Issue 50 (2015)
Aleksei German Jr.: Under Electric Clouds (Pod elektricheskimi oblakami, 2015)
reviewed by Sergei Toymentsev© 2015
Aleksei German Jr.’s Under Electric Clouds is a highly impressionistic existentialist drama on the theme of the “superfluous men” inhabiting the futuristic Russia of 2017. As German points out in interviews, the choice of such an emblematic year (i.e. the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution) was somewhat accidental, since originally the intention was to capture the image of contemporary life in Russia from the distance of a near future. “In order to speak about time,” the director explains, “one has to look at it from a little distance, because everything is changing” (Kostin 2015). The film’s production, launched in 2010, was initially scheduled for completion in 2012. But because of a series of delays due to financial problems as well as Aleksei Iu. German’s death which required the director to complete his father’s Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt’ bogom), the production extended to 2015, thus making the year 2017 a futuristic vantage point for exploring Russia’s present condition. As many critics were quick to notice, German’s Russia is not a place where one would want to live: a foggy, vast, barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland frozen in melancholic inertia and traversed by somnambulically wandering people amidst damaged gigantic statues and abandoned construction sites. The gloomy sky, heavily laden with dark clouds, serves as the surface for the projection of electronic advertisements. As a voice-over narrator tells us in the beginning, “everyone seems to be waiting for a great war, globalization failed to unify the world.” The anxious anticipation of a war permeates the entire atmosphere of the film, whether through impersonal voices speculating about a coming catastrophe or the dim drone of passing military trucks at night. Given that Under Electric Clouds is a Russian-Ukrainian-Polish co-production conceived long before the current Russia-Ukraine conflict, the film’s prophetic forecast seems particularly uncanny.
The film consists of seven interconnected chapters centered around an unfinished skyscraper, whose ghostly helix-shaped skeleton looms in the foggy distance above a desolate winter landscape. This spectacular architectural wonder was commissioned by a now disgraced oligarch whose recent death has caused a halt in its construction. Each of the protagonists in German’s carefully designed tableau is, in one way or another, related to the obscure destiny of this building. The film opens with the story about Karim, a Kyrgyz migrant worker (Karim Pakachakov), who used to work at the skyscraper construction site but now wanders around in search for a place to rest. Unable to speak a word in Russian, he cannot communicate with others yet desperately tries to get directions for an electronic repair store to fix the broken boom-box which he carries around. Eventually he lays himself on a windblown beach, covering up with a large plastic tarp to protect himself from cold, yet is awaken soon by a violent man brutally stabbing a woman (earlier in the film the viewer may learn from the barely distinct, impersonal chatter that there is a serial killer terrorizing the neighborhood). Karim overpowers the murderer, crushing his scull against the frozen ground, yet is too late to save the bleeding victim, with whom he lies down afterwards and holds her hand to soothe her agony. The novella ends with Karim painfully managing to pronounce his first words in Russian (“How can I get to an electronics repair store?“), with the help of some passerby who happens to be kind enough to understand the supplications of a poor immigrant, which symbolically dramatizes his social inclusion into the foreign environment.
The next chapter introduces the two adult children of the deceased oligarch, Sasha (Viktoria Korotkova) and Dania (Viktor Bugakov), who have come from abroad to deal with their father’s heritage. With just a few details, German provides a rather succinct characterization of both siblings: Dania is a soft airheaded hipster fantasizing about establishing a literary fellowship for young writers, while Sasha, with a hearing aid behind her ear and occasional nose bleeding, is emphatically sensitive and fragile yet spiritually strong and wise. Pressured by an FSB officer investigating the oligarch’s criminal past, and their uncle Boria, anxiously persuading her to sell the estate, Sasha nevertheless decides to stay in Russia and take care of her father’s legacy, including the abandoned skyscraper, with which she strangely falls in love by comparing its twisted structure with human lives, “also broken yet standing.”
