Aleksandr Sokurov: Alexandra (Aleksandra, 2007)
reviewed by Nancy Condee © 2007
Sokurov's Chechnia: Aleksandr Sokurov's Alexandra (2007)
Aleksandra Nikolaevna visits her grandson, a Russian soldier serving in Chechnia. Everyone—soldiers and Chechens alike—treat her respectfully. The grandmother spends two nights and heads home to St. Petersburg.
Three questions come to mind, of which the first two are somewhat childlike. First, does this story make any sense? Second, what does Sokurov think about Chechnia? And third—the only real question for Sokurophiles—what kind of Sokurov is this? I will concentrate on the last question, since its answer—right or wrong—will perhaps lend the other two questions more significance.
Thematically, Alexandra is a contribution to Sokurov's cluster of family portraits, familiar to us from Mother and Son (Mat' i syn, 1996) and Father and Son (Otets i syn, 2003), as well as their promised continuation, Two Brothers and a Sister. This assignment, of course, is not indisputable. If one cared to, one could claim Alexandra as a variant of Sokurov's abiding interest in military service, as in Spiritual Voices (Dukhovnye golosa, 1995) and Confession (Ispoved', 1998), but it would not matter much. Like family portraiture, the military cluster is another thematic inventory and not the most interesting kind of analysis. Let us, therefore, conditionally retain Alexandra in the cluster of family portraiture in order to make several other points.
Sokurov's first family portrait, Mother and Son, had been closer as a medium to painting than to story-telling, while his subsequent Father and Son offered a greater balance between visual and narrative modes. If, in Mother and Son, cameraman Aleksei Fedorov's painterly depth and anamorphic stretch moved story-telling to the sidelines—pushed it “out of the picture,” as it were—then Father and Son returned to us the reassuring narrative drive of certain earlier films. Alexandra, while sharing portraiture with both films, follows the structural lead of Father and Son in providing an understated but steady plot. Absent is not only the anamorphism of Mother and Son, but other camera and editing devices as well: the documentary inserts of Mournful Indifference (Skorbnoe beschuvstvie, 1983; released 1987), the extreme anatomical close-ups of Taurus (Telets, 2000), the digital animation and hallucinatory episodes of Sun (Solntse, 2004).
In place of this visual play, we have a subdued picture of Chechnia, a land without bloodshed, a place where the most violent conflicts are mild verbal rebukes. For a filmmaker who has returned again and again to the topic of death, and for whom Chechnia would be another opportunity to do so, Alexandra is striking in its indifference to this trope. Likewise absent here—perhaps because of its potential colonialist valence in this context—is Sokurov's recurring preoccupation with high culture—and European elite culture in particular—as a resource of human wisdom. Instead, Sokurov's soundtrack emphasizes original music by Andre Sigle. His aural design of the film attempts none of the ideological assertions of Russia's cultural contribution to which we are accustomed in Sokurov from Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002) and elsewhere.
To situate Alexandra accurately, however, one must still consider the director's growing disregard for plot, its secular and earthbound status, even at the same time as it is offered to us in Alexandra. Here the issue is not the presence or absence of plot (as in Mother and Son), but its status, the filmmaker's changing relationship to it as a kind of spiritual lapse. Narrative—a profane if necessary element of filmmaking—occupies a low status in Sokurov's world. “If the film is based on the principle of the story, the narrative,” he insists unequivocally, “it is not art” (“An Interview” 18). Iurii Arabov, his frequent scriptwriter, confirms this preference: “A large part of the films of world cinema,” Arabov asserts in an interview with Irina Liubarskaia, “are anchored in the plot. Aleksandr Nikolaevich goes against this flood” (110).
Sokurov's films may sometimes be stylistically ornamented, decorative, even self-trivializing, akin in certain ways to Muratova's work. Films of this ornamental type are filled with pageantry, spectacle, and extravagant distraction. They are often thickly plotted—such as Mournful Indifference —but they need not be; Russian Ark, for example, has little substantive plot other than the flow of rooms and history, but is an example of the ornamental Sokurov.
