A great master’s one-dimensional portrait. About “The Voice of Sokurov”

Jeremi Szaniawski · 29 September 2015
Leena Kilpeläinen has taken a mighty challenge upon herself. To make a film about a figure whom one deeply admires is no easy task. This rings particularly true when said figure is none else than one the world’s most complex and contradictory artists –Alexander Sokurov.

With the recent premiere, at the Venice Film Festival, of Alexander Sokurov’s latest feature, “Francofonia – The Louvre Under the Occupation” (aka “An elegy for Europe”), the Polish release of Leena Kilpeläinen’s documentary, “The Voice of Sokurov” (2015) makes a lot of sense, drawing further attention to the director’s career and accomplishments. His fate shines against the background of late Soviet history as well as the regime which came after it. It led to a filmic oeuvre that is incredibly complex and multi-faceted. It will therefore come as no surprise that the promotional blurb for the film sounded quite promising indeed:

“Alexander Sokurov is a living institution of contemporary Russian cinema. From the beginning of his adventure in the world of film he has been defiant, voicing his opinions not only in matters correlated directly with the cinematic art. His broad purview onto film work, including philosophy and sociology, history and politics, is the subject of this documentary essay by Kilpeläinen, schooled at VGIK (’86) […]
The Voice of Sokurov” is well worth listening to, as anyone’s, who is so reflexive and analytical, honest and genuinely wise, grounded and fundamentally humanistic.”

Unfortunately, this blurb sounds much better than the film itself. This 77’ documentary appears as a digest of Sokurov’s career, streamlined and simplified to the extreme, presenting a great many clips from the vast majority of his feature fiction films (with the exception of two of his literary adaptations, the supremely strange—even by Sokurov’s standards—“Save and Protect” (1988, based onMadame Bovary”), as well as his reflection on ‘motifs from 19th century literature’, “Whispering Pages” (1993)) and a few of his most important, and readily available documentaries.
All the efforts of the Finnish documentary filmmaker are done so that the layman who for some obscure reason might venture into a theater to watch this documentary about an artist they probably only know by name—will be allowed to learn about the ‘official’ Sokurov.

Sokurov’s Official Biography
The son of a Soviet officer, Sokurov spent his childhood traveling from one remote military base to the other. He grew up into a defiant, individualistic youth who started working at a TV studio while studying History, before embarking on a program at VGIK, Moscow’s prestigious film school. From the documentary we learn, about the the rejection of his senior project (“Lonely Voice of Man”, made in 1978 but released only in 1987), as well as his friendship with Andrey Tarkovsky. The latter literally saved the young Sokurov by arranging for a job at Lenfilm studios. There the unruly young filmmaker produced another feature film (“Mournful Insensitivity”, 1982) and a great number of documentaries—most of which were shelved. Then came the Perestroika, and the explosion of international critics’ attention in Sokurov’s work, with his by now legendary “Days of the Eclipse” (1986), and, in the post-Soviet period, “Mother and Son” (1997), “Russian Ark” (2002) and “Faust” (2011). The latter, financed by personal funds of Vladimir Putin, was a surprise winner of the Golden Lion in Venice.

Enshrined as a major auteur and artistic authority, Sokurov has consistently hammered a series of resounding themes and ideas, all carefully reprised in the documentary: the ‘religion of art’ (aka the quasi-messianic role of the artist and their art in salvaging mankind and giving meaning to life) pitted against film as merchandise; the defense of human rights and preservation of architectural landmarks and artistic heritage; the dangers and opposition between democracy and totalitarianism, especially with regard to their treatment of culture, etc. In the documentary, Sokurov develops the thesis whereby totalitarianism requires art, whereas democracy seems indifferent to it. The director compares culture to a swamp, in which people, talent and humanistic values drown, leaving ‘only little frogs’.

