Despite being internationally distributed and revered around the world for over four decades, Alexander Sokurov has only just been awarded a major film prize.
This year the filmmaker Alexander Sokurov has finally been awarded his first major international prize: the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival for his latest film, Faust. This may seem strange, because Sokurov – labelled as ‘Tarkovsky’s heir’ – has been nominated for numerous awards in major films festivals, from Cannes to Berlin – yet he has never won. The closest he got to a Palme d’Or (for which he ran no less than five times) was a prize for the Best Screenplay for Moloch in 1999 (and that went to his scriptwriter Yuri Arabov). For a director whose films have all been distributed internationally, this profile is an odd one, and may be explained by the director’s highly artistic approach to cinematography.
Sokurov’s Faust is the final part of the tetralogy, Moloch (1999), Taurus (2001) and The Sun (2005), which showed men – the political leaders Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito – obsessed with ideas. Sokurov emphasises in these films that these ideas were incompatible with the petty concerns of everyday life: Hitler suffered from a troubled digestive system, which contradicted the image of a figure obsessed with grand ideas about race; Lenin’s immobility after his stroke seemed to humiliate his idea of the active and energetic Revolutionary man; and Hirohito’s distance from life in general ridiculed the pseudo-God-like emperor, turning him into an actor who cannot quite leave his life-long role as Sun. Faust, according to Sokurov, shares with these leaders “a love of words that are easy to believe and pathological unhappiness in everyday life.”
Indeed, words seem to dominate this film: the dialogue, entirely in German, follows the Faustian text not literally, but in a fragmenting, fragmented and fragmentary manner: the text seems out of joint and phrases seem abridged; words flow but have little meaning. If the political leaders of the tetralogy’s first three films share with Faust an obsession with words, then it is about words as in language or sound, but not words that express an idea. Faust is no man who follows ideas; ideas and words are less relevant for him than food and flesh. Such a Faust seems no match for the dictators who are governed by words and ideas: he is unhappy for material reasons, but they do not impair any grand searches he may have. The pawnbroker suggests quite correctly that there is no meaning in life, nothing of value—nothing to pawn. It is this void which leads to the final frames of film, when Mephisto has taken Faust to a world of volcanoes and geysers. And it is in the face of the force of nature that Faust finds pleasure, and understands the grand project of the world apparently better than through his writing or his research.
Faust screened at the London Film Festival on 24th and 27th October. Currently there is a Sokurov retrospective at the BFI, which offers a unique opportunity to see on the big screen the earlier films: from the early documentaries of the perestroika era to his early feature film The Lonely Voice of Man, based on the literary works of Andrei Platonov; Save and Protect, his adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; the transposition of G B Shaw’s Heartbreak House with the title Mournful Indifference; and the film Days of Eclipse, on which Fredric Jameson has written a seminal chapter in his book on the geopolitical aesthetic. Sokurov’s early work is in many ways very different from his later, more perfected cinematic visions, where the representation of life turns into an artistic image. But these rarely shown, early films and documentaries explain the origins of Sokurov’s aesthetics: his (almost Chekhovian) emphasis on silences and pauses rather than words, his perception of the cinematic frame as if it were the frame of a painting, and therefore the understanding of cinema as a medium that brings to life a ‘nature morte’ rather than imprint on celluloid the surrounding reality. And this approach makes Sokurov a very different, unique, and outstanding filmmaker – one who does not fit easily into a canon.■
Birgit Beumers is the co-editor of The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov, the first complete study of the director’s ouevre.