To write about Alexander Sokurov is no easy task. The manifold hurdles in the way of such an endeavour ultimately all converge into one single feature: Sokurov is an artist of the 19th century whose work often happens to resonate somewhat with political and historical issues belonging to either our own time or the 20th century Soviet era – an era he has never had much sympathy for. This acclaimed director has declared countless times by now that cinema is, for him, only a job, while his true callings are elsewhere, namely in painting, literature, music, and more generally “serious art” preferably pre-dating 1900 (in a way, though, one should say: 1917). The main difficulty in critically coping with his oeuvre, however, has little to do with the mandatory capability to handle a very wide range of pictorial, literary and musical references and backgrounds. The real point is elsewhere.
Take for instance sexuality. An unmistakable fascination with the male body, along with ambiguous forms of male friendship, can be easily detected in his filmography, (at least) from Dni zatmeniya [Days of the Eclipse, 1988] to Aleksandra [Alexandra, 2007]. But what are we to make of this? Shall we simply label him a gay director, and overlook thereby his steadfast denial of the existence of any homoerotic trait whatsoever in his works? On the one hand, pretending to ignore the sexual tensions in his cinema is out of the question, as they are almost ubiquitous. On the other hand, to impose psychoanalysis, gender awareness and other interpretive tools belonging to a century (the 20th) that is emphatically not Sokurov’s own may be missing the point of the singular aesthetics and worldview at stake. One should thus stick to the filmmaker’s own pre-1900 perspective and regard sexuality in his films as strictly inseparable from the spiritual, i.e. as having to do primarily with the perpetual conflict between body and spirit, or better still with the threshold connecting the body to whatever exceeds it – what the director himself, in interviews, calls “the other life” (sometimes also “the other world”), a strange energy graphically circulating in his images and subtly transfiguring the world into some “beyond” placed, as it were, right next to it. Hence, while it is undoubtedly also a matter of “sexual libido” proper, it is not just that. So here is the main difficulty of critically coping with his oeuvre: to fail to address Sokurov’s universe in its own terms might easily lead astray from it.
Jeremi Szaniawski’s truly remarkable monograph manages to successfully avoid this problem. It seizes the internal coherence animating Sokurov’s proudly old-fashioned humanism while still remaining fully and fruitfully aware of what was introduced in “non-Sokurovian” centuries like the 20th and the 21st, from cinema itself to psychoanalysis and beyond. Sexuality is here an obvious and crucial case in point. Szaniawski aptly and astutely defines the aesthetics of the Russian master not as a gay one, but in terms of queerness (p. 197), the latter being “eminently fluid,” as it “does not refer to anything in particular – it is an identity without an essence” (p. 199). “The umbrella term of queerness does not limit itself to a discussion of homosexuality, nor does it even have to include it: one can be queer without being homosexual (and, conversely, homosexual between being queer)” (p. 198): ultimately, queerness is a matter of positionality vis-à-vis normativity. The fact that Sokurov envisages this generic positionality by means of allegedly outdated and somewhat idealistic concepts like “the soul” or “the other life” does not make his cinema less queer. And queerness, in the same way, does not undermine the concrete, actual role of the spiritual within his aesthetic system.
This is nowhere clearer than in the analysis of the striking recurrence of male feet in his films. Should one explain it as a mere symptom of fetishistic, homoerotic attachment? While never denying this interpretation, Szaniawski convincingly fleshes it out (pp. 200-205) with a whole series of references to Sokurov’s own biography, to illustrious painterly antecedents (Holbein, Mantegna), to the sacred, and ultimately to the idea of a threshold between the carnal body and whatever lies beyond its representability and its death (again the “soul” in all its productive indeterminateness). If most interpretive tools bring along a substantial risk of crushing their objects of inquiry beneath the heaviness of their schemes, this is emphatically not the case here, as Szaniawski does not use them to close down the rich, organic texture of Sokurov’s images, but rather to open it up. Accordingly, sexuality is not addressed per se, but as just one among multiple, strictly interrelated dimensions.