All these thematic threads are correlated, one way or another, and reflected in, the director’s rich and richly layered filmography. But while his artistic output is unquestionably among the most significant in cinema history, his views, fascinating in their originality and moral urgency though they may be (not least in addressing humanistic and humanitarian issues), have almost consistently embarrassed his liberal audiences. Sokurov’s political and ideological views constitute a curious mix of Grand-Russian mysticism and Spenglerian catastrophism, with a touch of Historical revisionism. Indeed Sokurov’s views about the past can oftentimes seem surprising. This however the viewer will only be able to appreciate in a fragmentary manner in Kilpeläinen’s film. No trace for instance, here, of the director’s comments about Japan’s engagement in WWII, where he closes his eyes on the massacres perpetrated in China. And while the director’s critical stance vis-à-vis Soviet Russia are well-known, his glorification of Czarist Russia doesn’t seem entirely warranted.

Kilpeläinen’s film allows one to discover each of these thematic traits and topics, yet it does so too lightly and superficially. As a result, this filmic portrait of Sokurov comes across as overly sober, watered down, almost: no use was made here of statements by the Russian master that could have come across as shocking to a Western audience, by virtue of its conservatism or radicalism. It may well be, too, that the filmmaker himself was refraining from making such brazen statements during the making of the documentary and his conversations with Kilpeläinen, honing in on a milder persona.

The artist’s words, the documentarian’s images

To be fair, the Finnish director attempts to discreetly challenge Sokurov in some of his statements through the old Soviet technique of dialectical montage. In this particular case, one would think of the contrapuntal relationship of sound and image, as laid out in the manifest ‘A Statement on Sound’ (Alexandrov, Einsenstein, Pudovkin, 1928). For instance, at one point Sokurov laments a completely decadent culture in contemporary Russia, leaving youth uneducated. These statements Kilpäinen counterbalances with footage of rather innocuous and wholesome-looking, handsome young people. A moment later, when Sokurov says that the world where the law of the fittest prevails—as it purportedly does in Putin’s Russia—will see the strongest turn into ‘predators’, his words are contrasted almost grotesquely with footage of a young couple kissing. Later, deeply homoerotic footage from “Father and Son” (2003), showing two muscular and half-naked men throwing pregnant glances at one another, is followed by Sokurov discarding queer readings of the film, claiming that if he were interested in making a film about two men in love, he would do so without asking for anyone’s permission.

But these modest jabs, pitting some of Sokurov’s most fraught or problematic statements against footage that clearly contradicts or mitigates them, appear almost inscrutable in their potential irony. Furthermore, the attempt falls in a no-man’s land between actual resistance against the Russian director’s logo-centrism and enterprise of self-promotion, and a lack of actual resistance to untenable or outright excessive claims. Such timid attempts to challenge or mitigate the authoritative and resolutely conservative voice of the Russian director appear not only unsuccessful and parasitic, but also counter-productive. At best, they seem to pastiche Sokurov’s own such ironic montage in his early documentaries (such as “And Nothing Else”, about World War II (1984, released 1987), and featured here). Kilpeläinen would have been much better off demonstrating the nigh-absurd radicalism of some of Sokurov’s colorful statements by embracing them entirely. The director’s views may bother people, they are nonetheless validated by the sheer power of his artistic vision. Alas such directorial discernment could not be expected from an informed (overly intellectualized and not thought-through at one and the same time) but sadly glib and maudlin digest. And, as must appear clearly to anyone familiar with his oeuvre—Sokurov is not one to be digested, easily, or at all. His work consistently escapes easy categorization, an endlessly fascinating epistemic and aesthetic object.

Conversely, the footage shot for the needs of the film (of Sokurov in the botanical gardens, or walking the streets and buildings of a summery St. Petersburg), though at times reasonably pretty, is as artless as it gets, accompanied at times, to boot, by an unpleasant synthetic score. It is one of the great aesthetic problems of the film, and a challenge few could live up to: attempting to recreate some sort of audiovisual ‘poetry’, nesting original documentary footage right next to sequences from the director’s films, whose unforgettable cinematography is bound to thwart any other material instantly.

