Perhaps the most rarefied of working filmmakers, Alexander Sokurov may also possess contemporary cinema’s most original vision. Feel free to stump for the dynamo of your choice, but by comparison, Godard, Kiarostami, Hou, Angelopoulos, Tarr, and Wong are realists: their films accessibly objective, their temporal journeys palpably human, their cultural ideas easily scanned. Indeed, legacy builders like Tarkovsky, Antonioni, and Bergman are laymen’s metaphysicians when weighed against Sokurov, who often floats off into his own ether, unconcerned whether his audience will follow. Only avant-gardists care less for drama, character, and psychology. An instinctual poet in a world marketplace of narrative orthodoxy—a Pound among paperback novelists—Sokurov launches from a recognizably historical or cultural starting line, but he runs the race alone, engaging the powers of heaven and earth to refashion experience to his expressionistic specifications.
For Sokurov, movies are dreams—not similar to our sleeping deliriums, but free-standing plastic dream-worlds. Whatever expectations we have be damned. (My favorite Sokurov quote: “A director is like a cook in a restaurant who doesn’t know the stomachs of his guests. . . . The viewer comes to the theater and begins to eat time. Some of it he digests, some of it he doesn’t digest. That can make him sick or irritated. Painting knows no such phenomenon, nor does literature. We could call it the curse of film.”) Even when exploring familiar territory (adapting Shaw or Flaubert, chronicling pivotal moments for Hitler or Lenin), Sokurov’s scrupulous anti-narrative manner and demiurgical authority with visual mood transshape it all into extraterrestrial mirage.
As this semi-thorough MOMA retro only hints, Sokurov isn’t all convex warpings and misty vistas. For one thing, he has an accessible alternative persona: as a prolific documentarian and found-footage filmmaker. Since the first films of 1978, he has been relentlessly re-examining the cultural bowel movements of Nazism and Soviet Communism; brilliant amalgamations of historical images like 1979’s Sonata for Hitler are never distanced from their contexts as his later fascist portraits are. That short, like all of Sokurov’s films made before 1987, has two dates—completion and exhibition—since his entire 10-year output prior to perestroika was shuttered away by the censors. Indeed, that year acts as hinge; before it, Sokurov’s impressionism was rough and scattershot, wearing Godard’s footprint by way of Makavejev’s junkpilings. Mournful Indifference (1983), a wacky, self-inspecting version of Heartbreak House, folds in, among other things, archival footage of World War I, famine-beset Africans, and Shaw himself.
The bridge film between his first decade’s essays into historicized metafilm and the subsequent, fame-making fata morganas is Days of the Eclipse (1988), a patience-testing post-apocalyptic dawdle (based on a novel by the Strugatsky brothers) that plays more like aimless third-world doc than science fiction. Concerning a young doctor stuck in the middle of a rocky wasteland (actually, Turkmenistan, though it could easily pass for any post-colonial hunk of Africa), Days is maddeningly oblique, visually erratic, and utterly disconnective. Angels, earthquakes, talking corpses, Stalinist iconography, and visual disjunctions may figure in, but for the most part Sokurov designed the film as an elusive tissue of non-happenings and mysterious nexuses, all of it sucking the dusty air of Soviet-satellite poverty.
With Save and Protect (1989), his startling, freely associative version of Madame Bovary, Sokurov was immediately hailed as Tarkovsky’s heir. The movie is as meditative and brooding as his subsequent masterpieces—Second Circle (1990), Stone (1992), Whispering Pages (1993), and Mother and Son (1996)—but there’s hardly anything Tarkovskyan about the synergy between Sokurov’s shadowy atmospherics and the sociopolitical subjects he tackles. In his ’90s films (which include his breath-catchingly gorgeous video elegies, peaking with 1996’s Oriental Elegy and 2001’s Elegy of a Voyage), Sokurov has established a unique voice: crepuscular, fog-shrouded, soaked in woe, cunningly accented by layered dissolves and reflected distortions, seemingly in control of the very troposphere.
Owing more to painters (famously, Caspar David Friedrich) than other filmmakers, Sokurov evolved significantly between Second Circle‘s gritty funereal specificity and Mother and Son‘s flushed abstraction. But his primary material has always been film’s ambivalent intercourse between light and shadow. (He uses a number of different cinematographers, and sometimes does the shooting himself.) Though his latest features, Moloch (1999) and Taurus (2000), seem misguided—investigating Hitler and Lenin, respectively, and sliding into psychodramatic regions Sokurov has little fluency with—they are still steeped in his distinctive storminess. All movies are dreams, but watching his films can be like slowly waking from a dawn sleepwalk, moist with sweat and one step away from a cliff edge.