KinoKultura: Issue 53 (2016)
In the depths of the Soviet archive, Andrei Tarkovsky discovered an image that bore the imprint of another dimension of time. He knew instantly that the footage of the Red Army crossing the shallow waters of Lake Sivash would become the focal point of his film Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975):
When, on the screen before me, there appeared, as if coming out of nothing, these people shattered by the fearful, inhuman effort of that tragic moment of history, I knew that this episode had to become the center, the very essence, heart, nerve of this picture that had started off merely as my intimate lyrical memories. (Tarkovsky 1986: 130)
Tarkovsky inserted the entire documentary sequence into the midst of his fictional narrative. Somehow, the filmmaker’s personal story was related at a profound level to these images “of overwhelming dramatic force” (Tarkovsky 1986: 130). Tarkovsky sensed that his identity as an artist, the true meaning of his life and his films, was intimately bound up with this extraordinary footage captured by an anonymous army cameraman at a crucial juncture in the Soviet campaign of 1943. The burden of history makes itself felt with the same intensity as a powerful childhood memory. The film of the soldiers slogging through the mud of the Rotten or Putrid Sea, as the great salt lake of Sivash is known in Russia and the Ukraine, unfolds like a haunting episode from a forgotten dream, a never-ending rerun of a traumatic primal scene.
Tarkovsky recognized that the Lake Sivash footage was a tangible record of human suffering under the yoke of historical progress, a visible testament to “the innumerable victims whom, from time immemorial, it [history] has claimed” (Tarkovsky 1986: 130). The struggle of the motley band of Russian soldiers as they toil across the lake becomes “an imageof heroic sacrifice and the price of that sacrifice; the image of a historical turning point brought about at an incalculable cost” (Tarkovsky 1986: 130). The film discovered in the archive clearly conflicted with the glorified image of the Red Army troops as the defenders of the motherland in the Great Patriotic War. They look more like prisoners of the Gulag than the victorious standard bearers of the Communist State. Natasha Synessios makes an explicit connection between the “tragic fate” of the soldiers, many of whom would not have survived the war, the “immensity and hardship” of the natural landscape that engulfs them, and the suffering of the “millions lost building dams, roads, railways and canals in the Gulag archipelago” (Synessios 2001: 68). Indeed, the Lake Sivash episode was one of the principal scenes that the Soviet authorities wished to remove from Tarkovsky’s film.
Despite his evident sympathy for the men, Tarkovsky maintains an ambivalent attitude toward their ultimate fate. In many respects, his use of the archive provides a good example of the condition of “warped mourning” that Alexander Etkind has identified as a constituent feature of the attempt to come to terms with the undead of the Soviet era (Etkind 2013). Cultural memory in contemporary Russia remains blocked as long as the terrible legacy of torture, deportation, imprisonment and mass murder conducted by the Soviet State against its own citizens is not fully laid to rest. The difficult process of mourning is compounded by the singular nature of the Soviet terror. The Gulag was the site of a historical catastrophe on the order of the Final Solution yet, for significant reasons, it does not occupy the same traumatic space as the Holocaust. The Nazis exterminated the Jews on the basis of a bio-political decision that “sustained and protected some forms of life while destroying others” (Meek 2016: 82). Etkind argues that, rather than identifying its objects with the Other, the Soviet terror was “suicidal.” Anyone could be arrested, beaten, tortured, killed: “It was a rule rather than an exception that the perpetrators of one wave of terror became victims of the next.” The Nazis also recorded the process of extermination meticulously in photographs and on film while documentary footage from the liberation of the camps provided further evidence of the genocide. No comparable images exist of those who perished in the penal colonies of the Gulag.
Tarkovsky’s decision to include the footage from Lake Sivash in his own film can be seen therefore as a tentative gesture toward reconciling the demands of an unresolved history. The material from the archive, I will argue, takes on a metonymic significance by acting as a displaced and disguised testament to the victims of Stalin’s terror. The technique of found footage filmmaking, with its fragmentary structure and composite style, plays an important role in staging the work of mourning, however incompletely or obliquely, for the dead and disappeared of the Soviet past. The true object of memory, in this case, exists beyond representation.
