Fairy tale

Frame from "Fairy Tale" by Alexander Sokurov/ Disclosure.


Commentary on Aleksander Sokurov's film, showing in cinemas

“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 Sokurov)

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 Alexander Sokurov occupies in the Russian cultural scene – someone who, simultaneously, presents himself as both the public face of experimental cinema and as a 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.

Fairy tale is another stage on this journey, a film that certainly demands a different 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 so-called “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 greatest 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 Fairy tale 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, after all the only non-dictator in the group, 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 Hitler's voice: “there's no place for melancholy here, don't listen to Sokurov, 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 Fairy tale. 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 Alexander Sokurov, backdrops inspired by classics (Gustave Doré, but also the infallible Hubert Robert, the director's favorite) with cartoons of celestial figures.

And the third, the best, the director's brilliant 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 unconscious optics buried somewhere in 20th century visual culture.

But be careful: this is not about deepfake, technology that masks movement and is categorically rejected 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 saying, in their respective original languages, these, let's say, lines – only Jesus' whispers are uncredited.

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

*João Lanari Bo He is a professor of cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasília (UnB). Author, among other books, of Cinema for Russians, Cinema for Soviets (Time Bazaar). [https://amzn.to/45rHa9F]


Fairy tale (Skazka)
Russia, Belgium, 2022, 79 minutes.
Direction and script: Aleksander Sokurov.
Narration: Alexander Sagabashi, Vakhtang Kuchava, Fabio Mastrangelo.

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