Raised in a military family and schooled in the ways of movie making under the wing of Andrei Tarkovsky, Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s career started in the 1970s working in television, but soon delved headlong into visual experimentalism. Most of his work from the 80s was legally banned in the Soviet Union, and with this lovingly assembled set by Cinema Guild, comes the first time any of these films have found a home release within the US. Often said to be enigmatic, undefinable films, the early work of the auteur is a collection of ruminating death obsessed stories pulled from the Soviet and European classical canon and the war torn history of his mother country. With the three features bound within this set, Sokurov gleans material from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ for Whispering Pages, the ghost of Anton Chekhov for Stone, and Save and Protect retells Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’ with hypersexualized illusion, each transforming into mercurially pensive cinematic dreamscapes that encapsulate the symmetry of life and oblivion with ghostly affirmation.
Like his mentor Tarkovsky, Sokurov is a man with a propensity for the development of mood and emotion, preferring long, often static shots with minimal dialogue over the action of cutting and editing, a process he feels lacks the potential for creativity (see his ingenious one shot masterpiece Russian Ark as evidence). And though Sokurov absorbed much of the feel and thematics of his mentor, there is very little visual similarity. Sokurov is known for playing with his images, distorting the shapes of the frame, applying a variety of filters and implementing mirrors on set. Both Whispering Pages and Stone possess an abundance of widescreen footage smooshed down to 1:33, causing figures to look unnaturally tall and thin, alien almost. Some rightfully compare the effect to a fun house, except here it almost never seems of good natured amusement.
The set begins with the latest of the three films, Sokurov’s very loose interpretation of ‘Crime and Punishment’ and other Russian literature, Whispering Pages. The film is a brash, intoxicating decent into the decaying mass known as human civilization. We follow an anonymous criminal as he wanders deep down into foggy bottomless catacombs as an abundance of horrors slowly play out before his eyes. His path crosses with a prostitute who acts as a sounding board for his existential quandaries that are only amplified by the sights he encounters. Shot in manipulated black and white-ish, with occasional shades of color laying over the images, this a difficult, unsettling film that feels like a relic unearthed from times long passed, yet it was made less than two decades ago.
On the next disc we find Stone, another ominous examination of death and longing for life. This time Sokurov takes us inside the real life Chekhov Museum where we meet a young guard who is visited by a man who’s intention is unclear. He may be the ghost of Chekhov himself, he may be a weary doctor who’s looking for someone to care for, or he might just be a crazed old coot, but in any case, he doesn’t have any intention of leaving alone. While Whispering Pages seems a tale of a man witnessing misery and death before his own, Stone feels like a spectral hallucination of demented hope before oblivion. Among the drawn out silences and spooky natural ambiance of the decaying, dusty building there are continuous inexplicable happenings, all of which grant a strangely disquieting attraction that distends into the snowy wilderness.
Sokurov’s announcement on the world film festival circuit, Save and Protect, fills out the remaining disc with jarring proclivity as the only feature filmed in color, running well over two hours and with plenty of sweeping camera movement. Released a year before Claude Chabrol’s Isabelle Huppert starred Madame Bovary, Sokurov’s take is an explicit exploration of Emma’s promiscuity. As the wife of a doctor who’s botched a treatment, accidentally killing his patient, Emma has found herself in love with two other men and in debt to another one all together. Rather than focus on the plot, the director seems to find all he is looking for in the nude bodies of Emma and her willing partners – passion and its many downfalls – and by seducing and distracting us with skin, he manages to weave in the surreal by subtly adding bits of modern technology into a story supposedly taking place in the 1800s. And with all this, he still manages to bring us back to the (ridiculously over-sized) grave with no hope and a broken heart.
For a three disc set (1 Blu-ray/2 DVDs), this thing is stacked. Not only are there the three features, there is also four Sokurov documentary shorts, two lengthy supplemental pieces on the director and his film subjects, and even a commentary track (plus: Whispering Pages is in both HD and SD)! Cinema Guild certainly showed this package some love and appreciation. Stated on each disc, there is information regarding the transfers, all three of which were completed with the best known sources. Unfortunately, the original negative for Whispering Pages was completely unusable, forcing the use of an intact 35 mm print, while Stone and Save and Protect both suffer from substantial damage over several sections of each film. That said, scratches and jittering aside, it’s nice to have these films available for the first time, generally looking quite good. Save and Protect, the only film that wasn’t purposefully distorted by the filmmaker himself and also unlike the other two, in color, looks quite striking, especially for the film’s first half where there was minimal damage found. All three films also sport original Russian stereo tracks sounding adequate for the minimal dialogue that takes place during much of the films. The HD Whispering Pages track runs a bit hot though, distorting a bit when things get loud (people screaming amidst echoing catacombs). I’d assume this is due to the source material rather than the transfer. The entire package itself is a quad-gatefold, perfectly nestled within a fittingly bleak looking dust jacket.
Soviet Elegy (1989)
One of many, many elegy pieces that have lined Sokurov’s oeuvre, this one sees the filmmaker giving a portrait of Boris Yeltsin with family history and details of his upbringing. It also displays incredible amounts of Soviet leaders, face after face, with their names. Quite the black introduction. 68 min.
An Example of Intonation (1991)
Sokurov’s second film on Boris Yeltsin, this one features the two in casual conversation, except, Yeltsin’s voice is occasionally obscured by the soundtrack when ever the mood strikes. Just as democracy is given over to Yeltsin, Sokurov is given the chance to find out who he is as both a man and a leader. 48 min.
Questions About Cinema, a documentary on Alexander Sokurov (2008)
For a man who’s films are often indecipherable puzzles, Sokurov is quite the opinionated artiste. Here he speaks openly and at length about his philosophy of filmmaking, from how there is no creativity in editing to the fact that cinema is flat out, not an art. If you thought his films were pretentious, just you wait to hear him speak about them. 60 min.
Audio Commentary by film critic and curator James Quandt on ‘Stone’
Quandt, the senior programmer of the TIFF Cinematheque screening programme, reads stiffly from a script that goes into detail about Sokurov’s many tendencies as a filmmaker, how his films link together, and much of the back story about Stone. He only breaks from his prepared oratory to mention a single brief on screen moment. Though his thoughts often enrich the experience with unknown curiosities, a little more attention to on screen happenings is always appreciated.
Diary of St. Petersburg: Kozintsev’s Flat (1998)
As a sort of tribute to a fellow Soviet filmmaker, this short is profile of Grigori Mikhaylovich Kozintsev. Sokurov takes us into the director’s old house filled with his old belongings, trying to find meaning in his inhabitance. 48 min.
“The House That Chekhov Built,” a BBC audio program on Anton Chekhov’s house in Yalta, the setting for STONE (2010)
Featuring Michael Pennington as he journeys to Chekhov’s house where he wrote the majority of his masterpieces, this is an audio track that runs over top of the first half hour of the film. It’s a bit awkward paired with the imagery of the film, but by itself, it’s a wonderfully informative piece of a standard interview about the writer and his house. 30 min.
Sonata For Hitler (1979-1989)
This found footage short is an ominous bit that relies wholly on our knowledge of history and the distorted humming that underscores the piece. 10 min.
This is Cinema Guild’s first foray into larger film sets, and with it, they have put together a staggering collection that shows the roots of a contradictory filmmaker, obsessed with the culture of art and its history, yet continuously at odds with traditional film form. Here we see a series of classically based cessation, warped into condensed, elongated images and highly explicit tragedy, and yet in Sokurov’s ponderous hands, these seemingly mysterious films seem to open up with subtle emotion and extensive respect for the artists that came before him. Let’s hope this incredible set is the first of many to come.