It would be misleading to claim that Tarkovsky was a dissident artist. The political scope of his work is primarily domestic. The films subvert the Party line to the extent that they “reinvest images of common experience with a sincerity that had always been lacking in the public sphere” (Bird 2008: 128). Tarkovsky seeks to maintain the productive tension between history and memory. A revolutionary politics of memory worthy of the name must resist the principle of private property just as much as it defends the individual right to remember against the public ownership of the past. Mirror, in particular, exposes the distance between the Soviet imaginary—the “shared lexicon” of images, themes, types and topoi that informed social reality in the USSR—and the domain of individual and collective experience, not in order to explode their distances” but, as Robert Bird claims, “to open them up as a space of possibility” (Bird 2008: 129). The stark reality of Soviet history is at its most immediate and accessible in the “folds and seams” of everyday life. The memory of fear, grief, guilt, loneliness, of life during and after wartime, of absent or deceased loved ones, as depicted in the film, awakens the desire on the part of its contemporary viewer for “something objective and demonstrable—not a repressed memory but a clarity of vision”(Bird 2008: 135). The historical world is simultaneously rejected and renewed in the consciousness and imagination of the Soviet audience of Mirror.
Tarkovsky, like the young protagonist in Mirror, did indeed live through the war. His childhood was dominated by a single overwhelming idea: “I wanted my father to return and the war to end” (Synessios 2001: 64). Andrei Tarkovsky’s father, the poet Arsenyi Tarkovsky, was wounded in action. The absent father in Mirror, an army officer who returns briefly from the front, is portrayed as a melancholy figure. Their reunion only serves to heighten the inaccessible distance which separates the boy from the man just as it passionately affirms the intimate bond between them. Yet the anguished recollection of personal memories, recreated in the guise of a fictional story, takes objective form in the factual images that Tarkovsky finds in the archive. The orphaned film, the anonymous footage from Lake Sivash, cannot possibly serve as an official monument to the Unknown Soldier. Neither does it support a secure sense of national or political identity; rather it conveys a dispersed and decentered experience of historical time. When viewed in this way, the Lake Sivash sequence acquires an additional poignancy. As a document of collective suffering, the archival footage of the soldiers is suffused with a strong sense of sadness and loss. The part stands in for the whole once more.
Memory and metonymy share the same associative logic. They break with the principle of temporal continuity and establish a relation of contiguity between the past and its afterlife in image-form. The uncanny effect of the Lake Sivash sequence evokes the condition of postmemory, a concept developed by Marianne Hirsch to describe the process by which the memory of future generations is framed and formed by stories, images and artifacts of a shared history of terror and trauma. Tarkovsky is not so much interested in recovering a visual record of the war; he uses the Sivash footage “to investigate how it has been presented and has consequently shaped his vision, without necessarily being understood” (Bird 2008: 139). The encounter with the images from the archive makes it possible to remember, after the fact, as if it belonged to him, an event that defined yet defied his comprehension.
The images from Lake Sivash possess a significant temporal charge. They occupy an indefinite location at the crossroads of memory and history, a zone of indistinction somewhere on the border of dream and reality. If, as Jay Winter has suggested, “History is memory seen through [...] documents” and “memory is history seen through affect,” film, which can represent real events as well as it can evoke imaginary experience, has the capacity to combine both (Winter 2010: 120). In fact, Winter uses La Grande Illusion (1937) as the primary example to support his claim and maintains that Jean Renoir’s film“leaps from documentary truth to a kind of poetic truth by combining memory and history in unique ways” (Winter 2010: 13). The footage from Lake Sivash may provide an authentic historical record of the Soviet advance but Tarkovsky was also struck by its emotional and aesthetic appeal. The surviving images resonate with a poetic meaning that exceeds the archival significance of the original film. They belong less to the realist tendency of documentary film than to the figurative tradition of allegory. The allegorical impulse seeks to interpret reality rather than to reproduce it. Under its spell, the realm of facts is reduced to a jumble of mute ciphers, meaningless objects, fragments and debris. The things of the world take on the aura of death and decay. Lake Sivash serves as the cinematic equivalent of the memento mori in medieval and renaissance painting. The archival footage preserves a moment in time yet retains the traces of mutability and mortality. The soldiers, wounded and weary, are the casualties of an oppressive temporal regime. These scenes present a vision of history as a desolate stagnant swamp, a vast Slough of Despond through which the unknown soldiers are condemned to wade endlessly.