Opposed to this stylistic ornamentalism is the Sokurov who is austere and uncluttered, whose value lies in texture and severity: Mother and Son is the best-known example, but his military documentaries and his lesser-known Japanese stories are others. While these austere films tend to lack plot, this is not universally the case, and Alexandra is an example of a plotted, austere film.  These two key oppositions—one that cares about the medium (painting/narrative), the other, style (ornamental/austere)—help to define the kind of cinema we see in Sokurov's newest work.
Increasingly, plot may be present—for those inhabiting the secular world, as it were—but is no longer permitted to drive the film. Moloch (1999), for example, restrains itself to Hitler's one-day visit, relatively eventless, at Kehlsteinhaus. Taurus is one day late in Lenin's life, a day when he (ostentatiously, one might argue) does not die, but will soon. Sun is one day in Hirohito's life when he makes a single important decision: he will stop being God. All three films—his unfinished Great Leader tetralogy—gain symbolic weight by restricting the temporal setting to a single day. Beyond its investment in family portraiture, Alexandra at the same time also participates in these same nychthemeral rhythms: the grandmother spends one full day at the encampment, with a night on either side.
This, then, is the Sokurov we are seeing in Alexandra: a visual austerity and a subdued plot line; a tightly constricted time frame in which little happens. The initial, obvious link with Sokurov's family films—earlier, a mother or father and a son; here, a grandmother and grandson—gains greater complexity in one deeply erotic episode. As the grandson Denis nuzzles his grandmother, then combs out and braids her thin, grey hair, we see traces (surely, I would like to think, a provocational retort on Sokurov's part) of the same family eroticism to which Western critics had reacted in Father and Son .
The film's lead, Aleksandra Nikolaevna, sensitively performed by the opera diva Galina Vishnevskaia, is by turns intimate and abrupt, poised and clumsy, fragile and self-sufficient, ornery and dear. As she navigates the military compound and the nearby Chechen marketplace, she brings to mind three figures. The first, inevitably perhaps, is a variant of Mother Russia, most specifically the figure in I. M. Toidze's 1941 poster The Motherland is Calling! (Rodina-mat' zovet!), the World War II image of a full-figured older woman with a head scarf and a strong imperial mission statement, backed up—just in case—by bayonets. A second association (I like to think, with some humor on Sokurov's part) is the grandmother as a military general: a general-transvestite who inspects the troops, queries the soldiers, peers through the rifle scope and pulls the trigger, approves of the discipline, and rides in the tank. It would be tempting to misread these shots as Sokurov's final verdict on the war: if the grandmother is happy, then the war must be good. But this shot, coming in mid-film, is not the end of his argument and to see it as a conclusion would be a misreading of the film's structure. A third association—given the similarity of “Aleksandra Nikolaevna” to “Aleksandr Nikolaevich” [Sokurov]—is the grandmother as Sokurov himself, struggling to make sense of the very footage he is shooting, wielding the camera as she learns to wield the Kalashnikov.
Blessedly, however, the grandmother is finally none of these: neither a Mother Russia (ideologically available for all times and all wars), nor a military defender, nor the filmmaker's double. Nor is she, for that matter, Galina Vishnevskaia playing herself. By the film's end, Sokurov makes clear, the grandmother is a specific and limited historical truth, a generational worldview, with its own ethics and blind spots.
What, then, does the film suggest about Sokurov's Chechnia? The film is reserved, yet three pivotal dialogues deserve mention. The first is marked by silence: soldiers, discussing the Motherland, disagree with each other: for one soldier, “all this”—including Chechnia—is Motherland; the other asks derisively what kind of Motherland is this, this alien and degraded space? Aleksandra Nikolaevna turns away from them in fatigue and despair, without a clear position. In a second scene, a dialogue with a Chechen boy who agitates for Russian withdrawal, she replies: “Ask God for reason. Strength is not in weapons.” It would seem that our grandmother is a liberal.
