Alexander Sokurov

by Sergey Chernov

The Tetralogy of a Few Good Men
Faust (USA November 2013), a daring visual take on Goethe’s masterpiece, is perhaps the most ambitious work from director Alexander Sokurov, who is arguably Russia’s greatest living auteur. It is among the “films that change you forever,” according to Darren Aronofsky, who awarded Sokurov the Golden Lion, the principal prize of the Venice International Film Festival, when he chaired the jury there in 2011.

Filmed on location in the Czech Republic and Iceland, Faust is a loose take on Goethe’s play, a colossal and complex effort no filmmaker could effectively make after F.W. Murnau’s 1926 silent film of the same title, according to Sokurov.

Visually based on Goethe’s own studies of color and light, the film was shot by Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), a French cinematographer with a philosophy degree from the Sorbonne in whom Sokurov found a kindred spirit.

Together, the two used unique advanced lenses created specially by Russian military optical engineers who design satellite-filming equipment. Faust was deliberately shot on film, rather than digitally, to allow Sokurov maximum freedom during the post-production stage. The soundtrack for the film, composed by longtime Sokurov associate Andrey Sigle, was recorded by a full symphony orchestra and is influenced by German classical music.

Before settling on Austrian actor Johannes Zeiler for the role of Faust, Sokurov looked at almost five thousand actors from across Europe and spent two weeks conducting auditions in a rented house in Berlin. But Zeiler demonstrated a natural sincerity atypical of European actors, Sokurov says, and represented the great school of acting as well.

Faust completes Sokurov’s tetralogy of power focused on 20th century grand villains—Hitler (Moloch, 1999), Lenin (Taurus, 2000) and Emperor Hirohito (The Sun, 2004)—each film a chamber piece, showing the historic figures at moments of despair.

Sokurov says he wanted to show Faust as a human being. “Neither in Goethe’s play or the tradition that existed before him, in none of the theatrical productions has he been depicted as a living man. He’s a kind of mythological figure, like a Greek god, with no flesh and blood. A head resting on nothing, with no legs, no arms, no body, like Roly-Poly from the Russian fairytales. We attempted to fashion a real man from this [legend].”

He did the same with the tetralogy’s other characters, portraying them as men rather than cartoonish villains. “If Hitler had been sent to us from the moon, we would have figured it out and dealt with this infection immediately,” he says. “But because Hitler and the Nazism that took shape around him were human phenomena, we were universally infected with Nazism for all time. It is hard to fight evil because evil comes only from man. There is no devil.”

According to Sokurov, the tetralogy deals with the fate of men, rather than the lives of politicians. “There is nothing interesting about politics,” he says. “The practice of politics does not generate great, noble, outstanding people. They come, rather, from science and art.”

Born in a Siberian village to the family of a Soviet military officer, Sokurov studied as a historian in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) before entering the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow.

Seminal Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who described Sokurov as a “genius” after seeing his first feature film, The Lonely Voice of Man (1978), made while Sokurov was still a student in Moscow, helped him find work at Lenfilm Studios in Leningrad in 1980.

Ordered to be destroyed by the authorities, The Lonely Voice of Man was saved by Sokurov who, with his scriptwriter, broke into the vaults and swapped the film for another. His other early films were invariably banned for “formalism and anti-Soviet views” until Gorbachev’s glasnost policy reached its height in the late 1980s.

Sokurov made two documentaries about Boris Yeltsin, showing Russia’s future president during his struggle against the Soviet leadership, but declined Yeltsin’s repeated offers to help him with his career after he became the master of the Kremlin in 1991.

When Sokurov was “emotionally ready” to approach Goethe’s masterpiece, a new crisis struck: The Russian film industry stalled, with no film or television projects getting made. “I had the feeling that if I didn’t do Faust, if I didn’t complete the final part of the tetralogy, I would never work again,” he says. “Not because I was afraid I’d be finished with this craft I’d lost interest in long ago, but because I’d never abandoned anything I’d started.”

To complete his tetralogy of power and shoot what is his most expensive and perhaps most ambitious film yet, Sokurov turned to the most powerful man in Russia today—Vladimir Putin—at a time when the situation in Russia was quite desperate. “[During this time] I even met with gangsters to find money to make films,” Sokurov says.

The meeting with Putin took place over an early breakfast in the president’s country residence outside Moscow. Sokurov says he wasn’t sure what to expect because he had always spoken out against Putin at the president’s meetings with cultural figures. To Sokurov’s surprise, Putin became engrossed in the storyboards for the film and asked astute questions about the props. A week later, Sokurov found himself with Putin in Dresden, presenting the film project to the German media during the Russian leader’s press conference.

A foundation to finance the project was set up, and the process moved quickly and effectively, with no interference from the Kremlin. Putin called Sokurov to congratulate him on winning the Golden Lion right after the award was announced, as the director was heading to the stage to receive it.

Putin, who hailed the film as “majestic,” later suggested it should be dubbed into Russian (it was shot in German), but Sokurov categorically refused. Although he has thanked Putin at film screenings, he steered shy of joining the list of 499 Russian celebrities handpicked to publicly endorse the Russian leader during his reelection campaign in 2012.

During the past few years, Sokurov has been in the front lines of the fight to save St. Petersburg’s historic buildings from developers acting hand in hand with corrupt city officials. Sitting in his office at Lenfilm, a huge former Soviet film studio complex that appears rather neglected and rundown, Sokurov is making calls to arrange a meeting between preservationist activists and a city official.

“Russian construction corporations are an absolute mafia whose interests are closely meshed with those of the police and the government. They could be called a pack of wolves that have attacked the city and are tearing it to shreds,” he says, also noting that the activists have been on the receiving end of threatening phone calls.

“They can make a deal with the authorities, but they can’t make a deal with us.”

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