But, as so often in the films of Tarkovsky, this fallen world in all its pain and misery is the scene for a redemptive vision. The images of the exhausted men, bogged down in the mire of history, are imbued with a sublime grace. The physical trace of their passage through time is invested with transcendental value. The material and corporeal reality of their ordeal, their very presence on screen, is viewed from the standpoint of eternity. The raw documentary footage possesses a rare spiritual authority. The otherworldly quality of the Lake Sivash sequence is further enhanced by the soundtrack and voiceover which Tarkovsky chooses to accompany the archival images. Eduard Artem’ev’s eerie electronic score augments the ethereal atmosphere of the scene. Arsenyi Tarkovsky recites one of his own poems in counterpoint to the images, a lyrical evocation of the ancestral spirit of Russia and its people—ageless, ever-present and eternal. The soldiers are described as among the first of “those who haul the nets when a shoal of immortality comes in.” The march across the Rotten Sea acquires a mythical dimension. Indeed, Nariman Skakov contends that, as a result of the interplay between the textual and visual material, “the men depicted are not just overcoming a concrete obstacle by crossing the lake—they are entering and moving within metaphysical grounds [...] the broad waters of Sivash become a reservoir of time” (Skakov 2012: 124). The soldiers march from century to century. They wander aimlessly through the temporal backwaters of Russia’s past, present and future. Their journey is endless, the far shore beyond reach, the horizon limitless and infinite.
For Tarkovsky, of course, film was an art of sculpting in time. Each shot bears its own temporal pressure. Each cut channels the flow of time and gives it cinematic form. A film contains and conveys the insistent but invisible presence of life as it “makes itself felt” beyond the limits of the frame: “a real picture,” Tarkovsky says, “lives within time if time lives within it” (Tarkovsky 1986: 118). His approach to the archival footage of the Red Army soldiers, however, leads in two opposed yet analogous temporal directions, both of which demand a conceptual vision of time as an interminable condition. In the first instance, history is portrayed as a march of progress, an inevitable succession of contingent events, occurring in chronological order and proceeding in linear sequence from past, present to future. The passage across the Lake is represented as another hellish episode in the great Soviet project. In the second instance, it is presented as an infinite procession of mysterious images, absolute, ultimate, immutable, an idealized vision of the eternal quest for knowledge and truth. In each case, history is posited as “homogenous, empty time” (Benjamin) and the principle of continuity and consistency is asserted. Either way, the subject of history is drained of all vitality. In this respect, Lake Sivash provides the perfect image for a vision of history that takes place in no place, that comes to pass without reference to the passage of time. Within its vast expanse, the coordinates of space and time have been abolished. The world in which the soldiers find themselves wandering has been reduced to a temporal wasteland.
Yet the Lake Sivash footage as presented by Tarkovsky holds a more interesting promise as a conceptual model for the apprehension of historical time. The film assumes the form and function of the paradigm, as defined by Giorgio Agamben in his book on method, The Signature of All Things. There he states that “what operates as a paradigm is withdrawn from its normal use and, at the same time, exposed as such” (Agamben 2009: 26). The archival status of the images, their “empirical givenness,” their evidential value as a historical document, is placed in suspension. Indeed the archē—the very idea of origin—presupposes an order of priority and progression in time. The paradigm, on the other hand, “stands neither in the past nor in the present but in their exemplary constellation” (Agamben 2009: 18). Here, of course, Agamben draws upon Walter Benjamin’s notion of the dialectical image. “The true picture of the past,” as Benjamin insists, “can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again” (Benjamin 1969: 255). “For every image of the past,” he continues, “that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably” (Benjamin 1969: 225). It is in this sense that Tarkovsky’s use of the archival image opens a breach in the constitution of time. The soldiers are the shock troops of a revolutionary force whose mission is “to blast open the continuum of History” and to liberate the past and future from the tyranny of “homogenous, empty time.”
For Agamben, the paradigm offers a methodological procedure that “makes the inquirer’s present intelligible as much as the past of his or her object” (Agamben 2009: 32). He accurately describes the relationship that Tarkovsky establishes with the images from Lake Sivash when he asserts that “the capacity to recognize and articulate paradigms defines the rank of inquirer no less than does his or her ability to examine the documents of an archive” (Agamben 2009: 32). Lake Sivash is to Tarkovsky what memory is to history, what the image is to the archive. The crossing of the Rotten Sea occurs in a time zone that collapses the apparent distinction between the tenses and confounds both a diachronic or synchronic analysis of historical time. The image of the soldiers, as they move slowly but inevitably toward the distant horizon, reaches the spectator from a temporal dimension beyond the confines of chronology or causality. Tarkovsky treats the archival footage as an “exemplary” image which reveals the crystalline structure of time. This is reflected in the unusual terminology that Agamben applies to the paradigm:
In the final analysis, the paradigm determines the very possibility of producing in the midst of the chronological archive—which itself is inert—the plans de clivage (as French epistemologists call them) that make it legible (Agamben 2009: 32).