The third episode centers on Marat, a real estate lawyer (Konstantin Zeliger), who helped the oligarch obtain the land for the skyscraper. He is haunted by a recurrent dream which transports us to the final days of the Soviet Union before its collapse, suggested by Gorbachev’s resignation speech on television (26 December 1991). Marat wanders about the oneiric city of his childhood, where he meets the ghost of his best friend who was murdered for no reason in 1995. The ghost is grateful to Marat for his nostalgic dreams since he is the only one who still remembers him. This story strongly resonates with German’s short From Tokyo (2011) about a former rescue worker returning home from Tokyo on a plane and having a conversation with the ghost of his wife who died long ago. Given that both characters are exceptionally righteous men, it would be safe to suggest that memory, represented as the melancholic attachment to the beloved of the past, plays a definitively ethical role in German’s films: to live a life as a morally upright person one has to exist both in the present and the past at the same time. According to German, it is precisely by preserving memories of the past in our present lives that we can adhere to what can be called a moral code. Such a moral standard based on memory could also be applicable to the director himself, since all his previous features are essentially about the past.
Even though a voice-over narrator tells us in a prologue that all the stories presented in the film focus on the so-called “superfluous men,” it is only in the fourth chapter titled “Land for Construction” that we may recognize its protagonist Nikolai (Merab Ninidze) as a quintessential “superfluous man” traditionally associated with the Byronic prototype in 19th-century Russian literature (e.g. Aleksandr Griboedov, Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Ivan Turgenev, etc.): namely, an educated and intelligent nobleman who is unable to apply his talents to the government service and, because of the lack of options for self-realization, is doomed to waste his life in passivity, existential boredom, cynicism and all sorts of hedonistic activity. A PhD-holding art scholar diminished to a multilingual tour guide in a museum, Nikolai himself provides viewers with this frame of reference for his own self-identification by asking his colleague in a casual conversation: “I’ve been thinking about Chatsky, Onegin, Pechorin… They are all an artistic exaggeration, fictional characters, right?” The episode is set in 2011 and provides further details about how the skyscraper was built on some historically significant land which previously belonged to the museum. From scattered dialogues we learn that in August 1991, Nikolai was a hero who even threw himself under a tank while defending democracy with Boris Yeltsin. But now we see him standing in front of an approaching excavator, speculating whether he should do the same to protect the historical site from demolition. Yet all these factual circumstances regarding the skyscraper’s construction serve only as the background for Nikolai’s intense psychological drama, which is quite reminiscent with that of Danila Pokrovskii from German’s previous film Paper Soldier (Bumazhnyi soldat, 2007). Both characters are passionately in love with their profession yet haunted by doubts about their social use: whereas Danila as the Baikonur doctor considers his medical supervision of future astronauts as no more than their preparation for imminent death, Nikolai, writing his doctoral dissertation on Malevich and Petrov-Vodkin and, dressed up in a Hussar costume, entertaining tourists in the museum, suffers from poverty and the sense of social futility. In Nikolai’s case, though, this sense of social uselessness is radicalized to the fullest. As he confesses to his colleague, “Lately I’ve been feeling tiny like I’m on my own palm…” He is even unable to tell others the truth about his actual profession: to a Chinese boy lost in the park he says (in Russian) that he is not a guide but a PhD scholar, while to a stranger with whom drinks vodka at night he says he is a bus driver. Nevertheless, despite his inner psychological turmoil, Nikolai appears to be the only one who supports the museum director protesting against redeveloping the historical land into the site for the skyscraper’s construction.
Yet German’s invocation of the motif of the “superfluous men” is much broader than in 19th-century Russian literature or Georgii Daneliia’s Autumn Marathon (Osennii marafon, 1979) and Roman Balaian’s Flights in Dreams and Reality (Polety vo sne i naiavu, 1984) primarily interested in the midlife crisis of the (upper) middle class intellectual protagonist. He extends the existentialist problematic of social redundancy to other outcasts regardless of their class affiliation. The fifth novella titled “The Hostage” focuses on a community of drug addicts living in a derelict building near the construction site. The twelve-year old girl Sveta, the sister of some junkie, is taken hostage by a group of gangsters and no one dares save her, except the concussed youth Valia (Chulpan Khamatova) who attempts to rescue her but gets shot in the process. As we learn, Valia is a refugee from Ukraine who lost his entire family in the war there. Characteristically enough, throughout the entire episode Valia remains absolutely speechless because of his concussion or psychological trauma, which symbolically aligns him with Karim, another silent déclassé from the film’s first chapter.
