Alexandr Sokúrov

Eliezer Markowich Lissitzky, Photogram, superimposition, 1930


Considerations on the work of the Russian filmmaker

After all, when will it be possible to end this anachronistic and deadly war affecting Ukrainian soil? Many supposedly experts on the international scene insist that this is a mere unfolding of the larger conflict, similar to the Cold War, which opposes two empires, Russian and North American – as if the post-Berlin wall fragmentation did not exist and the emergence of new (the former Soviet republics) and old states (the subservient surroundings) had no influence on Vladimir Putin's decision to invade his neighbor.

The war in Ukraine is, above all, an intensification of Russia's conflict with what it considers its area of ​​influence – not even the Russians know where their nation's territory ends and where it begins, as Václav Havel said, it bears repeating. In other words: a country so large that it is not physically possible to be occupied, or inhabited; Too cold, there is no invading military force capable of surviving in those conditions.

The war will end without winners on either side: Russia will never recognize defeat – this is the opinion expressed by Alexandr Sokúrov, who concludes: “Russia's problem is the great crisis caused by the war that the country is experiencing”. One of the main names in cinema at the turn of the millennium, Alexandr Sokúrov experienced the transition from communism to democracy in the 1990s, and subsequently calibrated a cinema full of historicity – fiction and documentary.

His first feature film, The lonely voice of man, was shot in 1978 as a course completion (VGIK), but ended up being rejected. Inspired by a text by a prestigious name, Andrei Platónov, the film privileged the writer's peculiar spirit, his caustic attitude towards the brutality of the world of men – and bypassed the traps of conventional narrative, so much in keeping with the relatively prosperous Brezhnev period, conservative and without political imagination. Stagnated, as Gorbachev said.

The film had its negative and positive copies destroyed. Alexandr Sokúrov obtained his diploma with a previous documentary he had made for television, in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod). It is not known how he managed to save a copy and display it in the studio Lenfilm: came to glasnost by Gorbachev and the work was released in 1987, with a dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky.


Made in 2011 and inspired by the famous auspicious, by Goethe, Alexandr Sokúrov's film seems contaminated by a fluid substance, uncomfortable and incompatible with the contemporary world of transparency and advertising design: it was conceived as a negative of the dominant visual order, which combines asepsis and computerized image. We are facing an attempt to purify humanity, through the absorption of the demonic, the tartaric – matter “reflects on its tartaric nature… and derides the allegorical meaning that is lent to it”.

Poetic meaning of tartar: belonging to or relating to hell or tartar. The quote is from Walter Benjamin, apud Haroldo de Campos, who published a book on the subject with a cinematic title: God and the Devil in Goethe's Faust.

The Faustian universe, as we can see, can trigger a speculative derivation far beyond the limits of the present text. Goethe, this multiple character who lived in the transition from the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century, occupies a central place there: the character Faust, who flirts and sells his soul to the devil, occupied the prodigious mind of the German poet and scientist for fifty years, as he admitted to an interlocutor at the end of his life: “the materials (about Faust) have accumulated to such a point that the difficulty is to separate and reject them; but it may be an advantage that I have not written this until now, when my knowledge of the world is much clearer.”

Alexandr Sokúrov did not hesitate and jumped headlong into this dense and busy tradition. There are those who say that his film owes more to the legendary Dr. Faust of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries – origin of the tradition: astrologer, doctor, alchemist and wizard who circulated at the end of the German medieval festival – than to an adaptation of Goethe's work.

Many used the Faustian myth in artistic productions, before and after Goethe: Alexandr Sokúrov's faithful collaborator, Yuri Arabov, is another one of them. He certainly took advantage of several features of the second part of the film in his script. auspicious by Goethe, but extrapolates and updates the myth to the power of cinema. Perhaps it is in this junction, Dr. Fausto's occultism and contemporary visuality, that the strength of language moves the film.

At various times, watch auspicious generates an unavoidable feeling of repulsion, anesthetized by the faded colors that illustrate the image – there are no warm colors to comfort, like red. Countless readings have already been made about the light and chromaticism worked on by the Russian director: his visual poetics, as critics say, is a kind of condensation of the history of art. In this tragic-romantic plot, Alexandr Sokúrov's virtuosity serves as a buffer for characters who seem one step away from the state of putrefaction, not only of the body, but of the soul.

There is no naturalism in this world: bodies move slowly, difficult gestures, gases and smells, unlikely walks in mud and gravel settings, a heavy atmosphere. Bodily excesses characterize the demon-character, Mephistopheles, who is also a moneylender called Mauricius (fantastic performance by mime Anton Adasinsky): his body is grotesque, an accumulation of flesh and fat with the sex of a child, revealed in a hallucinated collective bath. In contrast, our Faust, full body, is a doctor-scientist, eager for secular pleasures and open to a diabolical pact.