Gilles Deleuze may be the particular French philosopher that Agamben has in mind. In his study of cinema, Deleuze famously ascribed Tarkovsky’s work under the category of the crystal-image (Deleuze 1989: 68–97). Agamben seems to suggest that, just as the facets of a crystal are formed according to the inherent planes or patterns of cleavage within a mineral, so is the fractured temporality of history, when viewed from a certain critical perspective, reflected with prismatic clarity in the raw material buried in the depths of the archive. Agamben places considerable stress upon the fissures and faults that lie beneath, behind and between the images that constitute the archive. The form that they take will provide the outline for a new paradigm of historical knowledge. History is only accessible in its discontinuity, at those points where it breaks with a linear model of chronological time. It is never available in its totality. Nor can it be reduced to a teleological process or a transcendental principle. Its object or origin is not yet given: “the archē it seeks can never be identified with a chronological datum,” as Agamben observes in a later discussion of Kant and the history of philosophy (Agamben 2009: 82). The images in the archive, therefore, should not be considered as the components of “an empirically present whole”, and they “exist only in the condition of partial objects or ruins” (Agamben 2009: 82). Agamben has reconfigured the past along geological and archeological lines as a site of rupture and ruin. The archive has been reconceived in natural-historical terms.
The practice of found footage filmmaking, as Tarkovsky’s example shows, establishes a cinematic poetics of the fragment and encourages “an aesthetics of ruin” (Russell 1999: 238). The archival image is not treated merely as a piece of historical evidence, as in a conventional documentary film, but as an index of oblivion. The play of disappearance and emergence, as in the slipping, sliding, shifting, slow-motion rhythm of the Lake Sivash sequence, determines the flow of time in the found footage film. “Time,” according to Mary Ann Doane, “is that which leaves behind no record—it emerges from the failure of representation” (Doane 2002: 246). With found footage, the latent meaning of the original image, in a paradoxical inversion of Freud’s theory of the unconscious, is not to be sought in its manifest content, in its reference to a prior reality; rather it “originates in the present” as a memory-trace, a sign of the total withdrawal of temporal presence and the retreat of the past before the onslaught of history as progress.
In Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video, Catherine Russell maintains that “the documentary status of the archival image evokes alternative, invasive, and dialectical forms of temporality and history” (Russell 1999: 241). She opens the chapter on found footage film with a quotation from the cultural anthropologist Johannes Fabian that can stand as a programmatic statement for the radical conception of cinematic time that we have been exploring: “It takes imagination and courage to picture what would happen to the West (and to anthropology) if its temporal fortress were suddenly invaded by the Time of its Other” (Fabian 2002: 35)
We need only replace “anthropology” with “film” to identify the subversive threat that the creative and critical use of found footage poses to standard measures of time, such as those narrative and documentary codes of realism that insure the credibility and authenticity of the cinematic image. The archive, if we extend Fabian’s proposition further, functions in the same manner as a “temporal fortress.” Its traditional role is to preserve the authority of film as historical artifact. But it also acts as a bulwark which confines the past to a distinct and distant location in time. In Fabian’s terms, the archive, as cultural institution and as discursive system, asserts the “denial of coevalness.” His description of how anthropological discourse achieves the separation of its subject and object can be modified accordingly: the archive represents “a persistent and systematic tendency to place [its] referents,” —i.e., the cinematic record of the past— “in a Time other than the present” of their production or reception (Fabian 2002: 31). The archive is designed to hold this proximity at bay. The found footage film, on the other hand, disregards the temporal divide between past and present. It refuses to accept the difference between time and its Other and opens the archive to an acknowledgement of its own limits. The citadel of time is placed under threat of siege.
In recent years, the Siege of Leningrad has become the focus of intense cultural debate within Russia about the claims of memory and the burden of representation. The Blockade, as it was otherwise known, possesses the explosive charge of a “memory event” as opposed to the fixed meaning of a “memorial site.” This crucial distinction was proposed initially by Alexander Etkind in reference to the historical trauma of Katyn, but can it be applied with equal weight to the Siege of Leningrad (Etkind et al. 2012: 10). How does one remember the past in a land where the dead go unburied and the process of mourning is warped? How can a culture of memory exist when the traces of history have been obliterated and are otherwise absent or lost?
Etkind has adapted Pierre Nora’s influential essay, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” to the post-Soviet context. He accepts Nora’s assertion that “the most fundamental purpose of les lieux de mémoire is to stop time (Nora 1999: 19),” but adds, in his own words, that they do so “by simulating eternity” (Etkind et al. 2012: 10). A monument, for instance, considered as a site of memory [un lieu de mémoire], arrests history in spatial and symbolic form. It freezes time in a petrified image. On the other hand, “memory events,” as Etkind imagines them, “‘start time’ by endowing the past with new life in the future” (Etkind et al. 2012: 10). They break the pattern of historical stasis and effectively “reboot cultural memory.”
