's sake director who prioritises art over politics. It is a claim made by amongst others Stefan Steinberg on The World Socialist Website, "Human beings are not simply the sum total of their biological functions and elementary psychological responses. Their most essential character emerges in social beings. The "human being" Sokurov refers to, a creature outside of history and social life, is an empty vessel, a cipher. When dealing with leading political figures of the twentieth century, such an approach is positively fatal."
But it could equally be argued that artists should concern themselves chiefly with the aesthetic question even if the subject happens to be politically loaded. If the enormously contemplative Shoah moves in one direction towards a documentary account of the Holocaust, Sokurov moves in the other by showing Hitler within a context of the Romantic image that he helped destroy. One then judges not the political status of Hitler, but a certain type of aesthetic barbarism. Hitler was of course a failed painter, but his revenge on German art couldn't have been more complete. If in Spiritual Voices the narrator can say of Mozart that the consummate mastery to which his work bears witness. Charming and universally loved, they cannot but remind us of the irreparable loss to music that his death represents", can we say that Hitler's life contributed to the irreparable loss of a German Romantic tradition, and the subsequent removal of a certain self-examination through the possibilities of the sublime?
This is a question we propose as readily as one that Sokurov asks, but like Spiritual Voicesand Mother and Son, Sokurov creates the space for such thoughts; yet is this not true of much of his other work also, including Russian Ark, Faust and Days of Eclipse? Days ofEclipse is apparently a science-fiction film, but at the same time it often feels like a desultory documentary on a young man's spiritual crisis, in keeping with the novelists' other work, perhaps. The film is based on a novel, A Million Years Before the End of the World, by the Strugatsky brothers, whose Roadside Picnic was made into Stalker. But while Tarkovsky worked with found realities, nobody was going to confuse the film with a documentary account. Sokurov, whose work flits between fiction (Russian Ark, Moloch, Faust, Father and Son etc.) and factually based pieces (Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, Moscow Elegy, Spiritual Voices), incorporates in Days of Eclipse a look at the lives of the poor locals. Set in Soviet Turkmenistan, the film hints at the sort of damned cinema Bela Tarr, Sharunas Bartas, Kira Muratova and indeed Sokurov himself would later show an interest in, with the Dostoyevsky adaptation, Whispering Pages. This is a late Soviet cinema of despair, with the fringes showing signs of collapse, evident in the documentatively unequivocal images of destitution and the senselessness of behaviour in Days of Eclipse. One sequence shows a couple of teenagers kicking and punching each other with one apparently easily the stronger. The doctor tries to break the fight up and the kids both turn on him, with the one who looked the weakest delivering a particularly brutal kick in the face while the doctor is down. This is properly senseless violence, but consistent with much of the senselessness to be found in cinema of the Eastern Bloc where meaning has collapsed.
Russian Ark looks like a film that wants to put the meaning back in. The film is a one-take steadicam shot taking in four epochs of Russian history. Before digital a film magazine could only hold ten minutes; even a Beta video cassette could only hold forty six. But Sokurov decided to use a hard disk, which would allow for up to a hundred. Mark Cousins in Widescreen describes the film's achievement well. "Planning began, on an almost unimaginable scale. Six months of rehearsal, 867 actors and extras; three live orchestras; 22 assistant directors; 33 galleries containing Rembrandts and da Vincis had to be lit to allow 360-degree camera movements." Cousins adds, "for various reasons filming had to take place on 23rd December. There are only four hours of daylight in St Petersburg at that time of year. The single shot would take one and half of those hours." This combination of form and content, of one single-take and four epochs of Russian history, indicates a director determined to confer meaning simultaneously on cinema and culture. Long takes had clearly been a sign of virtuosity. As Brian De Palma said after watching a complex single-take shot in Scorsese's Raging Bull. "I thought I was pretty good at doing those kinds of shots, but when I saw that I said, 'whoah!' And that's when I started using those very complicated shots with the steadicam." (Brian De Palma Interviews)
It is a means by which to put meaning into form rather as an athlete puts meaning into a race; either aiming to beat his competitors, or trying to achieve a record time. Sokurov certainly does both as we might wonder what De Palma would make of a take that far surpasses in formal ingenuity anything Hitchcock, Welles, Scorsese, Altman and De Palma have managed. If John Orr amusingly proposed a scientifically cinematic arms raise during the late sixties and seventies between for example Kubrick and Tarkovsky, with Kubrick offering 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, and Tarkovsky Solaris and Stalker (The Art and Politics of Film), is this the master's disciple throwing down the cudgel again?