But it is the third scene with her grandson Denis that rescues the film from a humorless portrayal of the all-wise matriarchal totem. Denis berates her for perpetuating the legacy of family tyranny (“someone has always controlled someone else: grandfather controlled you; you controlled my mother; my mother controlled me…”), of indelicacy and intrusiveness (“you always expected us to lift up the blanket [for you to peek underneath]”). As the violence of family relations becomes a metonym of political relations, their family spat suddenly creates a re-alignment of loyalties in the film. Aleksandra Nikolaevna shares as much with the elderly Chechen market-woman as with her grandson. As for the young men—whether the Russian grandson Denis or the Chechen boy—they struggle for independence both in the microcosm of the family and the macrocosm of the region, alike in their desire for privacy and separation. Sokurov's irony is that these young men, with so much in common, are assigned to kill each other.
This ideological re-alignment saves the film from what might otherwise be an oppressively sententious lesson in uncomplicated thinking. It gets director Aleksandr Nikolaevich, so to speak, out of Aleksandra Nikolaevna's attire. In the end, the film suggests that a correct moral answer lies neither with this regal, elderly Leningrader whom one cannot help but admire, nor with her struggling, pragmatic grandson. It lies instead with the passage of time and irrevocable supersession of one mentality, with all its strengths and vulnerabilities, by another, inevitably also as credible as it is flawed.
We are left with one remaining question, perhaps a bit richer now in this context: How could we believe such an incredible plot? After all, the grandmother is unlikely to have been granted such access to the military encampment; unlikely to have been attended to by such solicitous soldiers; unlikely to have been treated with such gentility by the local Chechen population.
So often in Sokurov's work, these failures of verisimilitude point to (what Sokurov would like to see as) the weakness of the question. As in Sun, where Sokurov was unconcerned with the historical Hirohito's atrocities, or in the documentary Leningrad Retrospective (1957-1990) (Leningradskaia retrospektiva (1957-1990), 1990), in which he was hardly concerned with the historical Leningrad, or the television series Spiritual Voices, which bore only the most contingent relation to military service on the Afghan border, Sokurov is keen on establishing what might be thought of as laboratory conditions for the consideration of a specific ethical problem. Here, that question is this: how are these figures—the worthy grandmother, the worthy Russian solider, the worthy Chechen market-woman, and the worthy Chechen neighbor boy—different facets of a truth that, for Sokurov, can only reside beyond the reach of human knowledge, a truth of which cinema—providing it carefully tunes its own apparatus—may provide glimpses?
Sokurov's staging of these conditions suggests that our stance of incredulity is a human failing. He asks us instead to participate in a practice of cinema-watching akin in some respects to religious ritual, also not renowned for verisimilitude. If we were to participate in this ritual—and we certainly need not do so—we would find that his images correspond in no way to unmediated social experience, such as the real-life behavior of Russian troops or Chechen market sellers. Instead, his soldiers and Chechens are dynamic, digital i cons, endowed with “a fairy-tale-like discourse,” as Sokurov had described it with respect to Father and Son, “a narrative that is both universal and extremely rare and strange […] a mythological text” (Sokurov, “An Interview” 26).
Does Sokurov's Alexandra take a stand on Chechnia? Not in the same way that such filmmakers as Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains [Kavkazskii plennik, 1996]) or Aleksandr Rogozhkin (Checkpoint [Blokpost, 1998] ). It is not at their level of either diegetic representation or contemporary controversy that Sokurov enters the debate. Instead, Sokurov suggests that the very passage of time that had created the cultural ties is the same passage of time that will erase them. Generational succession will eliminate the elderly women who have had much in common and it will raise to maturity the young men who, in their struggle to separate and (so far) to kill each other, also have much in common.