The cinematographic window chosen in itself is disturbing – 1.37, the so-called academic window, widely used until the 1950s – and increases the claustrophobic sensation. In the work of Alexandr Sokúrov, auspicious closes a tetralogy about the great despots of the XNUMXth century, Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito. What is the relationship between a character like Faust, tormented by the damnation that separates body and soul, with the essence that informs the historical protagonists of Moloch, Tauros e The sun? Perhaps – as the critic of the Cahiers du cinema, Cyril Béghin – the “historicism of previous films must itself give way to the more fundamental relationship of bodies and substances”.

The impression is that we slide over a liquid and distended mass, eventually crossed by sound and visual suspensions, which inhabit the subsoil of History. When writing the script and producing the film, Alexandr Sokúrov and Yuri Arabov concentrated the Faustian dilemma in the character's moral agitation, in his incessant mix of restlessness and exaltation.

auspicious It is also a symptom of the complex relations between Germany and Russia, punctuated by extreme violence, but also by high cultural and philosophical interactions. The two countries share several similarities: Putin himself lived in East Germany at the beginning of his KGB career and speaks German. When he won the Venice Golden Lion in 2011, the director received a call from the Russian President, and declared, on stage: “The film would not have come to light if Putin had not made the financing possible”. Alexandr Sokúrov explained that Vladimir Putin invited him to his country house to discuss the project; then a charitable fund in St. Petersburg disbursed the necessary resources.

The lonely voice

Between 2011, when auspicious was released, until 2022, the director's production vigor cooled. The exception was Francophonie: Louvre under occupation, from 2015 – the rest of the time was dedicated to teaching cinema, he revealed. In 2015, one year after the annexation of Crimea – that is, year one of the war in Ukraine – Alexandr Sokúrov revisits the museum scene to hypostatize the death of art. A Napoleon lookalike wanders through the Louvre galleries, rambling about art and politics, with the voice of Alexandr Sokúrov. The museum's fabulous artistic stock is one step away from its end, under the Nazi occupation: the stock is above all the human stock, the portraits, the statues. “What would have happened to the history of Europe if the portrait had not appeared?” Napoleon asks himself.

Relations between the filmmaker and Vladimir Putin deteriorated from the Russian leader's third term in office, after the 2012 elections and the protests that followed. In June 2014, Alexandr Sokúrov received a lifetime achievement award at the Sochi film festival, and declared: “So many people are deprived of their freedom in our country. There have always been, are and will be people who will protect the interests of democracy in our country, which is now in an unhealthy state. If I could, I would go to the president and say: 'Mr President, release all those who are imprisoned!'”.

In 2019, Alexandr Sokúrov announced that he would close the activities of the foundation he had created in 2013, aimed at supporting young film talents. The previous year, the Saint Petersburg police launched an investigation into the embezzlement of funds from the Ministry of Culture intended for the organization, which was ultimately unproven. A local news website reported that Vladimir Putin expressed “negative emotion” about the matter and asked the governor to investigate the allegations “strictly within the limits of the law,” given the director’s importance to Russian culture. It was not enough, however, to dispel the filmmaker's concerns.

The most serious dispute would occur at a meeting (by video conference) of the Human Rights Council, in December 2021 – the advisory body was created in 2004 and has 47 members, including Alexandr Sokúrov.

Leaving the script of the meeting, he stated that Russians are increasingly undesirable in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus, adding: “We will free all those who no longer want to live with us in a single state. We wish them luck. We wish good luck to all these padixás.” Although he did not explicitly name it, his criticism was directed at Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, accused of crimes against humanity, including murders, enforced disappearances and torture – and an ally of Vladimir Putin.

The response was harsh, according to the transcript of the meeting available on the Kremlin website: “I have known you for a long time and I have respect for you,” Putin said indignantly to the director. “You always speak sincerely, but not always accurately. There are 2.000 different claims to the territory of Russia. Don't look for trouble, as we say. This is something that needs to be addressed very seriously... Before speaking, it is important to think carefully. It is better to expose many things openly, but there are other times when it is better to remain silent.” “Don’t make trouble,” he concluded.

Kadyrov, on his Telegram channel, called the filmmaker a “gossip grandmother”, “bazaar aunt” and “corrupt bastard”. And he added: “Sokúrov was too cowardly to mention my name, but everyone knows who he is talking about. I'm not the president, I'm not padixá. I am the head of the Chechen Republic.”


“Strictly speaking, the surface of the cinematographic screen and the painting canvas are the same thing… the cinematic image must be created according to the canons of painting, because there are no others” (Alexander Sokúrov)

Only Russia would be capable of producing a filmmaker willing to make a statement like that, made in an interview with the magazine ArtForum, in 2001 – a logical proposition that articulates two initially incongruous sets, as if cinema were nothing else, in visual terms, than an imitation of painting. Critic Roger Bird sees this paradox as a possible explanation for the position that Alexandr Sokúrov occupies in the Russian cultural scene – someone who, simultaneously, presents himself as both the public face of experimental cinema and the spokesperson for aesthetic traditionalism. His enormous production, since Soviet times, is exemplary as a formal innovation, whether in terms of optics or narrative – and is also a tribute to the artistic tradition of this immense country.