The Siege (Blokada, 2006), Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary in which he edits found footage, performs a similar function for the 900-day siege of Leningrad. Loznitsa assembled the film from three and a half hours of surviving footage of the siege that he culled from the archive of the St. Petersburg Studio of Documentary Film. In her astute review of the film, Polina Barskova comments that Loznitsa successfully overcomes:
The Siege, to the extent that it re-inscribes the original images from the archive within an alternate temporal frame, as theorized by Agamben, Benjamin and Fabian, “generates new memories bearing the structural imprint of old ones” (Etkind et al. 2012: 10). The aim of the film then is to represent the Siege less as a celebrated “site of memory,” whose meaning has congealed or been concealed over the course of time, than as the focus of a controversial and contestable “memory event.”
the conflicting urges of Siege memory—both that which insists on the erasure of traumatic images and that which requires a sense-making narrative that would impose an organizing frame of coherence on the fragmented manifestations of history. (Barskova 2009)
Barskova has analyzed elsewhere how the drawings and diaries of survivors of the Siege often describe the sensation of time in the besieged city “as dysfunctional, frozen, dead, and yet not homogenous” (Barskova 2010b: 338; my italics). One account comments wryly upon the strange coincidence that, at the hour of the city’s downfall, the street clocks “showed different times in different parts of town,” another notes that “the dividing walls of time are crumbling ... as if we were born under siege,” a third relates, in a manner reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s Jetztzeit, how two “utterly distinct” yet indivisible experiences of time—the eternal and the immediate —define “the catastrophic sensation of life, in fragility, in the unknowability of what will come tomorrow” (Barskova 2010b: 338; Barskova 2010a: 279). Many scenes in The Siege alsoconvey a comparable feeling of temporal dislocation. Time repeats itself indefinitely, is distended, contracted, exhausted. The disaster of history is visibly evident, of course, in the images of the besieged city; smoke and flames billow from the ruins of buildings, cars and trams are abandoned in the snow, scattered groups of people roam the frozen streets in search of water or firewood, “bundled figures [pull] sledges, some loaded with shrouded corpses,” the dead are buried in a mass grave. But, as with Tarkovsky’s treatment of the Lake Sivash sequence, Loznitsa’s use of the archival material is emblematic of a more generalized crisis of temporality. The remaining survivors of the Siege—like the soldiers crossing the Rotten Sea—occupy a temporal zone “coeval” with their existence in the future as memory-images. Their meaning as subjects of history becomes especially urgent and obvious when one compares The Siege with Maidan, Loznitsa’s live-action documentary (2014) of the momentous events in Maidan Square in 2013–14. Both films imagine the archive as an open space for the invention of the history of the future, one through the recovery and reconstitution of the forgotten images of the past, the other through creating a record of the present as an act of resistance and renewal.
As a pendant for future research, I’d like to conclude by briefly considering a scene from The Siege which, in its method and style, serves as a mirror-image of the Lake Sivash footage in Tarkovsky’s film. The sequence is placed near the beginning of the film and sets the tone, with its extended travelling shot and long takes, for much of what follows. A small group of German prisoners are escorted through the city streets, accompanied by a crowd of onlookers that grows from a trickle to a swelling tide. Loznitsa assembles the material in such a way that the steady accretion of time reaches an excruciating pitch. Every step that the German soldiers take prolongs their agony and humiliation just as much as it leads to their eventual demise. They are literally running out of time. The cumulative impact of the scene lies in its extended duration: the more that it builds in tension and intensity, the less that it offers in terms of closure and release. The final cut simply terminates the temporal development of the preceding images: the prisoners, now moving at a quicker pace and in a different direction, are marched down a dusty country road. Where are they going? To their final resting place, to be shot in a ditch? The audience is left hanging.
I have argued throughout that the use of found footage in film often results in the abolition of temporal distance and the dissolution of the authority of the archive. “Once cinematic space and time is broken down,” as Catherine Russell declares, “the Other is relocated in a history that is not vanishing but exceeds and transcends representation, resisting its reification” (Russell 1999: 272). The scenes from Lake Sivash in Tarkovsky’s film and the images from the Siege of Leningrad in Blockade achieve this end.
1] The camps were depicted in a number of documentary films however. Vatulescu (2009–10) shows how Solovki, the original camp in the Gulag system, was represented as “an entertaining spectacle,” an object of exotic display, in Cherkasov’s 1928 film. Selunskaya and Zezina (1993: 182) mention an additional film, The White Sea Construction Project Reports (dir. Lemberg, 1933), which was screened to a wide audience before “the Gulag became a closed book”.
University of Canterbury, Christchurch NZ
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Alan Wright © 2016
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