January 8, 2013
Aleksandr Sokurov’s Soviet Elegy (1989) begins with a tour of tombstones, the camera floating down rows of Communist phantoms. In the next sequence, Boris Yeltsin is shown stalking down a hallway, another kind of ghost, one aware of his coming obsolescence. Sokurov’s work is a series of elegies, in which ghosts of history mourn for themselves. Cinema Guild has illustrated this development in their three-disc box set of Sokurov: Early Masterworks. It contains the three features Save and Protect (1990, DVD), Stone (1992, DVD) and Whispering Pages (1994, Blu-Ray), plus three of his shorts, including Soviet Elegy. Each displays his increasingly idiosyncratic visual sense, in which he uses distorting lenses to produce stretched figures akin to El Greco saints, yearning for a God who doesn’t respond. Sokurov is often compared to Andrei Tarkovsky, the previous Russian spiritual guide/director. But while Tarkovsky often offers the possibility of transcendence, there is no such hope in Sokurov, just figures circling a void.
These are demanding, deeply eccentric works, and none are more so than his Madame Bovary adaptation, Save and Protect. Sokurov focuses on Emma Bovary’s illict affairs, and cuts out her husband Charles almost entirely. He casts the skeletal Cecile Zervudacki as Emma, her recessed eyes and slender frame giving her the aura of an underfed zombie. Instead of brains its sex she’s after, feeding on the libidos of a series of romance-novel handsome beaus. Never satisfied, she wanders the Siberian steppe for 133 minutes in an aimless pursuit of a lasting human connection. Sokurov introduces anachronisms into the 19th century scene, as when the strains of “When the Saints Go Marching In” starts playing over an unseen radio, suggesting that Emma’s Sisyphean task will take multiple lifetimes.
Named by Susan Sontag as one of the greatest films of the 1990s, Stone takes Sokurov’s interest in the undead and applies his increasingly distorted visual scheme to it. It presents the claustrophobic scenario of a museum attendant at the Chekhov Musuem who spends all his time with a mysterious bearded stranger – the unsettled ghost of Chekhov himself. Almost entirely restricted to the interiors of the musuem, and shot in grainy B&W with image-stretching lenses that round the frame edge, the film has the constrained feel of a nightmare taking place in a snow globe, or that one is walking inside Sokurov’s own head. Of the realist writers of the late 19th century (Flaubert, Chekhov, Dickens, Tolstoy), he told Cineaste that, “This is the kind of literary world within which I could exist eternally.” With Save and Protect and Stone he attempts to. With even less narrative thread than Save and Protect, Stone presents the attendant and his ghostly pal in scenes of uncanny silence, the soundtrack a melange of breathing, ambient noise and Mahler. When the two wander outside they are rendered as two silhouettes separated from the landscape, as if they were just shadows against a wall.
Whispering Pages is another elegy for and escape into realist literature, this time of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment stripped of narrative. Sokurov’s Raskolnikov is not named, nor does he act. He simply skulks around the whitish-gray black and white, which occasionally dissolves into lifeless color, of the decaying city. It is a wet city, as damp as the village in Stalker, except there is no Room which promises escape. Sokurov’s elongated figures, often shot at low angles, seem to reach toward the sky, but fail to ever touch it, or reach it. Instead they trundle through film grain and dust motes and rain, an endless array of obstacles placed in front of them. All of these elements work on erasing people from the landscape, like the way the apartments are falling apart at the seams. In one disorienting shot, the camera peers up from the ground, towards Raskolnikov at right, and a tower straight ahead. People are jumping off, down past the camera and presumably towards their death. Nothing is shown or explained, just nature reclaiming some of its own. He exchanges some glances with a neighborhood girl, but entropy takes them all. In the sodden resignation of the final shot, Raskolnikov sits at the foot of a lion statue, the giant paw obscuring his head. Eventually the human figure disappears. All that’s left is a manmade object, with no one left to admire it.
The Soviet Elegy also contains a long reading of names of Russian leaders, a cinematic memorial to the builders of the Soviet state that was now ending. This micro-portrait of Yeltsin foretells not only his Tetralogy of Power, wherein he made films on the Hitler, Lenin, Hirohito and Faust, but also these early features, in which the undead hold more sway than the living. Sokurov’s films are dreams of memories, or memories of dreams, in which the writers, characters and leaders that formed his consciousness awake and wander, and find us wanting.
Technical notes: Save and Protect and Stone were transferred from what looks like old release prints, and contain persistent flecks and scratches, as well as end of reel markings. The original negative for Whispering Pages was “completely unusable”, according to the disc, so the pleasing HD transfer was made from a negative found in Germany. No apparent digital restoration was done, so there are still plentiful flecks and scratches, but it looks the best out of the bunch. Considering the rarity of these titles, we should be grateful we can see these in any form.