Birgit Beumers and Nancy Condee (eds.), “The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov”

The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov, Birgit Beumers and Nancy Condee (Eds.), London: I.B. Tauris, 2011, 262 PP.

Alexander Sokurov is, by any standards, a highly original filmmaker, but one whose work is dark, disjointed, and often frustrating to view. The reasons for this are rooted only partially in the norms of auteur cinema that place a premium on making the medium itself difficult. In the case of Sokurov, this difficulty is intensified by a kind of anxiety of influence vis-à-vis his mentor Andrei Tarkovsky, whose vibrant, spiritualized cinematography would have been hard, if not impossible, to top. Sokurov reacted to the lyrical buoyancy of Tarkovsky’s images by taking the opposite tack: he deliberately tries to deaden the medium as a whole. Dialogue is often semi-audible, color is denatured, lighting is dim, the acting is unnatural, pacing is sluggish, and plots elliptical. These anti-aesthetic devices fuse with artistic concerns that focus on death and fragile human relationships (minus the kind of sublime spirituality typical of Tarkovsky) or on idiosyncratic, unhistorical interpretations of power and corporeality (films on the private lives of Hitler, Lenin, and Hirohito, as well as a recent, weird reinterpretation of Faust as farce). His best-known film in the West is the 96-minute long, one-shot wonder Russian Ark, a technical and organizational tour de force that—not just from a Western point of view—seems to drift into sentimental nationalism.

The collection of articles gathered in The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov does an excellent job of identifying and addressing these peculiarities as well as dealing with the broad scope of Sokurov’s films, ranging from his numerous documentaries to his so-called “family films” and his tetralogy on power (the fourth film in the group, Faust [2011], appeared too recently to be treated in the volume). There are four separate sections treating the major aspects of his work (the documentaries, the early films, the mid-to-late films, the Russian Ark and Alexandra), as well as an additional section offering translations of Russian criticism and recollections by collaborators. The quality of the contributions is uniformly high. The many fundamental difficulties posed by Sokurov’s anti-filmic films seem to have inspired the contributors to focus on cardinal issues. There are—to give just a few representative examples—articles on: Sokurov’s postmodern mode of historical representation (Denise Youngblood); the elegiac element in his film portraits (Eva Binder); embodiment in his power tetralogy (Stephen Hutchings); and Sokurov’s cinematic minimalism (Sabine Hänsgen).

Regarding Sokurov’s cinematic method and Russian Ark, José Alaniz makes a nice point that Sokurov is a kind of auteur control freak, on the one hand, but one who is willing to expose himself to maximum chaos on the other. (The one-shot Russian Ark always teeters on the brink of complete failure and, in fact, contains numerous flubs.) Sokurov doesn’t just make the medium difficult; he comes dangerously close to destroying it entirely in the process of making the film.

In spite of the difficulties posed by Sokurov’s oeuvre, the contributors resist falling into excessive academic jargon. The conceptually most demanding contribution—but perhaps also the most ambitious and stimulating one—is Mikhail Iampolski’s treatment of Sokurov’s truncated human relationships using Lacanian psychoanalysis, which Iampolski explains very clearly and applies in a judicious and convincing way. Most notably, he shows how Sokurov is concerned, in general, with the “disintegration of the symbolic [social order],” and seeks to compensate it by depicting ambivalent acts of caress between individuals that are “capable of transcendence” and that allow us to experience an “emotional flow of diffusion and interpenetration” rather than simply represent reality. The two editors, Nancy Condee and Birgit Beumers, also sign in with well-argued pieces. Condee shows how Sokurov’s films are ultimately committed to “rescu[ing] things for eternity” in spite of their ambivalent attitude towards traumatic objects on various levels (personal, political, filmic). Beumers demonstrates how in Russian Ark, Sokurov erases the past that he is preserving on film in a characteristically Russian gesture. Russia (very much in the messianic tradition of Chaadaev) appears here as an ambivalent space that has no content or views of its own but is vital to preserving European culture, nonetheless. The void shown at the end of the movie suggests that the process of filling up the Russian tabula rasa with content can start all over again. The Russian contributions closing up the volume consist of reminiscences of collaborators, short film reviews, and excerpts from more substantial essays by Sergei Dobrotvorsky on the way House mediates between life and death in Sokurov’s work; Mikhail Trofimenkov on Sokurov’s static approach to reality as exemplified through the use of photographs; and Andrei Plakhov on the “intimization” that runs through both the family and “tyrannological” films.

All in all, The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov helps demonstrate that the irritating and annoying aspects of Sokurov’s films are intrinsic to his art. They are part of a rigorous, perhaps overly rigorous, attempt to question the illusory, animating nature of film as a narrative medium, while at the same time not descending into utter nihilism, misanthropy, or cynicism. While not holding forth a grand messianic promise of redemption like his predecessor Tarkovsky, Sokurov manages to find and help us experience the residual, transitory value still residing in interpersonal relations, politics, and art in the face of Death and after the collapse of Empire. The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov will undoubtedly help viewers take part in this arduous search for value for some time to come.