Issue 28 (2010)

Aleksandr Sokurov: We Read the Book of the Blockade (Chitaem blokadnuiu knigu, 2009)

reviewed by Polina Barskova © 2010

A Loud Reading

“It’s all ingeniously simple. This is Sokurov in a nutshell. Shocking and always unpredictable. Only he would come up with the idea of reading about the Leningrad Siege in front of a camera lens. Where to read is not an issue; for instance, at a typical radio station. A small studio, a microphone, a text. The sincere emotions of the reader take care of the rest” ("Kak snimalas'...").

blokadaThis enthusiastic summary appeared on the website of the “100 TV” channel on the morning Aleksandr Sokurov’s film “Reading Book of Blockade” premiered at the 2009 Venice Film Festival. (Fittingly enough, the September 8 premiere coincided with the day the Siege of Leningrad began in 1941.) This channel had sponsored Sokurov’s puzzling documentary as part of its ongoing collaboration with the famed director in programming on the history and culture of St. Petersburg. Sokurov finished We Read the Book of the Blockade quickly during a break from the Prague filming of Faust, the fourth installment in a cycle of cinematic musings (Moloch, Taurus, and The Sun) on the temptations and ordeals surrounding totalitarian power.

Media reception of the film, echoing statements by Sokurov’s production team to the press, emphasized its seemingly simple, almost improvisational character: “‘Reading Book of Blockade’ has probably not discovered anything new in terms of film language” (“Blokadnuiu knigu…”). This conceptualization of the piece stresses the absence of artifice: Sokurov uses a static camera, direct sound, unrehearsed (and mostly amateur) performances, and a preexisting, well-established text (Daniil Granin and Ales’ Adamovich’s Book of the Blockade).

Arguably, Sokurov’s “discovery” in this work might lie not in the realm of film art per se, but rather in that of the representation, within the Russian milieu, of historical trauma. Aesthetic minimalism enables the director to lay bare in all their rawness those wounds that few post-Soviet artists have hitherto dared touch; if we continue in the vocabulary of trauma medicine, Sokurov’s operation strives for surgical sterility and accuracy.

Granin and Adamovich’s Book of the Blockade (1977-81) is a paradoxical text. When it appeared during the period of Brezhnev’s “stagnation,” the book was perceived as an act of unprecedented civic courage and honesty. Indeed, amidst the gilded flow of previous accounts continuously rehearsing the city’s collective “heroism” and “stoicism,” Granin and Adamovich managed to present a more objective interpretation of the Siege situation, focusing in their book not on the allegorical virtues of the “front-city,” but rather on the price Leningraders had to pay so that the place they lived in might survive. And though, from today’s standpoint, this compilation of Siege diaries could be seen as a somewhat compromised (because heavily redacted) endeavor, it marked an important first step toward open discussion of the Siege catastrophe.

Sokurov’s goal is to present accounts of the Siege in “pure” form, allowing the audience to be neither distracted nor anaesthetized. In each segment of the film, a new reader presents an extract from the Siege diaries—texts, it should be stressed, here finally liberated from the “comforting” framework of explications provided by Granin and Adamovich, which comprise a significant portion of their book.

blokadaThe action of the film takes place in the studio of a St. Petersburg radio station. According to Sokurov’s press statements, this choice of setting was motivated primarily by the desire to focus attention on the act of reading as such; but in the context of the Siege universe, such a mise-en-scène acquires a rich variety of meanings. During the winter of 1941-42, the human voice emerging from a radio speaker constituted a Leningrader’s only connection to life outside of dark, frozen, corpse-filled apartments. In addition to succinct, often euphemistic war communiqués on the situation at the fronts, and the metronome sounds the authorities broadcast to warn of impending air raids, radio would deliver to the claustrophobic world of blokadniki a surprisingly rich tapestry of cultural programming produced by the Leningrad Radio Committee. Though undoubtedly shaped by the dictates of propaganda, these programs (scripted by such distinguished writers as Ol’ga Berggol’ts, Veniamin Kaverin, and Lidiia Ginzburg, among others) brought home difficult truths: mothers would tell of the deaths of their children in bombings, and soldiers defending Leningrad would share the sense of shock this city on the verge of extinction induced in them. Interestingly, programming intended for Leningraders differed significantly from the version broadcast to the “Outside World” (Bol’shaia zemlia); the former, for example, heard Zinaida Shishova’s remarkable poem “Blockade” (1943), an account of a mother’s struggle for her starving son’s life that would never be allowed to air outside the city. Programs of “loud readings” (gromkie chitki, in the peculiar phraseology of the time) included Russian literary classics (e.g., Pushkin, Leskov, Tolstoy) alongside texts composed for the immediate needs of hellish Siege byt (everyday life)—on the military applications of darkness, the peculiarities of Siege “cuisine,” etc.[1] Thus the fact that Sokurov brings his viewers “back” to the radio studio serves a multifaceted purpose, acknowledging the power of the individual voice to deliver a personal account as well as paying homage to the role played by radio during the Siege. By turning The Book of the Blockade into a “radio show,” the director replicates the primary media dimension of the Siege moment, effecting a kind of epoch-spanning rapprochement between his audience and the subjects of the Siege.