The supersession of one generation by another is fraught with terrible losses, in Sokurov's world view. If one turns to his website, Island of Sokurov (Ostrov Sokurova), one finds a monologue on Alexandra, remarkable as much for its insularity as for its conservative, orientalist nostalgia, deserving of quotation despite its length. Sokurov writes:
When an intonation of trust emerges, all else remains insignificant , a ll the more so if everyone speaks in a single language—in Russian. It is very important that people who are different [from one another] have one language. […] Those who negate the value of a situation in which people of various confessions, of various ethnicities and customs have a medium of social contact and approach—the language—deny a great historical and God-given gift. Moreover, in Chechnia and other places in the Caucasus there are those who command a high linguistic culture; among the intelligentsia of the Caucasus are people who have a remarkable mastery of the Russian language, such as one would not encounter in Russia among native speakers. Therefore a great deal of attention [in the film] is devoted to the unifying significance of the Russian language. After all, in Russian it is possible to say anything at all: military men as well as bandits speak in this language. But, above all else, it is the language of unification.
Unsurprising though it is that military men and bandits speak the same language, whether in Russia or elsewhere, we will not be distracted by that detail. Instead, it might be suggested, Sokurov's Aleksandra is a lament for a linguistic and cultural state he knows to be in its twilight stage. Not for nothing in this film are the most competent speakers the two elderly women. More revelatory in the website of Sokurov's conceptual orientation, however, is his delineation between his homeland (“one would not encounter in Russia …”) and Chechnia, as if these were sovereign terrains. It is an old imperial habit, dating back at least to Pushkin, to understand Russia as a strategic alternation between a land distinct from the colonies (ethno-cultural Russia) and a land that includes them (imperial Russia). Sokurov demonstrates his centuries-old loyalties in what is—in itself—a remarkable film, even as the filmmaker himself invokes “trust” and “God-given gift” in terms that are themselves, in the end, astonishingly partisan.
University of Pittsburgh
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Images from the film's press kit, courtesy ProLine Film.
1] The difference is not reducible to different cameramen alone: two other very different cameramen, Sergei Iurizditskii, DoP for Mournful Indifference, and Aleksandr Burov, DoP for Stone (Kamen', 1992), where he is listed as Andrei Burov, both engage in similar anamorphic distortions.
2] The distinction elaborated here—the ornamental films versus the austere ones—is no new discovery: it had been ventured nearly a decade ago to Sokurov by British film scholar Edwin Carels—before either the decorative Russian Ark or the austere Mother and Son —and the director readily accepted the dyad: “ Well, I would never have put it like that, but yes,” Sokurov acknowledges to Carels. “I feel as if there were two personalities inside me. One is very active, versatile, and exuberant; the other is sober, strong, and almost ascetic” (Sokurov, “The Solitary Voice” 73).
Condee, Nancy. The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema. Oxford: Oxford UP, forthcoming.
Sokurov, Aleksandr. “An Interview with Aleksandr Sokurov.” Interview conducted by Jeremy Szaniawski. Critical Quarterly 33.1 (Autumn 2006): 13-27.
—. “The Solitary Voice: An Interview with Aleksandr Sokurov.” Interview conducted by Edwin Carels. Film Studies 1 (Spring 1999): 73-77.
Alexandra (Russia and France, 2007)
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Scriptwriter: Aleksandr Sokurov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Burov
Art Director: Dmitrii Malich-Kon'kov
Cast: Galina Vishnevskaia, Vasilii Shevtsov, Raisa Gichaeva, Evgenii Tkachuk, Andrei Bogdanov, Aleksandr Klad'ko
Producer: Andrei Sigle
Production: Russia (Proline-film, Rezofilm) with the support of Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography of Russian Federation and Centre National de la Cinematographic (France)
Aleksandr Sokurov: Alexandra (Aleksandra, 2007)
reviewed by Nancy Condee © 2007