The Creation of the World According to Sokurov
The structure of the film is articulated around a seven-day sequence (perhaps ironic too, in the way it seems to reinforce some Biblical dimension in Sokurov), each focusing on a specific topic, be it political or sociological. This may sound good on paper, with a clear project. But the narration of the actual film itself suffers from the way it tries to compartmentalize the major motifs of Sokurov’s oeuvre (Death, Loneliness, the responsibility of the artist and the role of art in civilization, etc.) and connect them to his films, following a more or less chronological order. The emerging portrait of the artist is reductive, without relief, and faded, which is particularly surprising given the subject matter at hand. To reduce one of the last figures of a breed we had thought extinct (the cinematic modernist auteur) to a series of soundbites is one of the biggest problems of “The Voice of Sokurov”.

The documentary, about a filmmaker whose oeuvre is unlike any other, resembles far too strongly the countless formulaic ‘documentaries’ produced of late for easy consumption, even on the most complex subjects. Furthermore, it is not carried by any proper message, any thesis. Next to the ‘seven day’ structure, the film is bookended by a passage from “Lonely Voice of Man” : starting with a question by the female protagonist, the beautiful Lyuba, asking ‘Have you forgotten me?’ to the shell-shocked Nikita, come back from the Civil War; and ending in Nikita telling her he hasn’t forgotten her. As Lyuba opines, saying ‘Good, one should never forget’, a sublime moment in cinema history, based on the prose of Platonov (in my humble opinion, Soviet literature’s greatest writer), is suddenly turned into some sort of artificially appended, maudlin word of wisdom. Clearly the latter seems to point to the importance of memory, highlighted by Sokurov’s interest in History, and his truly commendable commitment to art restoration and activism for the preservation of buildings in St. Petersburg. But it all seems a vague and artificial constraint, an afterthought at best.

The fact that this rather lackluster documentary should come out at the time of “Francofonia’s” screening at the Venice film festival, however, is interesting in how it reveals, pitted against some interviews by Sokurov, that the man is far more complex, filled with contradictions and paradoxes, than the film reveals, presenting us with a rather monolithic portrait (Sokurov as serious, humanistic) of the auteur as an official, public figure. Indeed, when it comes to discussing the issues of migrants, Sokurov, who decries war so vehemently in ”The Voice of Sokurov”, and who for the longest time aligned with Putin’s agenda in 2013 over the refusal to bomb Syria, now advocates for an intervention against ISIS, critiquing NATO over their inaction. Surely, the fate of sites such as Palmyra or Syrian museums where art was ransacked and spectacularly destroyed by the Islamists must have spurred the director on, to now actually call for such a military intervention. This is but one of the many paradoxical instances the film doesn’t really show, and which would have made it so much richer and faithful to the actual figure it portrays in a single light. As is, Sokurov appears simply as a moral authority of sorts, a utopist, with no political connection, or agenda other than the one he professes (no word here, for instance, on his close ties with Boris Yeltsin).

Kilpeläinen’s film as foreword
It is clear (though not from the film): problematic though they may be, Sokurov’s views are never simplistic and do not lend themselves to simplification. As for ”The Voice of Sokurov”, while the layman and specialist alike may relish the opportunity to hear one of the world cinema’s leading artists pontificate in his truly striking voice, it may at best serve as an introduction, which may hopefully intrigue and encourage more people to discover his unique filmography. The viewer whose appetite might be whetted (or undeterred) by this documentary should be made aware that all the same ideas and opinions, and much, much more, are developed by Sokurov, and at greater length in his remarkable book “V Tsentre Okeana”, available in the Russian original (Amfora, 2012), in Italian (Bompiani, 2009), and shortly in a French translation (L’Age d’Homme, 2015). Hopefully other translations will follow.

As a Sokurov scholar and more essentially still, as a cinephile, I welcome all possible publicity about this extraordinary man and artist, enabling people to discover one of the greatest oeuvres in the cinematic landscape of the last 30 years. As such, I will still recommend ”The Voice of Sokurov”, with the caveat of its many shortcomings. Yet I wonder to what extent this documentary (or ‘audio-visual essay’) will really compel people to seek out and watch Sokurov’s films. Surely such oeuvre deserves a treatment by a director of equal ilk—think of Chris Marker’s masterful take on Tarkovsky. Sadly, this is not the case here. Leena Kilpäinen bit off more than she could chew, and in spite of her attempts at retaining control over her film, her larger-than-life subject almost entirely escaped her.