Asked about his own stakes in the project, Sokurov, for whom this film is one of several attempts to reflect on the history of St. Petersburg in the twentieth century,[2] stresses the dilemma of how to represent a city that was, as Viktor Shklovskii put it, “at once dead and alive” (Shklovskii, 42). Sokurov remarks: “How do I conceive of the Siege? As a nightmarish, devilish strainer people were forced to pass through; having on this fatal journey undergone that which the living cannot endure, many nevertheless came out alive. This is a nightmare experience. I am not certain that it will never happen again. The Siege was one of the main fields of the battle with Nazism as such. The Siege is also a painful question for the whole of Russian history: is victory worth the price in human life?” (Sokurov in Tyrkin).

blokadaSokurov’s approach to the Siege incarnation of what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls bare life[3] is most evident in the director’s choice of diary fragments, and of performers to read them. Let us consider Sokurov’s selection strategy by examining the film’s opening episodes. The first fragment involves an orphaned boy who, near death from starvation, has crawled from the darkness of his room to the open, well-lit space of the street; the second story describes an intelligent who saves books from his bombed-out apartment by carrying them in his teeth on his way—crawling on all fours—to safer quarters. The first fragment is read to the camera by a six-year-old boy, the second by Oleg Basilashvili, a celebrated actor and trusted representative of the modern Petersburg intelligentsia. Both selections starkly challenge our notions of what constitutes humanity and civilization. The starving boy and the book-rescuer strive to remain human by fighting desperately for what, according to them, defines their humanity—characteristics maimed in this historical disaster. The boy resists the isolation and claustrophobia of his lifeless Siege confinement; fortunately, on the street he is found in time by a passerby and taken to an orphanage. The intelligent overcomes his physical deterioration to save his books from the fire of bombings, and that of his neighbors’ ovens. Each protagonist transcends the limits dividing life and death, blurring the distinctions between “person,” “corpse,” and likely even “animal”[4] such that ordinary definitions become scrambled, and seeking to die in the open and crawling on all fours become dignified choices.[5] For Sokurov, these episodes pertain to the question of whether “victory is worth the price in human life.” The director’s first interrogation of this issue with regard to the Siege took place in The Russian Ark, when, in a “forbidden room” at the Hermitage, a puzzled Marquis de Custine is confronted by a starved-to-death restoration artist who thinks the “well-fed” intruder means to steal his coffin. The question here is not only the “cost” in human life of a country’s maneuvers toward victory, but also the consequences, in terms of lives wasted, of the state’s political practices, its experimentation on its human “subjects.” Even if life is not directly cut short by the Siege, what does this trauma turn it into, and how can this experience of dehumanizing transformation be told, shared, represented?

blokadaFollowing the editorial choices of Granin and Adamovich, Sokurov works in his film with representatives of diverse social strata, possessed of varying levels of sophistication and experience in the production of narrative. The schoolchildren, librarians, housewives, and soldiers of the Book of the Blockade speak through modern-day schoolchildren, librarians, housewives, soldiers—and actors. Sokurov claims that the extent of performance here is kept to a minimum, readers having been afforded virtually no preparation or rehearsal. And yet, the mix of “laymen” and professionals creates a tellingly acute imbalance: while the stars of the Petersburg stage (aside from Basilashvili, Sokurov cast Ol’ga Antonova, Leonid Mozgovoi, and Larisa Malevannaia, among others) attempt to embody the Siege narration with a kind of smooth flexibility, the rest of Sokurov’s highly variegated cast seems to experience the shock of Siege material right in front of his camera. Like the Marquis in The Russian Ark, they are made to enter the “forbidden room” of the city’s taboo past; as Sokurov puts it a press-release on the film: “The past encircles us, spiraling now closer, now farther away. But it is always there.” To this day, the Siege remains a historical event non grata, investigated by a handful of specialists and living mainly in the tortured memory of such survivors as reluctantly volunteer narratives of their own dehumanization.