Fairytale – Shadows of the Old World, released in 2022, is another stage on this journey, a film that certainly demands differentiated consumption in the contemporary audiovisual flow: unique and bold image construction devices, at the same time in tune with the modernity that knocks daily at our doors – the call metaverse – and grounded in a desert of abandoned classical buildings, rubble, fog, skeletal trees, scenes from the engravings of Gustav Doré, in a word, purgatory.

What is purgatory if not a metaverse? It was Pope Benedict XVI who suggested that purgatory is the full experience of Jesus' gaze, which takes the form of a “fiery blessing”. Jesus, in fact, is the main supporting character of this adventure, whose protagonists are bearers of the biggest egos of the 20th century (for lack of a more refined characterization): Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill, not necessarily in that order. Of course, we are in Eurocentric territory, but let's face it, the impact of this quartet on the world order crossed oceans and continents.

Em Fairytale – Shadows of the Old World these specters walk slowly, like a video game in slow motion, crossing paths with each other and their doubles, making jokes and provocations, eventually confirming political assertions – and waiting, as expected, for access to paradise.

“Get up, you lazy person”, mutters Stalin to Jesus, before leaving the dungeon they shared and entering the gray, charcoal-streaked space, full of ruins and open fields, magmas of sufferers crying out for the salvation of their souls, for the atonement of the sins (Jesus, clever, retorts in Aramaic and does not follow the Soviet). Outside, walking as if immersed in amniotic fluid, Hitler mutters – “Stalin smells like sheep.” Churchill takes up and adapts a famous line – “I offer nothing but tears, sweat and death” – and spends the rest of the time trying to communicate with the Queen.

Mussolini, the braggart, envies Hitler's hat and shouts: “Everything will come back, I just need to cross the Rubicon” – and, to irritate Stalin, he ventures: “Lenin liked me!”. Hitler is not far behind: “Stalin, you are a Caucasian Jew, a rare type!” The Red Army commander doesn’t let it go: “You smell like burning meat, Hitler, you smell like your past.” Someone freaks out and exclaims: “Malevich, Malevich, damn Malevich!” – a short pause of pictorial reflection, followed by self-criticism from the director himself, in the voice of Hitler: “there is no place for melancholy here, don’t listen to Sokúrov, look ahead”. And Churchill concludes: “Germans and communists are everywhere, they can be distinguished by smell”.

Pataphysical dialogues are the first layer of estrangement in Fairytale – Shadows of the Old World. In this madhouse of wandering souls, even Napoleon, the object of admiration of the Leader, has its moment – ​​a kind of gatekeeper from Heaven. The second layer would be the visual mix orchestrated by Alexandr Sokúrov, backdrops inspired by classics (Doré, but also the infallible Hubert Robert, his favorite) with cartoons by celestial figures.

And the third, the best idea: the generation of images of the Stalins, Hitlers, Churchills and Mussolinis from newsreels and photographs – thus recovering an imaginary of gestures, smiles, body movements and small expressions, an optical unconscious buried somewhere of XNUMXth century visual culture.

But be careful: this is not about deepfake, technology that masks movement and is categorically repudiated by the filmmaker. The initial process was analogical: examining hundreds of hours of archival material, gathering phrases that the protagonists said, particularly about wars. The combination of text and image was the organizing principle of the film. When Stalin looks at the camera, what was going through his mind? or when Hitler thought about something, the moment someone spoke to him? And so on: each of the characters has an actor reproducing, in their respective original languages, these, let's say, lines – only Jesus' whispers are not credited.

“I wanted only the true protagonists to appear in my film; not actors, not computer images, just the real protagonists,” she asserted. From this trip to the depths of purgatory, in the best Dantesque style, one certainty remained, still in the words of Alexandr Sokúrov: “the Second World War is not over yet”.


After Kadyrov's post reacting to the comment made at the Human Rights Council meeting, Alexandr Sokúrov began to receive threats. He then sent an open letter to the Council in which he declared himself a “dilettante” in political matters and apologized to his fellow members: “My friends are warning me that my life is in danger. The only guarantee of my safety lies in the President’s ability to avoid this radical outcome,” he wrote.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov then stated that the director could count on the protection of Vladimir Putin, adding that “nothing happened that required any kind of apology”.

At 72 years old, Alexandr Sokúrov's life has become hell. In March 2022, weeks after the invasion of Ukraine, he predicted that Vladimir Putin would fall “in two months”. He started having all kinds of difficulties traveling abroad in order to participate in festivals and promote his film, Fairytale – Shadows of the Old World. He also criticized the control of the media, sharpened by the war: “Having so much evil coming from state television. Not just propaganda, but true malice. I've never seen that.”

Finally, he got permission to attend a festival in Portugal in November 2022. At the time, he reflected: “Despite knowing Putin personally, I don't know him well enough to include him in my 'fairy tale'. I know Hitler, Stalin and Churchill much better than contemporary leaders.”

*João Lanari Bo is a professor of cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasília (UnB), author of, among other books, Cinema for Russians, Cinema for Soviets (Ed. Bazar do Tempo). []

the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank