Originally published in Senses of Cinema issue 61, December 2011.
This interview took place at the end of 2006 at the International Film festival Mannheim–Heidelberg where Aleksandr Sokurov was honoured with the Master of Cinema Award. We were granted a little more than 45 minutes. The equivalent of the duration of Mozart’s Requiem. Over time, we believe the interview has not lost any of its significance, on the contrary. The necessity of the uncompleted; yet everything that needs to happen, happens in between. There is a tree of knowledge and there is a tree of life and sometimes it is the same tree. Terrence Malick was not mentioned during the interview. The interview was originally published in the Slovenian film magazine Ekran (2006/7); English translation by Urša Kozic
Time will not allow us to include as much silence into this conversation as one can find in your films and for this reason, we apologize in advance.
You rejected the nomination of the Russian Film Academy for Solntse (The Sun, 2004) saying: “I find it unnatural when my fellow citizens know my name but not my films.” It seems you are rejecting yourself as an icon – a gesture of iconoclasm?
I’ve never thought of myself in that way. It’s not quite so, I didn’t compare myself to anything. I am a citizen of Russia, I pay taxes, the country invests money in my films and therefore I answer to my fellow citizens for my work. This is the most formal side of it; the civil one. I have a very difficult and complicated relationship with the directors of all the television channels in Russia, because I publicly criticize them all the time for preferring commercial American films and thus slowing down the development of the national cinema. They don’t present national films on TV or in cinemas. As a citizen, I protest as much as I can, and I refuse to participate at such festivals.
Your films can be compared to the images of Our Lady – they stay hidden throughout the year and appear only on a holy day. Besides more or less legal DVD copies, the only opportunity to see them are festivals, events of a rather profane character, a retrospective… The cult function of your art inevitably prevails over its exhibition function.
This is the situation, that’s how it is. The films are in fact accessible, six or eight of them appeared on DVD, one can buy them in Petersburg or Moscow, one can order them. You know, this doesn’t worry me, how should I put it… A film doesn’t need a viewer, a viewer needs a film. He who seeks, finds. Hopefully, he is not disappointed, because I make films which are not perfect, which are full of mistakes. Hopefully, he is not disappointed. Coming across a viewer that has crossed some distance to find a film has more importance to me. Who has not found himself in a cinema by chance? It’s similar with a book – you have to find a way to it. You have to make an effort to read it. Films shouldn’t be intrusive, aggressive, they have to be humble and remain at their place on the vertical of the global culture. Somewhere low. At the bottom. Literature, painting, music, architecture, science and so on are at the top. Film is just a radical instrument. Surgery. It’s easy to make the mistake of giving it too much importance, since people underestimate the power of the visual. The visual can ruin man’s entire inner world. It’s far more dangerous than any nuclear weapon, ecological catastrophes, diseases… Because the wounds inflicted by it cannot be healed. We have to be more careful.
When we think about your filmography, we mostly refer to the screen or rather the plane. Not to the things that are happening on it, but to the plane itself, let’s call it Sokurov’s plane. The plane of numinous presence. As in the case of an icon, Malevich or your kindred spirit Petrov-Vodkin.
You are an ideal viewer. This is also understandable considering your Slavic soul. We are related, we share the same blood, so to speak. You feel this like… You feel it with a soul.
It’s like the continuation of the end of Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de champagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951), when the screen breaks free from the image.
I love Bresson. I have a small collection of his films at home and I watch them very closely again and again. It’s like reading poetry. I don’t particularly like films and I also don’t understand them very well. For me, watching a film presents a strain of a special kind. However, when watching Bresson, I feel completely free and am scared of nothing. I’m not scared of anything. No wonder the French don’t understand or appreciate him at all. There’s nothing strange about it, he is too great even for a country like France.
Roundness and flatness of the plane recall the formula of God: sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. Like a Chinese drawing, into which we dive when it surrounds us from all sides. Like da Vinci’s circle in which Tarkovsky is crucified. How does this tendency advance from the technological point of view?