Earlier in the film the viewer may have heard already a few scattered remarks about the skyscraper’s eccentric architect who decided to set himself on fire after its construction stopped; the attempt failed because his matches got wet. In the sixth story titled “The Architect” we finally meet the project’s architect himself (Louis Franck) wearing a working-class padded jacket and aimlessly wandering through the same wasted and bleak places where we have seen other characters. He is about to turn forty (as he keeps inviting random strangers to his coming birthday party) and similarly struggles with a midlife crisis because of a lack of recognition of his talents. As he describes himself to his young lover, he is an architect, “incredibly trendy yet meaningless.” The motif of social worthlessness is further emphasized when he meets his colleague in some “trendy” art exhibit organized in a half-ruined building. The colleague also collaborated on the oligarch’s skyscraper but now has been reduced to designing parking lots. His words about himself strongly resonate with Nikolai’s: “I don’t want to feel like a dwarf. I am a Titan!” Yet, unlike Nikolai who nevertheless suppresses his impulse to jump under an excavator, he later commits suicide out of despair by throwing himself under a tractor. The film’s gloomy ambience is intensified by the architect’s conversation with his young lover who wholeheartedly believes, because of some popular philosophy book she reads, that the facts about Stalin’s and Hitler’s atrocities have been strongly exaggerated and that they had their own justifiable reasons for this. The story ends with the architect’s decision not to attend his own birthday party; he stays with the small son of his now deceased colleague instead: a noble gesture which certainly characterizes the protagonist as a morally righteous person.
Despite its suffocating atmosphere of utter wretchedness, the film nevertheless attempts to offer some hopeful prospects in its final chapter where most of aforementioned heroes are gathered in some art exhibit hosted by Sasha few months later. She is now the legitimate heiress of her father’s heritage, supervising the skyscraper’s resumed construction; Karim, who seems to be working for her, speaks Russian rather fluently; Sveta, the hostage girl, managed to run away from the gangsters and now talks to Sasha about starting a new life. They bond with each other and, with the lyrical accompaniment of Iurii Shevchuk’s ballad, together pull a huge metallic horse statue across the icy beach, a touching symbol of human perseverance despite one’s fragility or despair.
Almost all reviewers, both in Russia and the West, have praised German and his crew for the astounding visual beauty of Under Electric Clouds. In fact, the film won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution for Cinematography at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival. Furthermore, at the time of the film’s release the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art hosted an experimental exhibit “2017 is Now” dedicated to the history of the film’s artistic production. And yet, many critics encounter considerable difficulties reconciling the film’s visual achievements with its non-linear convoluted narrative structure by pointing out that its “visual beauty is often at odds with the content” (Pattison 2015). Some even argue that “the film’s content gets lost behind its form which is itself far from being perfect” (Grigor’eva 2015) or that “despite its strong visual component, Under Electric Clouds seems to be a work which doesn’t justify the auteur’s ambition” (Stepanov 2015). The film’s content is nevertheless inseparable from its form as it perfectly illustrates what David Bordwell (2013, 279) describes as “style-centered” or “parametric” narration,” i.e. a narration in which “style [is] promoted to the level of a shaping force in the film” so that the plot development relies not on the progressive arrangement of events therein, but on the autonomous yet coherent combination of diverse stylistic or “decorative” devices, such as color coding, distorted sounds, motific correlations between characters, objects, natural elements, framing, staging strategies, etc. As German has explained in interviews, his task was to implement a 3D dramaturgy in the film, where action occurs not only in a given time-space setting but across different lives interwoven with each other through time. “Essentially,” he elaborates, “we were trying to get back to the tradition of the classical Russian novel of the 19th century with its complex approach to reality in all its variations” (Karpova 2015). In fact, Sasha, the heiress of the skyscraper, does mention Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace in one of the dialogues, and most of the characters echo each other in a wide range of motific correlations: both Valia and Karim are silent; Valia has a birthday the day before he is shot and the architect passes invitations for his coming birthday party; the architect also jokes about polyglot penguins who will attend the party and Nikolai, as we know, is a polyglot tour guide in the museum; Sasha performs an acrobatic headstand atop Lenin’s statue just as Valia puts the miniature Buddha, a present for his birthday, on top of his head; Sasha cries over the horse starved to death in her father’s abandoned mansion and in the end she and Sveta pull the metallic horse statue; Marat meets the ghost of his childhood friend in a dream and the architect talks to the ghost of his colleague who committed suicide in a hallucination, etc.