We can see how easy it is here to get into viewing cinema as a urinating contest, with he who films longest the one who proves their prowess. But Sokurov also wants to find a means by which to cover history in a manner that gives to both cinema and to culture a meaning that might have seemed lacking from all aspects of post-Soviet Russia after the dissolution of the union. Sokurov has never been a filmmaker hankering after the new, saying "Very often, especially in the U.S. I hear talk of "new art", but this calls forth in me only a smile." (Cineaste xxvi, no.3) Where he might believe the American directors want to show off with a virtuosity that has each director topping the next, is Sokurov's single-take an attempt to end the debate for good? We should remember after all that Sokurov thinks cinema is a lowly form, and that its purpose isn't to get on its formal high horse and impress, but to acknowledge its status as a means by which to reflect spiritual possibility in various manifestations. In Russian Ark the claim would be to offer up the spirit of Russia and to capture something of this he wanted to do "history in one breath". The purpose is less to admire the filmmaker than the history which it captures in the St Petersburg museum.
Of course it isn't easy to separate such formal cinematic elegance from the art and music that we witness, but if Days of Eclipse can feel like an exhausted, semi-documentary account of a doctor in a spiritual dilemma after musing over certain powers he may possess, and wondering whether he ought to use them for the health and wellbeing of the hopelessly poverty-ridden community, Russian Ark is the flipside. A work of art on works of art, it feels like a recuperative piece next to his debut feature, The Solitary Voice of Man(from Platonov), Days of Eclipse and Whispering Pages. Where the earlier films hinted at late Communist despair, Russian Ark goes back in time to celebrate Russian history before the Revolution. As the film passes through the museum with a European stranger offering opinions and playing up the importance of Western European art, Sokurov's own voice over gently chides and contradicts him. As Sokurov says, in an interview years before the film was made. "My tertiary influence is, perhaps not surprisingly, classical painting....The Russian tradition, beginning with Topinini and the Peredvizhniks...of course, and Vrubel. This entire Realist school, which presents a unifying, gentle and exceptionally profound art, through its craftsmanship, its artistry." (Cineaste xxvi, no.3) Our guide might remark on the greatness of Western art, but Sokurov's humble narrator wants Russian art to be recognized also. Russian Ark is recuperative in the sense that it wants to acknowledge and respect such art, and at the same time find a form that insists on a certain type of Russian greatness.
This could sound like we are crediting Sokurov with competitive egotism, the sort evident in De Palma's comment, as if the long take were some equivalent of who can hold their breath under water the longest. But Sokurov is instead one feels looking less to compete than to resuscitate: to bring Russian art back to life after it had lost its breath altogether. He wants to hold Russian history in one long cinematographic sentence and say that it is worth something and Russians should be able to acknowledge its importance. Anyone getting too excited about the take as a take would be missing the point, taking into account Sokurov's insistence. "I wouldn't treat serious art as a fundamental quality in terms of the physical activity of making it, such as the cinematography, because in cinema there is precious little fundamental art." (Cineaste xxvi, no.3) We may find this an odd statement from a director who distorts the image in Mother and Son, offers a single take film with Russian Ark, and invokes the German Romantic tradition in the very image making in Moloch, but Sokurov is acknowledging here not the valorization of technique, but the meditative space that the technique offers. If we get too lost in admiring the virtuosity of Russian Ark, then we are missing the sorrowful dimension that suggests the need for an ark in the first place The ark is a protective space against the onslaught of a rising tide, and Sokurov, the aesthetic conservative, is more interested in preservation than newness, evident in his comment above. If we exaggerate as perhaps Cousins does the brilliance of the achievement, we are underestimating the importance of what Fergus Daly in another context has called "Arkiving". "There are of course several strands of Arkivism today, most explicitly on view in Russian Ark." (Experimental Conversations) Here Daly is talking of cinephelia and the means by which we absorb film. "To have watched, attentively, thousands of films, creates a unique kind of human. A new relationship is established between self and world and between perception and memory - and ensuring that these are productive relationships is the task of the discipline, the technology of the self, involved in any worthwhile cinephilia." This for Daly is what arkiving is all about, and by the same reckoning is this not also what Sokurov is invoking by making Russian Ark? If it possesses the dimension of competition, it is only to say that Russian art should not be dismissed and ignored, and that if technology is so important then Russian filmmakers can achieve as complex a technological work of art as any, but that isn't where the significance lies.