An extremely difficult question, it’s hard to decide where to start; with the technology which is very important or with the philosophy. It’s dangerous to discuss philosophical themes in films, since the directors often deceive the viewers. They create false philosophical space, so-called philosophical ideas, which in reality don’t mean a thing. And then we don’t know what we want, what we need. For me, film is neither a circumference nor a sphere, but flatness. Literature has taught me this. For now, film is just flat and still far away from the dimension of a sphere, from the cosmic universality of a sphere. Film is still primitive.
When Borges catches sight of Aleph, he sees horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea, he sees cancer, the most metaphysical disease, he sees a ring of baked mud, where before there had been a tree. From the visions-juxtapositions of an early Skorbnoye beschuvstviye (Mournful Unconcern, 1987), past the diaries–elegies to Russkiy kovcheg (Russian Ark, 2002), Aleph is always there.
You ask difficult questions. Very complex ones. In order to answer this question, one should write a dissertation. It’s already being written? Then I will have to read it, but twice, I won’t return it immediately.
The cave man painted animals in order to make contact with the spirits, not the “living”. In Dni zatmeniya, (Days of Eclipse 1988) a boy that is found by a doctor on his doorstep reminds us of a girl from Nostalghia (Nostalgia, 1983). Both being angels, simply because they don’t have wings. From the moment the boy appears, the radio speaks only Italian. A session with Tarkovsky who passed away just before the film was made?
Of course there isn’t any direct relation, more an indirect one. In Days of Eclipse we hear a recording of a mass, which was recorded by Zefira in Switzerland. I found it musical, completely angelic; how people speak without repetition. I have fallen under the spell of joy of the Catholic mass. Sometimes when I listen to the mass in the Orthodox Church, it seems to me that people are doing this because of an obligation. This foreign freedom bursting from the Catholic prayer didn’t seem inhumane, unusual. This is exactly what I demand of my protagonist: be braver, be freer, be afraid of nothing, there’s nothing worse than death. Be kind, be patient. Make your own decisions. Don’t let anybody force you into making decisions. The protagonist of Days of Eclipse is a Russian who lives in a foreign environment, among Asians and Muslims. Of course, he is going through hard times, he is lonely, and Russians, Russian men make decisions too late. I don’t know how it is with you, but we decide too late. I became afraid for my protagonist: won’t he be too late, won’t he miss it, isn’t he too slow? That’s why a prayer can be heard, without spiritual connotations. The elementary necessity of the subject. It’s hard to combine film and philosophy. Philosophy is a hyper-abstraction, a cosmic abstraction, film is still just hyperreal. It is different from literature in the fact that the director must tell everything to the end, whether he wants to or not. Even if he is misleading, hiding something, even then. Even when we’re watching such mysterious films as that of Tarkovsky. He also has to show everything; how the girl is leaving, how the mother is watching, the disappointed gaze of the girl, sunk in reverie, Stalker’s gazes and so on. He shows us everything in a very precise manner, you just have to be smart enough to see it all. This is not the case with literature. A writer can stop at the right time and doesn’t tell everything to the end. The problem facing directors is that they tell everything. Even the most mysterious ones.
Show everything, yet keep an enigma.
I try. I keep hold of myself all the time, I compare what I do with the procedures in literature or painting, in the nature of the work of a writer, painter or a musician who doesn’t play something to the end. You have to know when to stop. Which is not always achieved, it’s very difficult, very. This is God’s task, only God… and even he made a mistake, he didn’t stop on time. Even he was overcome by laziness and created a woman just from a rib. Do you understand?
Even God is a stranger. You often say you would rather be directing radio dramas than films. A stranger like Kafka who wrote in German. You, the outsider, achieve the most inside results.
Yes, I am a stranger in film. I know it and feel it and that is why I don’t envy anyone or worry about it. There are many things I don’t know, so I don’t have to envy or compare.
Heresy: if there is no God, everything can be divine; if there is no place of birth, home is everywhere. Your village Podorvikha has submerged during the construction of a hydroelectric power plant, you are a son of Atlantis.
