The work of the Russian film director Alexander Sokurov is a phenomenal result of a series of extremely arduous and vigorous artistic endeavours. Neither political upheavals, nor the demands of the mass market, nor even the most all-powerful corrupter of any pure art — money — could thwart this man's indefatigable efforts in accomplishing his aims.

Although Sokurov's work in Russia is very controversial, his name has come to stand for the artist's obligation toward his gifts. Over the years, Sokurov has made both documentary and fiction films and videos, worked on radio productions, created works of literature, and, in everything he has done, his unique and inimitable voice has always been present. Countless articles and several books have been written on him in many languages, yet his art remains difficult to formulate. Perhaps he himself alluded to some sort of formulation in one of his documentary films, “An Example of Intonation”, for it is precisely this distinctive intonation of lyrical self-expression that does not mute, but instead magnifies, “the noise of the time” (O. Mandelstam) — and it this intonation that essentially attracts his admirers and repels his critics.

Sokurov has generated his works at the cross-roads of two fundamental film traditions: documentary and “fiction” — the artistic transfiguration of impressions of reality. After having made nearly forty films over a period of two decades he is still searching for the language of cinematography which, as he says, the now hundred-year-old child — Cinema, has as yet not been able to develop.

Sokurov can be shockingly unpredictable, but he always remains faithful to his own personal approach. The distinguishing features of his works include: prolonged point-of-view shots — the extended time of semantic accents, elaborate methods of filming and processing, the combination of documentary and fiction, a combination of constructed sets and natural exterior locations, and the employment of both professional and amateur actors.

The character “straight from life” — a sanctioned figure in the history of film — appears in Sokurov's works in a different manner than, for instance, in the works of the avant-garde filmmakers of the 20's, who saw the face of the artist's model as a mask, or in the works of his favourite film directors Flaherty and Bresson, who concentrated on certain contemporary psycho-social types. Sokurov is interested in Man and his Fate — in the mark that is imprinted by fate on a human being. And even when this human being is played by an actor, it is not the professional qualities or the exterior image but the undiscovered human nature of that person that interests the filmmaker. Sokurov draws a character portrait, skirting the person's distinctive features while not discarding them as mere details. Most important for him is the hidden meaning, the ontological dramatic aspects of character, that which ultimately generalises the experience of a generation, an epoch, a civilisation.

Similarly complex is Sokurov's conception of “location” applied to a landscape or any representation of an “environment”. The representation of the world in his films is open to any unpredictable details of objective reality, while at the same time it presents itself as an abstract composition, an artistic metaphor. The same is true even in those cases when the source material is documentary footage. Documentary sequences in Sokurov's work do not serve as an illustration or interpretation of a certain concept or idea, but as a revelation of the unexpected emotional state of the beholder… the document is as if filled with lyrical sensations.

Sokurov applies the new technologies of filmmaking as an evocative means, without subjugating himself to the norms of their conventional application elsewhere; to the contrary, he subjugates these technical possibilities to his artistic intentions, updates them constantly so that they ultimately surpass the contemporary methods of film production, even in the ways of transmitting films. Martin Scorsese once called Sokurov a “Pioneer in Technologies” and commended the Russian master's aspirations to make his films by hand.

The avant-garde tendency in Sokurov's work, nevertheless, has evolved from the very origins and foundation of cinematic imagery. The filmmaker himself does not like being called an “avant-gardist”. Speaking in an interview, he said: “I am only a link in the chain of world culture; and if that is not so, then all my work is rubbish. As a matter of fact, I strive to find ties with tradition in every piece of my work. For that reason do not call me an avant-gardist. The avant-gardists strive to create something new, starting with themselves. A call for a certain unbroken connection is perhaps the only intellectual element in my work, and everything else comes from emotion”. (Andere Cinema, Rotterdam, 1/2/1991). His answer to the question about new trends in filmmaking is even more radical: “I do not see any new trends in filmmaking, and I do not believe that any such trends can exist. Only the artist himself may be new. Art is eternal — it is never new or old”. (Skrien, Holland, # 11, 1998).

The “traditionalism” in Sokurov's works is in his innovative rethinking, in his personal experience with tradition. The filmmaker has worked in every major film genre with the exception of perhaps “comedy”, which is foreign to his philosophy. He has created fully independent film compositions out of a montage of documentary material he shot himself and out of footage he compiled and arranged. When tackling literary, even mythological topics, he retains the source of the subject matter but interposes personal associations that hold an innermost meaning for him. He simulates historical personalities and eras in a forcefully spiritual manner with lyrical insights. Almost disregarding the familiar setting of a given time or place, he instead selects a set of very specific details in order to more accurately portray the environment, the atmosphere, even the natural phenomena of an era, in which he feels a particular human personality — be it that of Hitler or Lenin — plays an important part. That is why, his films have always had the abstractions of a parable, for he has always incorporated especially selected details — be they historical, psychological, physiological, medical… or extracted from the various realms of human existence… ranging from a ship in the North Sea to the ambience of a Japanese village; from Hitler's Alpine fortress to Lenin's residence in Gorki. His films have featured contemporary personages such as Boris Yeltsin and Vitauatas Landsbergis, world-renowned cultural figures such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Tarkovski, and forgotten “common” people, such as the Russian peasant, Maria Voinova, and a Japanese mountain village woman, Umeno Matsuesi. For Sokurov there exist no “more significant” or “less significant” film subjects. In his works, he becomes the arbiter of the existential hierarchy of images.

Sokurov plunges into the essayistic aspects of video or the cinema of images with the forceful determination of an author, with the passionate inquisitiveness of a conversationalist and moralist; he transforms ethnographic landmarks into fantastic untravelled paths into other cultures, into different lifestyles… as if he were searching for a spirit akin to his. His artistic approach to history, geography, culture, and most of all to the “universal spirit” resembles that proclaimed by Chekhov's Trepelev.

Sokurov had even “resurrected” Chekhov, the writer, to our present day in one of his earlier films and evinced therein that which makes them so akin to one another: their similar mastering of reality — the forceful yet gentle, exacting yet empathetic regard for and contact with the “object”; the artist himself is an aesthetic counterpoint here: in the form of his — and our own — complex subjective gaze.
All the fiction films, documentaries and videos of this filmmaker have produced a rich diversity of transmuting, forever unpredictable images of pure poetry, which, all together, compose the unique opus of Alexander Sokurov. Let us enter this high voltage field to hear those “spiritual voices” calling us.

Alexandra Tuchinskaya

English Translation by Nora Hoppe.