That the film’s content should be comprehended through its stylistic minutiae rather than linear plot development is already suggested by an on-screen prefatory quotation from Paul Cézanne: “Picture is relation of contrast, even just relation of black and white.” Not only does the epigraph invoke the nature of the director’s so-called “synthetic impressionism” which he has been consistently perfecting throughout his career (e.g. his experimentation with color, preference for barren misty landscapes, massive agglomeration of episodic characters, reduction of a dialogue to an insignificant yet metaphysically mysterious everyday chatter, etc.), it also provides the viewer with a code, or formula, according to which the film’s stylistic subtleties could be organized into a coherent narrative whole: namely, through the relation of contrast. The main contrast that could serve as the film’s narrative and conceptual gravity center is that between the film’s atmospheric uncertainty and the characters’ moral certitude. Each of the film’s visual components seems to contribute to the synergetic effect of some uncanny ephemeral transience and in-between-ness: the film’s shooting took place only during the sunset, thus staging the entire action in the twilight; the setting is neither an urban area nor a wild prairie but rather a vague terrain with the city lights in the background; the construction of the half-broken skyscraper lingering on the horizon seems to be interminably suspended; an abandoned statue of Lenin pays tribute to the 100th anniversary of Russian revolution; the nation itself, unable to move forward, is regressing to yet another cycle of military dictatorship; socially displaced characters are stuck between present and past. It is against this gray or “neutral” background of all-encompassing uncertainty that each of German’s psychologically complicated “superfluous” characters manifests his or her resolute and unbendable commitment to the basic human values in the acts of self-sacrifice or mere kindness towards the other. Furthermore, in the age of postmodern skepticism and excessive experimentation with all kinds of realism, the film’s deliberately complex aesthetics seems to be the most viable form to pass such a simple moral message.
Florida State University/Sholokhov Moscow State University for the Humanities
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Bordwell, David. 2013. Narration in the Fiction Film, London: Routledge.
Grigor’eva, Nataliia. 2015. “Chulpan Khamatova sygrala u Germana-ml. rol' bez slov,” Nezavisimaia gazeta 2 February.
Karpova, Anna. 2015. “Zakrytyi pokaz fil'ma ‘Pod elektricheskimi oblakami’,” Snob.ru, 26 May.
Kostin, Il’ia. 2015. “V shirokii prokat vykhodit novyi fil'm Alekseia Germana-mladshego ‘Pod elektricheskimi oblakami’,” Pervyi kanal, 4 June.
Pattison, Michael. 2015. “Under Electric Clouds (2015), Berlinale, Competition,” Filmuforia.
Stepanov, Vasilii. 2015. “Berlin-2015: “Pod elektricheskimi oblakami” Seans, 16 February.
Under Electric Clouds; Russia, Ukraine, Poland, 2015
138 min,, color
Director: Aleksei German Jr.
Scriptwriter: Aleksei German Jr.
Cinematography: Serhiy Mykhalchuk, Evgenii Privin
Production and Costume Design: Elena Okopnaia
Editing: Sergei Ivanov
Music: Andrei Surotdinov
Production: Metrafilms, Linked Films, Apple Film Productions, Tor Film Studio, Telewizja Polska (TVP)
Producers: Rushan Nasibulin, Egor Olesov, Andrei Savel’ev, Artem Vasil’ev, Sergei Iakhontov
Cast: Louis Franck, Merab Ninidze, Viktoria Korotkova, Chulpan Khamatova, Viktor Bugakov, Karim Pakachakov, Konstantin Zeliger, Anastasiia Melnikova, Piotr Gasowski
Aleksei German Jr.: Under Electric Clouds (Pod elektricheskimi oblakami, 2015)
reviewed by Sergei Toymentsev© 2015