2003 Milk Plus Droogies

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Kill Bill Vol. I

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Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

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Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

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Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

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Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

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David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

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Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

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Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Thursday, October 24, 2002

Alexandr Sokurov’s Moloch & Sonata for Hitler

The UW Cinematheque took a few week hiatus from the Frank Tashlin retrospective and began a four week program of the films of Alexandr Sokurov. The first films (this screening took place on Saturday night, I’m a little behind) were his 1979 short video Sonata for Hitler (actually released in 1989) and his 1999 feature film Moloch. This is a trend that will continue for most of the series, pairing one of Sokurov’s more experimental, short pieces with one of his features (Sokurov’s filmography includes thirteen feature films and 26 documentaries ranging in length from 10 minutes to over 13 hours). This Saturday’s screening of Mother and Son, the only film of Sokurov’s I’m really familiar with, and that is only from various news and magazine articles (the other Sokurov films I’m kind of familiar with is the recent technical triumph The Russian Ark and Taurus, his portrait of the last days of Lenin), is screening with his documentary subject Elegy of a Voyage; however, I’m going to a Neko Case/John Doe concert right after the screening, so my review will probably be delayed.

It’s probably pretty clear that I’m a little in the dark when it comes to Alexandr Sokurov and his work (how much can you really learn from some hastily read interviews and articles), especially when my experience with his films is so limited, so I’ll be quoting liberally from many sources, as well as describing the odd pair of films. What did I know about Sokurov prior to the screening not much: a Russian filmmaker, often associated with Tarkovsky (that actually doesn’t help much, I really haven’t had much exposure to Tarkovsky), and a crafter of beautiful images. Not much to work with, that and he has a lot of critical support out there. Susan Sontag showers him with effusive praise:

Alexandr Sokurov is perhaps the most ambitious and original serious filmmaker of his generation working anywhere in the world today. Each of his films that I’ve seen has a visual power and moral depth that creates an unforgettable emotional experience. Sokurov’s films could be compared with the masterpieces of Tarkovsky, his master, and of Angelopoulos. But such comparisons only help to locate the level of accomplishment; Sokurov’s vision is an entirely distinctive one, and full of surprising, exalting inventiveness. I hope this great filmmaker finds the audience in America that his work deserves.

Kent Williams, in his overview of the Sokurov retro (his praise, if you really want to call it that, being much more guarded then Sontag’s) references a critic who calls Sukorov’s oeuvre a “profound act of mourning.” A cheery thought. Just one further bit of context before I examine the films themselves. A quick biography of Sokurov, from the program notes (written by Vince Bohlinger):

Alexander Sokurov was born in Podorvikha, Irkutsk in 1951. His father being a military officer, Sokurov moved often and grew up in locales as diverse as Poland and Turkistan. In 1968 he began studying history at Gorky University in Nizhni Novogorod. He soon began complementing his university studies with work on Gorky Television as a technical assistant, and by age 19, Sokurov had already become a television producer. Sokurov graduated in 1974, and a year later, enrolled in the Producer’s Department in the Documentary Film Studio of Aleksandr Zguridi at the prestigious All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow. Although an excellent student (he was even awarded the Eisenstein Prize), he was forced to graduate a year early in 1979 because institute leadership and administration deemed his work too formalist, too anti-Soviet, negative, and pessimistic. Sokurov’s diploma film The Lonely Voice of Man, based on Andrei Platonov’s story, was initially considered unacceptable for graduation. The scandal attracted the support of Andrei Tarkovsky, who admired Sokurov’s works and wrote the recommendation letter that allowed Sokurov to begin working at the documentary films division of Lenfilm studio in 1980. Sokurov’s subsequent works continued to face significant problems with Soviet censors, and only in the mid-eighties were any of his works allowed to be publicly exhibited for the first time.

Sonata for Hitler was a video that Sokurov created out of newsreel and documentary footage that he culled from various European archives. The video is 11 minutes long, showing various shots of Hitler and the Nazis; German factories rearming; throngs of German people, their arms outstretched in the fascist salute; and scenes from the war. The film seems to move in a chronological fashion, though it often returns to the same shot of Hitler, sitting atop a podium, looking pensive, probably listening to someone else speak. The soundtrack of the film begins with classical music, but as the film proceeds, the soundtrack becomes more and more dominated by a dissonant noise, until the music is eclipsed. At the top and bottom of the image are some black bars, with white numbers, one in the upper right corner, the other in the lower left corner. The upper number begins at 89, the lower at 79, and they slowly tick up to 00, and then upwards, until the upper reaches 45, and the lower reaches 53. These numbers are of course the final two digits in the years that mark the births and deaths of Hitler and Stalin, respectively. Sokurov obliquely links the unadulterated, destructive power of Hitler to the very same kind of power wielded by Josef Stalin.