Perhaps Sokurov's purpose is to make us weep the deepest of tears, tears that are not local and functional, but permeating and ineffable. These are meditative tears, and to understand the difference between Sokurov's purpose and those of a more 'systematic' filmmaker, we can think of Sokurov musing over the lives of the teenage soldiers in the Russian army in the later sections of Spiritual Voices, and the death of Sergeant Elias in Oliver Stone's Platoon. In Sokurov's film, the purpose isn't to show the soldiers dying externally, but to muse over the internal shattering that may take place as they go off to fight at an age when many people are still in school. Sokurov concentrates on the smallest of details: he talks of his own physical discomfort as he walks through Afghanistan with the troops, and notices on a trip soldiers are taking to the Arctic that these are young men who haven't washed for a week, sometimes longer. We're quietly moved by these tribulations, but they aren't singularly wringing pity from us. Stone however wants exactly this pity as he shows Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) dying in slow motion to the music of Samuel Barber. Whatever Stone might believe he is saying about loss of innocence (wasn't Elias a role model for central character Chris Taylor, and Vietnam a rite of passage for young Chris?) he focuses it specifically here on one man and a singular emotional response. As with the Barber music used at the very end of the film, Stone wants to plug us into very specific feelings for the maximum emotional output. No matter the general emotional reaction Stone might be searching out, what counts is that we are moved by Elias's death. Sokurov is more inclined to dilute the feeling and spread it across numerous scenes. It isn't the specifics of tragedy Sokurov shows us in Spiritual Voices; more the mournful loss of the soul in environments where it isn't easy holding on to it. This is evident in the film through a ship's commander, whose diary informs us that it is important that he doesn't so much keep his mind alert as his soul sustained through reading great works of literature. Loss is subtle, Sokurov, surmises. Loss is monumental, Stone insists.
This difference of perspective of course is in danger of returning us to some notion of Russian/American rivalry again, but instead it should return us to certain key differences in sensibility. Doesn't American film often demand the 'emotional set piece', a big scene of categorical feeling that doesn't leave much space for registering one's own subtler responses? It is a variation of the action set piece but serves a similar function: it brings together narrative strands for a particular pay-off. In this sense, the emotional set piece is no more meditative than the action sequence: the purpose resides in manipulating our responses rather than generating a thought process, and if we compare and contrast Sokurov with American cinema we do so not especially because we believe the latter is inferior to the former, more to explain what Sokurov is trying to escape from in a cinema he sees as facile, and which leads film to be a minor art form.
In conclusion, perhaps cinema is always in danger of becoming a pact with the devil, and while of course Sokurov has mused over the nature of pacts of power in his three films on dictators (Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito), the fourth film in the tetralogy decided to dedicate itself to the mythological: Faust. A big-budget film that some might say had its own flirtation with the powerful. "The film would not have seen the light", Sokurov admitted, if "Putin had not found the funding," (The Independent). However whatever compromises might have been made on the personal level, the film is absolutely consistent with Sokurov's exploration of the meditative space to the detriment of action-oriented or emotional purpose. Little is made of the Faustian pact, with the joy and regret that can come out of many a film that deals with someone selling their soul. To offer such a project would surely have been bad faith on Sokurov's part: he would have taken advantage of the story's capacity for excitement and remorse, but not given time over to the question of one's soul's loss. Instead he concentrates on the relationship between Faust and Mephistopheles, with A. O. Scott aptly describing the pair of them "less like prey and predator than like quarrelsome business partners, the mismatched halves of a metaphysical buddy picture." (The New York Times) It isn't the pleasure we often get from the Faustian film where success goes to the head, the heart and the loins, but more an ongoing metaphysical squabble. Playing around with the Faust legend that has tempted Marlowe, Goethe and Mann in the past, and Murnau in film, Sokurov uses it as an inversion of his earlier 'power' films.
If Moloch, Taurus and The Sun concentrate on powerful men at the end of their lives, here Faust muses over how such pacts with the devil come into being. What his four power films leave out is the adrenaline buzz of great status, as if to concentrate thus would be to fall into the very pact himself, a pact Sokurov of course sees much cinema falling into and sincere cinematic art needs to avoid. "Art must always afford a simple, reliable ladder, pointed somewhere upward. In order to have enough strength to rise higher than the average level, it is necessary to create a special humane world within the author." (Cineaste xxvi, no.3) Concentrating on power as power, focusing on the wealth gained, the sex indulged and the material items accumulated, would leave little time and space to concentrate on the communion Sokurov consistently seeks out.
Thus we can see the director often opens up the potential for explorations of egotism in various manifestations, both in form and in content, whether it happens to be the virtuosity of form in Russian Ark, the painterly dimension to Mother and Son and Moloch, or the examination of power in Moloch and Faust, as well as Taurus and The Sun. But instead he searches out chiefly a space for thinking about the majesty of culture or the trouble with power so that what exists is the quiet sense of the soul in commune with other souls, the strength of some (as in Mother and Son) and the weakness of others (as in Moloch). If Heidegger famously offered the formulation that the most thought provoking thing is that we are still not thinking, Sokurov asks that in cinema it is about time we started. It is perhaps a high-minded attitude, but comes from the director's own feeling of humility in a lowly art form. As he says, "My view of art is that it is some kind of chain, and there's no pride, but I would find it a great honor if someone would tell me they consider me to be part of the chain...to be even a small link in the chain." (Cineaste xxvi, no.3)
© Tony McKibbin