The chapter on Otets i syn (Father and Son, 2003), arguably the volume’s virtuoso piece, problematizes the blatant fascination with male bodies (the very first scene, for instance, shows an extraordinarily intimate, prolonged and physical embrace between a father and a son) in light of Sokurov’s fascination with the military (quite evident in this film as well as in the rest of his career, e. g. in the TV mini-series Povinnost [Confessions, 1998]), itself by no means unconnected with the nationalistic, patriarchal and homophobic agenda of Putin’s Russia. To cut a long story short, Sokurov’s stern refusal to acknowledge either homosexuality and nationalism in his works, while nonetheless loading them with unmistakably homoerotic and nationalistic biases, points (even if not deliberately) at the fact that there might be plenty of unconscious and unacknowledged homoerotic tensions in the officially homophobic hegemonic discourse of patriarchal, militaristic Russia of the early 21st century. Furthermore, while one can all too easily read the director’s fascination with the military as an endorsement of Putin’s nationalism, the fact that everything in Father and Son is so patently dreamy might suggest instead that it actually ends up widening the gap between an inherently impossible patriarchal fantasy and its historical enactment by secular power (ending up being subtly undermined thereby). More or less the same goes for Russkiy kovcheg (Russian Ark, 2002, written about on pp. 165-184). On the one hand, this is a lavish, single 100-minute-long take wandering through time (various historical epochs) and space (the corridors of St. Peterburg’s Hermitage museum), “editing away” the Soviet era in order to better reconnect Putinian present with the pre-revolutionary, imperialist splendour of the tsarist days. On the other hand, all that nostalgia for the erstwhile Russian grandeur might look like the final farewell to an irretrievably bygone era, thereby widening the gap between the past and the present.
Indeed, for all the “artist’s solitude” Sokurov has always professed, politics occupies a rather central place in his cinema. Many of his films can and should be read also as (not necessarily deliberate) political allegories: Faust  is (also) a symptom of the complex relationships between Germany and Russia in the first decade of the 21st century (p. 255), as much as Skorbnoye beschuvstviye [Mournful Insensitivity, 1983] mirrors the coeval collapse of the USSR (p. 49). (1) As should be clear from the couple of examples in the previous paragraph, these political subtexts are as a rule ambiguous, dual and contradictory.
Duality and contradiction are no less than the very pivots around which the entire monograph revolves. All things considered, this chronological film-by-film account of his fictional production, also appropriately casting occasional glances at his copious documentaries, and satisfactorily laying out the thick “high art” background of this cinema (Platonov, Chekhov, who is also the main character of Kamen [The Stone, 1992], Dostoyevsky, Altdorfer, Friedrich, Rubens and many others), can be itself divided in two virtual halves. The first, up until Tikhiye stranitsy (Whispering Pages, 1993), grapples with the filmmaker’s earlier films, the ones Western audiences are probably least familiar with. Then comes Mat i syn (Mother and Son, 1997), whose masterful and concise analysis marks a veritable turning point in the book as well as in Sokurov’s career itself. As the director gains more and more international recognition, he enters a strange, complex relationship with power. As the erstwhile lonely, isolated, repeatedly censored maverick of the last years of the Soviet regime embarks upon the notorious tetralogy of power (Molokh [Moloch, 1999], about Hitler; Telets [Taurus, 2001], about Lenin; Solntse [The Sun, 2005], about Hirohito; Faust), he gradually becomes a sort of official artist of new (Putinian) Russia, increasingly celebrated and subsidized. A “queer even to queerness” (p. 199), a marginal even within marginality itself, Sokurov ends up finding himself at the very centre. As the artist and the powers that one way or another support him begin to entertain a layered, contradictory relationship, his films begin to mirror it and become themselves more and more intriguingly marked by contradiction. So, particularly after Mother and Son, Szaniawski’s monograph proves itself able to neatly, limpidly retrace even the most uneasy ways of contradiction, and this boosts it up, making it shift from being “good” to being “very good.” This ability culminates in the chapter dedicated to Alexandra, the odd story of a Russian elderly lady visiting a military camp in Chechnya. Szaniawski rejects either the idea that Alexandra is an unabashed piece of propaganda in support of Russia’s military operations there, and that it subverts this ideological position (as François Albera, among others, had claimed instead). His take is more nuanced: while never shying away from justifying Russia’s actions, and while even adopting a properly “imperialistic” cinematic form, Alexandra instils a somewhat divergent humanist ideal, itself supporting and at the same time countering Russia’s political agenda, in an ultimately undecidable way (p. 247). Here, as in most parts of the volume, it is a matter of patiently making one’s way through a Byzantine maze of contradictions, and Szaniawski just knows how to do so. In order to venture into the complex political implications of Sokurov’s cinema, it takes nothing short of a Machiavellian ability to sail through the risky meanders of such a murky and ambiguous subject.
Along with duality and contradiction, this book (whose subtitle is Figures of Paradox) also lists paradox among the key features of the cinema at issue. “Paradox” can of course mean several different things. Here, it means something quite specific.