Hannah Arendt may have coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” to describe the Nazi regime, but Sokurov’s camera captures the phrase, in his feature film Moloch, a portrait of Hitler (according to the sources I’ve read, circa 1942) and his relationship with Eva Braun, chronicled during one weekend at his mountaintop, Bavarian retreat. How banal does it get, well, Eva Braun walks in on Hitler (she calls him the diminutive “Adi”) taking a shit, and in another scene, when Hitler and friends are out for an outdoor stroll, one of his guards catches him taking a shit in the snow through a sniper scope. The Hitler of Moloch (for anyone who isn’t familiar with the term, Moloch or Molech, was a biblical god of the Ammonites, his followers sacrificed children to him in a consuming fire; he is also associated with false idol worship and the inherit deception) is a neurotic, anxiety-ridden hypochondriac (the way he acts, the armchair psychologist in me screamed out “manic depressive!”), while Eva Braun is a rather vivacious woman, and the only one who will talk back, mock or disagree with Hitler (at least to his face); everyone else, including Josef Goebbels, his wife Magda, and a gaggle of Nazi flunkies hang on his every word and whim, no matter how long-winded or idiotic, and he makes a lot of these statements and crude jokes, to the point where there is a full-time secretary, Piker, who jots down everything that he says (so I guess some of the dialogue could actually be real), unless someone pointedly says not to. Downplaying any real psychological explanation for his behavior (the closet we get is when Eva Braun remarks that Hitler needs an audience), or any explanation whatsoever, the film effectively strips any kinds of aura of power or evil, creating a rather objective portrait of a rather sad, pathetic human being. Eva Braun comes off much better, as a real person instead of the cypher she is usually regarded as, though I’m really baffled by what she saw in Hitler.

The film begins with a 10-15 minute wordless stretch (the closest we get are some vague words crackling from a military radio), as a naked Eva Braun runs across the ramparts of the fog-enshrouded, mountaintop retreat, reclining in a chair, turning cartwheels, jokingly posing like a classical sculptures on the castle wall (revealed in a POV shot) for the benefit of one of the sentries, who gazes at her through binoculars/scopes. She’s clearly happy (we later learn that Hitler and the party are coming for a visit that day), after dressing, she puts on a records of martial music, and gaily dances around a foreboding, oak conference table in a bright green desk. The whole castle set is one big gloomy expanse, dominated by grays, blues, blacks, and greens. Actually, the entire movie looks like it was shot through some kind of blue/green filter, generally with one large source of cold, white light; it’s often hard to see what is going on in an individual scene, but the effect is pretty beautiful, yet completely unnatural. The unnaturalness is emphasized in various scenes, when Sokurov distorts the image, using lenses to stretch the image vertically, especially during scenes featuring SS officers. In one striking scene, as Hitler and Goebbels dance a jig, two officers stand silhouetted against the hillside. It’s a striking shot, especially since Sokurov does all of his image manipulation in the computer. In an interview with Paul Schrader that originally appeared in Film Comment (Vol. 33, no 6), Sokurov has this to say (you can read the entire interview, here:

P.S.: Whatever manipulation of the image you do occurs at the time that you shoot it, not later in postproduction.
Sokurov: Of course. It's always during the filming. As a director I always have a clear vision of my creation. I usually change the literary basis as well as the script a lot during production, sometimes even the meaning of certain dialogue could change completely. And the meaning of the piece changes with it. I'm trying to create and recreate and recreate again and again. It's important to be constantly on the move. The actual movie could look quite still, but the energy that was put into the filmmaking should be extremely dynamic.
P.S.: In Breaking the Waves Lars von Trier created tableau shots of nature that were computer-manipulated so that the movement of light and shadow was created
Sokurov: I feel sorry for him then.

Sokurov’s camera accentuates the unreality of the entire edifice, which is interesting when counterpointed with the rather mundane portraits of some historically notorious people. It creates a somewhat distanced, critical stance among the viewers (well those viewers who can stand watching a film where nothing really happens about pretty boring people), which is further enhanced by the fact that these are Russian actors with German voices dubbed in (of course a lot of the time, it’s so dark, it’s hard to even see a person’s lips move when they are talking). The film undercuts any attempts of anyone seeing these people as anything but what they probably actually where, personally uninteresting. Any attempts at grandeur are deflated by the film’s rather morbid, absurdist humor (these people were directly responsible for the deaths of 21 million people? it’s mind boggling). Magda, Goebbel’s wife constantly belittles Josef; in one scene, after Hitler is done watching newsreels of the Eastern Front, he watches a filmed concert of an symphony orchestra’s performance, frantically waving his hands around like a conductor, to the amusement of Magda and Eva. And who can forget the image of Hitler chasing Eva around the bedroom in his boxer shorts and wife-beater T-shirt? (I know I can’t)

Evil. Most people’s conception of evil probably does oversimplify situations to the detriment of everyone involved, and while I have a hunch that while Sokurov is probably correct about the true nature of these people (sad, insecure, pathetic, capable of kindness and humor, etc, etc.), I’m not exactly sure that his portrait of the humanity behind the history is enough. But then again, I’m not exactly sure that Sokurov sees it this way either, perhaps he sees it as a continuation of a longer trend. Consider this quote:

“Erich Fromm wrote that until we learn to understand Hitler’s human nature, we will never understand anything about Nazism or learn to discern potential monsters in those lusting for power. The myth of Hitler as infernal evildoer, a mysterious villain, has long been an obstacle to understanding. Political, economic, sociological studies, investigations by sexologists and psychiatrists, historical versions and philosophic interpretations - all that was necessary but insufficient. There still remained a certain barrier that one couldn’t overcome because of one’s natural feelings - fear, anger, or disgust. But today, this is a luxury art can no longer afford. It should be remembered that Nazism is still perceived by many unhappy people as the ultimate happiness.”

FOOTNOTE: I also saw Igby Goes Down this past weekend. Funny and well acted, but I’ve seen it all before. Still recommended viewing though.