No. I am a son of Atlantis, but not in that sense, more in the sense that I am a Russian, I live in a culture which is not formed, which remains uncompleted, which is out of joint, intertwined with socio-political processes, transitions of power, with the stupidity of the people, their mistakes and crimes. With the forsakenness of the people. I believe that the Church also abandoned the people in order to be closer to power. It’s what I believe, I could be wrong. It’s very hard to be a Russian. Getting harder every year. Many turn to Russia, but its people are ill. They are counting on the support of the people who aren’t cured themselves. It’s very hard to be a Russian, an enormous culture on the one hand and a culture which coexists very badly with the people on the other. The people are not interested in culture, it is torn away from them. It has always been like this. A very difficult situation.
Isn’t it – precisely for this reason – necessary to bet on the overlooked Russian-American alliance, the kinship between Russian religious thought and American transcendentalism? Thoureau’s Walden is supposed to be Tarkovsky’s favourite book.
Oh, oh, I don’t know. Such a mess has come out of this, you have mixed up everything. Such mixtures and influences do not exist in culture and art, it’s artificial. Your view on art is dictated by your education. Of course you are right to see it that way.
The visions of the landscape, ceaseless monologues, the company of brothers…
Have you seen Povinnost (Confession, 1998) and Dukhovnye golosa (Spiritual Voices, 1995)? Where have you seen them, how did you obtain them? On DVDs? Then I do understand what you are asking me. How a man feels in the army, that’s a completely different, independent point. It’s something a woman will never be able to understand; why a company of soldiers is so important to husbands and brothers. A great and a serious theme that nobody in global culture has dealt with. What is happening to a man? The entire culture is based on feminism, on women. This is probably understandable and necessary. The entire art revolves around women.
Otets i syn (Father and Son, 2003) are wondering how to stay together as brothers without life separating them. Domenico, from Nostalgia, locks his family in a house.
I wanted to make a couple of films about situations in which there is too much love. Not too little of it, too much.
The possibilities of brotherhood; don’t you see the connection between Moby Dick and the sea as your films see it? The connection between the house in the woods in Walden and the one in which Mat i syn (Mother and Son, 1997) are embracing each other?
Thank God so many analogies can be found in culture and that they are so noble. After all, it is true that everything has been said in the Bible stories, everything is there. There can no longer be new motives, novelties. Nothing new can happen in art, art is completed. However, there can be a new human in art. Art is an already built house in which a new human can enter. But the house itself is already built. That is why it is unreasonable to imagine one could create new art. Something new. Impossible. Maybe somewhere else: in design, psychiatry, pharmacology, science. Achieving this in art is, in my opinion, impossible. Thank God it is complete.
Adi and Eva from Molokh (1999) are also biblical figures. Agreeing with Kleist: the only way to return grace and mercy is to eat again from the tree of knowledge.
How else? Of course. If Hitler had come to us as an infection from the moon, it would have been simple, we would have treated the infection. But he is a human, that’s the problem. Nazism developed inside of a human’s head. In a head such as ours. Which means it can spring up inside every head. More or less. That’s the horror.
Hitler as a haiku poet. Does the Shoah have its own poetry?
I can’t comment. I don’t know. This is very complicated.
Does one have overcome oneself in order to be in a landscape completely, to become the sky, the sea, the mist, does Mozart become a notation, beyond life and death?
And after that, what? You have formulated an idea which I can’t object to. A precise formulation.
Okay, how come a tree is the most perfect form? A trunk with a halo?
You said that. I don’t object. In the form of a tree there is some kind of volume, because a tree is an animal and a plant, a strength, but also a weakness. A tree is dying standing, dying beautifully, even a dead tree is of vital importance and can live forever. It’s very beautiful in its essence. It has been beautifully conceived. If God had done that, he did a really good job. He created a woman just from a rib, yet he designed a tree in such detail. Tell me, why is that? How come just from a rib, was he in a hurry or something? But a tree is so well thought out. In general, he was much more creative with plants. It was more interesting creating them than a human. The plant life is extremely diverse and immensely beautiful. Evidently it took him more than just seven days to create it, it took him much more.
Adam & Eve (the man-director & the woman-translator):
Can you tell me why God created a woman just from a rib?
I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.
I have asked a lot of people about this, but nobody could answer me.
I don’t know. I don’t want to think about this.
Too bad. You refuse to, others refuse it too. Who will answer my question?
Who said that this is even true?
Now you have answered. So the Bible is a lie?
I don’t know.
Neither do I.