Perhaps the most important achievement of Sokurov’s film is that it enables us to observe the process of historical mourning up close. Through the static camera we follow the intense micro-dynamics of the readers’ reactions to the Book of the Blockade: a slowing down of the voice here; a jerk of the facial expression there; tears; and sudden, awkward silence. Sokurov’s seemingly straightforward project actually takes up a task of merciless artistry: enforcing the reenactment of a narrative of trauma, it makes us second-hand witnesses thereof. This is a complex and timely work.

Polina Barskova
Hampshire College (MA)

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Notes

1] On the work of the Siege Radio Committee, see Kovtun 2005.

2] Sokurov’s other contemplations of the fate of Petersburg in the twentieth century include Sonata for Viola. Dmitrii Shostakovich (1981), Petersburg Elegy (1990), St. Petersburg Diary: The Unveiling of the Monument to Dostoevsky (1997), and St. Petersburg Diary: Kosintsev’s Flat (1998).

3] Agamben’s concept is applied to the case of the Siege by Irina Sandomirskaia in “A Politeia in Besiegement: Lidiia Ginsburg on the Siege of Leningrad as a Political Paradigm,” Slavic Review (summer 2010, forthcoming).

4] Siege texts frequently resort to the language of “animal” conditions to describe the blockade experience, e.g. Galina Saliamon’s diary comment: “After they turned off the electricity, I was in complete darkness day and night. I was no longer a human being, but some sort of animal in a burrow.” (Saliamon, 23).

5] On the morphing of the category of the human in Siege texts, see the studies of Jeffrey Hass and Alexis Peri (esp. her paper “Deteriorating Toward Humanity: The Transition to Blockade Life in Leningrad,” delivered at the 2006 AATSEEL conference).


Works Cited

“Blokadnuiu knigu ot Sokurova prochtut v Venetsii”, BaltInfo, 19 August 2009.

“Kak snimalas’ kartina ‘Chitaem blokadnuiu knigu?’,” 100TV, 9 September 2009,

Hass, Jeffrey, “The Experience of War and the Construction of Normality. Lessons from the Blockade of Leningrad,” in Bitva za Leningrad. Diskusionnye problemy (St. Petersburg: Evropeiskii dom, 2009), 240-277

Kovtun, V. et al. (eds.), Radio, blokada, Leningrad (St. Petersburg: Spetsial’naia literatura, 2005).

Saliamon,Galina, Ostrovki pamiati. Vospominaniia(St. Petersburg: Zvezda, 2008).

Shklovskii, Viktor, Tetiva. O neskhodstve skhodnogo (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1970).

Tyrkin, Stas, “Aleksandr Sokurov: Moia nenavist’ k natsizmu neiskorenima,” interview with Aleksandr Sokurov, Komsomol’skaia Pravda 8 September 2009.


We Read the Book of the Blockade (Russia, 2009)
96 min.
Director Aleksandr Sokurov
Screenplay: Nadezhda Gusarova, based on Daniil Granin and Ales Adamovich
Cinematography: Aleksandr Degtiarev
Production Designer: Igor’ Mosin
Costume Deigner: Iuliia Levkovich
Cast: Maia Klimenko, Ivan Krasko, Oleg Basilashvili, Boris Averin, Elena Shtopfen, Aleksandr Potapov, Lev Neimishev, Marina Moshkova, Kseniia Skachkova, Sergei Skorokhodov, Grogorii Gorbunov, Vladimir Kudrin, Maria Michelson, Mikhail Gaponov, Al’bert Saralp
Production: TV Kupol Ltd

Aleksandr Sokurov: We Read the Book of the Blockade (Chitaem blokadnuiu knigu, 2009)

reviewed by Polina Barskova © 2010

Updated: 21 Mar 10