I first came across the name Alexander Sokurov in an almost empty cinema in wintry Berlin in 1995. I was there to see a five-hour documentary film called Spiritual Voices, shot over a period of one and a half years on the battle front of the Tajikistan civil war. The lights went down and a trance-like elegy for dead and dying soldiers unspooled. Not one of the clich?s of war appeared on screen. It had a 19th-century sensibility and the intensity of silent cinema. Shots lasted for minutes. The dust of the desert seemed to enter the camera.
The year after my Berlin revelation, Sokurov released an even better film. Mother and Son was a 73-minute chamber piece about the last weeks, days and moments of a frail old woman and her attentive son, who feeds her with a bottle and carries her into the fields so that she can see the sky. Filmed in slow-motion, shot with glass and mirrors in front of and around the lens, some of which were painted on with a fine Chinese brush, it led Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, to describe it as “a new form of spiritual cinema.” The musician Nick Cave saw it and described what happened: “Ten minutes in, I started crying and continued to do so for the rest of the film. I can’t remember crying so hard, without a pause.” When the son carries her outside, the mother gasps for air, looks to the swollen skies, hears a thunderclap and says “Is there anyone up there?” When she dies, a butterfly lands on her D?rer-like hands. Mother and Son captures the glowing pantheism of one of the greatest Soviet films, Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth.
Sokurov’s next film, Moloch, about Hitler’s coterie at Berchtesgaten, is shot as if through pea soup and features an inane F?hrer moaning about his health and a twittery Eva Braun. It was aesthetically astonishing, although I felt it unforgivable that Sokurov’s Hitler is clearly unaware of the existence of the gas chambers. Two years later, Taurus was a parallel portrait of a dying Lenin. In another greeny-blue monotone we see the dying of the light of a lost idealist. It conveys an overwhelming sense of coming storm, especially when Stalin visits the old man.
In Cannes last month was Alexander Sokurov’s latest film. A rumour had spread that Russian Ark…