01 November 2006

Aleksandr Sokurov's
Солнце (The sun):
not your standard 'war film'

I’m a huge admirer of the work of Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov – his films have touched me on many levels, and my appreciation of them deepens with repeated viewings. His creative abilities have allowed him to transfer his vision onto the screen – the result is some of the most groundbreaking, vital cinematic art of our time. I’ve read a couple of negative reviews of his latest film, Солнце (The sun) (released in 2004) – the writers complained about the slow pace of the film and it’s lack of ‘action’, which tells me that they are most likely completely unfamiliar with Sokurov’s previous works and techniques. In my opinion, The sun is not only one of Sokurov’s best works – it’s one of the finest examples of cinematic art of our time. Before I go into detail about it, I’d like to touch briefly on some of his previous works, by way of background.

His 1996 film Mother and son was my first exposure to him – it’s one of the most visually stunning works of cinema I’ve ever seen. Most of its individual frames would make incredibly beautiful and moving art prints. There are only two characters, the mother and son of the title – the mother is apparently dying, and her son has come to be with her in her final days. The tenderness, the love and care with which he treats her, is very real and extremely moving. As in most of the director’s films, there are many shots that are much longer than what film audiences have come to expect as the ‘norm’ – I believe the viewer is drawn into the world of the film more deeply as a result, experiencing time as the characters in the film experience it.

Many of the images in Mother and son appear to be ‘skewed’, adding to the feeling that reality and dreams are closer than we think. The colors are muted and soft, and the forces of nature are depicted in such a way as to make them incredibly palpable to the viewer. I’ve read that Sokurov achieved the unique visual effects seen in this work as the film was shot, without making any alterations in post-production – if you ever get the chance to see it, you’ll see why I’m impressed.

In 1999, Sokurov released Moloch – the first of a planned tetralogy on men in power, depicting turning points in their lives, usually taking place during a time of personal tragedy. The events shown take place over the course of a single weekend, in a fortress high in the mountains, focusing primarily on the relationship between Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun. Rather than limit the view of Hitler to one of a historical figure – as he has been portrayed in countless other films – Sokurov presents him more in a psychological, even humanistic light. This is not to say that he is depicted in a positive way – only that the director delves into his subject’s personality more deeply than most. Alexandra Tuchinskaya, the editor of Sokurov’s website (Island of Sokurov) explains: ‘Decay as the consequence of an act of the will is a constant subject of the majority of Sokurov’s works. This theme is further developed in Moloch. In this film Hitler is presented as a product of the decay of the whole epoch of culture – as a personification of the highest possible stage of Power, as a symbol of the absurdity of all the universal desires of man.’

The next film in the series was Taurus, released in 2000 – this time the director turned his attention to Russia in the early 1920s. Lenin is depicted as the ‘Diseased Leader’, as his time in power draws to a close. As in Moloch, the viewer sees more private aspects of the character’s life – the affects of Power on him as a human being, rather than a faceless actor on the stage of History. Again, from Sokurov’s website: ‘By confronting his disease, the historical personality turns out to be a simple human being, unable to change anything – not the destiny of the country under his rule, not even the destiny of his doomed, failed family, nor his own disintegrating personality…The film director has constructed an artistic and philosophical model of the destructive mechanism of an aggressive will that ultimately suppresses life in its bearer.’

In 2004’s Солнце (The sun), Sokurov turns his lens on the East – Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, as World War II draws to a close. Once again, the human aspects of the character are brought to the fore – and in this case the contrast with the Emperor’s historical depiction is even starker, given his status as ‘divine’ in the eyes of his people. As with all of his work, the pace of this film is anything but rushed – the atmosphere of time and place draws the viewer into the work gently but powerfully. The atomic bombs have already been unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the war is all but over. American troops are in Japan, and Hirohito is living in one of his laboratories (his hobby was marine biology) which is equipped with underground bunker facilities.

The Emperor’s humanity is depicted in even more stark contrast with his ‘historical’ image than those of Hitler and Lenin in the earlier films. Because of his ‘divine’ status, even the smallest daily functions of his life are performed for him by his staff: meals are served, doors are opened, schedules are orchestrated, and a valet dresses him. It’s obvious that he is an intelligent, sensitive man – but he is so completely out-of-touch with day-to-day activities and planning that he appears at times to be very child-like.

In a meeting with his military advisors, he resorts to poetry written by his grandfather in order to express his thoughts on the impending acceptance of the Japanese defeat – the military men are left to decide their plans for themselves. In this scene – as in a later scene when the Emperor meets with MacArthur – the point is made that most military decisions were made by the generals, admirals and ministers, leaving the Emperor ‘out of the loop’.

During a mid-afternoon nap, Hirohito is stirred by a vision – a sort of waking dream, if you like. In one of the most brilliant scenes from any film I’ve ever seen, Sokurov presents images of Japan in flames, bombs (in the shape of tiny fish) being delivered by flying fish with aircraft engines on their ‘wings’. Chaos, flames, smoke and destruction reign – and the Emperor is moved and stunned. It leaves him determined to bring the suffering of his people to an end. The actual request / demand for Hirohito to renounce his divine status is never depicted, but we are aware that it is a decision that he must make, a condition of Japan’s surrender – as important as honor is in Japanese culture, it is a decision that he makes with little hesitation. He sacrificed national pride in order to save human lives.

General MacArthur summons the Emperor to a meeting, apparently in an attempt to evaluate Hirohito’s true role and culpability in the manner in which Japanese troops conducted their side of the war. The Emperor arrives dressed impeccably in a formal suit and top hat – when the American general asks through an interpreter, tauntingly, why he didn’t wear his kimono, Hirohito answers in English (sparing the interpreter the shame of translating such a disrespectful query), ‘I only wear kimono for ceremonies of State – but today is a day of disgrace and grief for me’. Through his conversations with the Emperor at this meeting, and later, during a private dinner shared by the two men, MacArthur comes to the conclusion that Hirohito is being truthful with him – he recommends to Washington that the Emperor not be prosecuted as a war criminal.

The scene near the end of the film where we see the Empress and the Emperor coming face to face, after having been separated for some time by the events of the war, is incredibly moving. It’s as if they’re both walking on eggshells, terrified yet joyful at being granted the opportunity to become reacquainted. The tenderness they evince for each other is deeply moving. They walk off together, arm in arm, to reunite the Emperor with his children.

Sokurov’s vision and direction are operating on a level far above that of most filmmakers working today. With The sun, we see him working at the height of his powers – the viewer should not approach this film expecting a standard ‘war drama’ filled with action sequences, but rather with an open mind and heart. The reward received will be great. The sun is not an easy film to find in the United States – it has yet to be released on either DVD or video in this country, and it only enjoyed an extremely limited run in theatres, which is an artistic shame. Artificial Eye has a beautiful release available from the UK – but it’s only available as a region 2 DVD – hopefully this incredible film will be made more available to American audiences.
If you're interested in reading more on Sokurov and his work, I can suggest a couple of links:
Strictly Film School article on Sokurov (also further links available there)
Mother and son article on the Reverse Shot website

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