If we choose to look at the word as a compound (para-doxa), we can break it down in two signifiers: para, as in paraphrase, for instance: that which stands next to, which complements, enriches, re-articulates; and doxa, in the Greek philosophical meaning: a system, ideology, or set of beliefs. Then indeed we see the emergence of a para-doxa in all of Sokurov’s art, its programmatic desire to create another world, to do things differently, and the resulting allusive nature coupled with its potent affect, almost always receivable in mutually exclusive terms (e.g. riveting or boring; inscrutable or limpid; ugly or beautiful; morbid or life-affirming). (p. 7)
Not just a simple unity between opposites, then, but rather something not too far from “positionality vis-à-vis normativity” as in the definition of queerness sketched earlier. And even if Szaniawski does not mention it at all, I do not think that Manny Farber’s “termite art” would be too misplaced here, the point being that there is a lot of “termite-like boundary-eating” going on in these alleged “white elephants” from Russia. Put differently, the writer wants to suggest that Sokurovian paradoxes are dynamic, not static. They trigger an active, always-ongoing process of enfolding, whereby a thing becomes enfolded in its opposite double (pretty much as his moving images themselves often look like very flat surfaces being bent and optically distorted in order to evoke a depth of sorts). We should not think of this as a yin-yang circle then, because the two opposites never quite fit together smoothly, and thus endlessly strive to enfold each other – hence the dynamism of it all. Szaniawski calls this practice of supplementing the world with an adjacent “other life” where opposites do not conflict any longer interstitial dialectics (p. 12), which could probably be defined as the art of dynamically occupying the space of the “neither-nor.” (2)
At any rate, once this premise is laid out in the first few pages, it is not then rigidly applied to Sokurov’s filmography in order to reduce its complexity to a quick and comfortable formula. On the contrary, interstitial dialectics, in accordance with its essentially dynamic nature, is used as a tool, like a torch in the dark, to engage in an inch-by-inch exploration of the nuances, the ambiguities and the folds in Sokurov’s universe. In other words, interstitial dialectics is used to discover one by one the disparate obsessions, themes and leitmotifs of this outstanding, densely textured body of works (not forgetting, of course, its formal, technical and stylistic aspects, outlined in a limited number of very precise remarks scattered throughout the volume): the director’s peculiar re-invention of Kant’s Sublime, the “poetics of space” informing the aforementioned “tetralogy of power,” the wish to go back where one had never been in the first place, and so on and so forth.
Naturally, such an exploration could never succeed without high-quality writing, no less essential here than analytical subtlety and accuracy per se. The intricacies and obscurities of Sokurov’s films are disentangled in a neat, clear way by an enjoyable, very fluid (if at times a bit generously prolix) prose, carefully guiding the reader step by step through their contradictions and ambiguities, with veritable rhetorical mastery. Last but not least, the volume wraps up with two long (27 pages in all) interviews with the director, one of the most interestingly unusual, positively anachronistic, sensitive, austere and cultivated voices in contemporary cinema.
The overall structure of the book is perhaps not faultless. Particularly, one is left to wonder whether the comparisons (closing most of the earlier chapters) between the object of study and Fassbinder, Bresson, Bergman and other filmmakers are really necessary, and whether they really add anything substantial or not. On the other hand, Szaniawski is right in dwelling lengthily on Tarkovsky, in order to dispel the widespread but all too superficial myth that Sokurov is a kind of “heir” of the director of Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986), merely following in his footsteps. But in spite of this and other minor imperfections, The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov, the first English-language complete monograph on his (fictional) work, coming after a good number of excellent if less systematic studies (such as, among others, those by Mikhail Iampolski and Fredric Jameson, and the by now legendary 1994 issue of SEANS magazine edited by Lyubov Arkus and Dimitri Savelev, republished in 2006), is a brilliant, highly recommended book, cleverly divining the right key to enter the world of one of the most fascinating (if sometimes “difficult”) filmmakers around – and, even more importantly, its “other world.”
- Szaniawski is probably less convincing when he claims that the same Soviet fall is allegorized by Krug vtoroy [The Second Circle, 1990] (p. 90). It is one of those (rather infrequent, and actually barely there at all) moments when his argument seems a little bit far-fetched; another one is, for instance, the comparison between Flaubert’s and Sokurov’s creative practices (p. 86) in the chapter dedicated to Spasi i sokhrani [Save and Protect (1989)], the Russian director’s Madame Bovary.
- In other, non-Sokurovian centuries, the name of this “other life” where the opposite terms do not conflict with each other was “the unconscious.”