Moloch Review

Part of a proposed tetralogy based on historical figures at key moments in their lives, none of the subjects so far – Hitler (Moloch), Lenin (Taurus) or Hirohito (The Sun) would seem to lend themselves terribly well to the spiritual, lyrical filmmaking style of Alexander Sokurov. Nevertheless, in The Sun (2005) the Russian director was able to poetically touch on the essence of the contradictory nature of a man believed by himself and the Japanese nation to be the incarnation of the Sun God on earth, faced with ignominious defeat to America in the Second World War. As the subject of the earlier film Moloch (1999) however, a delving into the private life of a persona like Hitler presents a much greater challenge for poetic meditation. Sokurov bravely takes up the challenge, but the results are not completely convincing.

Set in 1942 at a crucial point in the progress of the War – one that would certainly be familiar with Sokurov with the focus of the war turning largely towards the Russian front - Moloch sees Adolf Hitler (Leonid Mozgovoy) retiring to his summer residence in Bavaria for a brief weekend break with his companion Eva Braun (Yelena Rufanova). Contrary to the expected image of beautiful mountain scenery that would be expected, Sokurov depicts the Fuhrer’s retreat as a dark fortress high in thunderous clouds that look like sulphurous mists, echoing to the hellish sounds of war telecommunications, death and destruction. Evil is indeed all around, but inside life goes on as it would for any hosts entertaining guests for the weekend – except in this case Eva and “Adi” ’s guests are Martin Bormann (Vladimir Bogdanov), Josef Goebbels (Leonid Sokol) and his wife Magda (Yelena Spiridonova) and a priest (Anatoli Shvedersky).

Successful depictions of Hitler on the screen are not that common – because of his public persona and notoriety, he is an almost impossible subject to approach as a human being. While the recent Downfall succeeded to a large degree in showing the reality of the Hitler’s last days, it was very much still from the known public face of the man. Sokurov bravely goes further than that and there is no sign of the grand architect and mad strategist plotting the course of the war even as the walls are crumbling around him. Sokurov’s intentions for Moloch are evidently to show a more human side of a notorious world leader as a normal man. Hitler is consequently depicted as a hypochondriac and a fanatical vegetarian, a man who likes to dance, listen to opera, make tasteless remarks over dinner, go for strolls and even take a crap outdoors while on a picnic. On his desk are not extermination orders for non-Aryans races or opponents of the Third Reich – he is shown as even being unaware of the existence of Auschwitz - but a sketchbook of watercolours and failed attempts at poetry.

It may seem like an old and far from convincing theory that Hitler’s drive to become a worldwide dictator stems from his failure as an artist – and it is – but in a way that is indeed Sokurov’s intention. His depiction of Hitler and his Nazi sidekicks is to show them as mediocrities and failures who could not succeed in their artistic endeavours as writers, journalists and filmmakers and, intellectually weak, they turn their unsound ideologies and self-hatred against what they see as inferior races and nations. Unconvincing it may be, but Sokurov’s argument is at least conceptually sound. Hitler was not a monster caught up in the course of history, he was a human being and his actions and behaviour must stem from something identifiable - blown out of all proportion evidently by the course of events and the political climate of the period – but ones with their roots firmly in human nature.

While this may be a sound enough concept and an undoubtedly brave one to confront in this manner against all traditional preconceptions, Sokurov’s lyrical treatment unfortunately doesn’t live up to its ambitions. Formally, the film is brilliant in terms of set design, its use of space, location and its complicated sound design, all of which effectively convey the necessary mood and ambience. It conveys not so much an air of evil as a sense of corruption, decadence and human weakness – both mental and physical – but it’s a weakness that is very dangerous with the machine of war behind it. Unfortunately, the actual mundanity of the depiction of Hitler and his cronies’ everyday lives and their intellectually challenged conversations grows very tedious over the course of more than an hour and a half of film. On more than one occasion – Eva Braun dancing in the nude, Hitler chasing her around a table in his drawers – Sokurov is perhaps more successful in humanising the Nazi dictator into a daft old man rather than showing how this weakness can turn into something much more dangerous.

Moloch is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

Typically for an Alexander Sokurov film, the image is so manipulated that is difficult to accurately assess the quality. Barring one significant issue however, the transfer on Soda Pictures release of Moloch looks exactly as it probably should – a clinical Digital Video image degraded somewhat with haziness, diffused lighting, grain and dark desaturated colours, much like Sokurov’s other films. Presented on a dual-layer disc, the transfer here handles the difficulties this presents exceptionally well, with no sign of dot-crawl, macroblocking or any other digital artefacts.

The original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 appears to have been retained and, according to the specifications on the DVD cover, it should be presented without anamorphic enhancement. The transfer however appears to be incorrectly flagged with the result that the non-anamorphic image is horizontally stretched out to widescreen. If you have a device where you can manually adjust the display settings, you can force the image back into 4:3 mode and see the film as it ought to be presented, but this could present some problems for anyone viewing the DVD on a PC. All the captures used in this review have been manipulated and squeezed back as close as I could get it to the correct aspect ratio (the screenshots are actually about 1.56:1, so are perhaps a little squashed in overcompensation). For comparison I’ve included screenshots below before and after the image has been squeezed back to a ratio closer to how it ought to look. Most televisions should be able to perform this correction more accurately

Moloch has a complex and busy sound mix that is typical of Sokurov films and usually requires a full surround mix to appreciate. The original sound mix for Moloch however is Dolby Digital Surround, and the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix included here would appear to replicate it very well. The soundtrack echoes with rumbles of distant thunder, crackling radio transmissions, ticking clock and whispered voices, and all are dynamically delivered with strong stereo separation. There is some slight analogue hiss audible however and some minor distortion on some of Hitler’s more strident pronouncements, but largely the soundtrack is excellent in conveying the essential tone of the film. Any lip-sync issues would be a consequence of the overdubbing of the Russian actors into German.

English subtitles are optional and in a clear white font.

Apart from the Soda Trailer Reel, there is only one extra feature directly related to the film, but it is a very useful and relevant one. The Making Of Moloch (49:14) is an extended interview with Alexander Sokurov, talking specifically about all aspects of the film, but also throwing some light on the director’s working methods and creative process. Inevitably, the question of cinema as art comes up frequently and Sokurov’s take on it is an unusual one, and related to his approach on Moloch in that he believes that the nature of art is not to elevate, but to affirm one’s ordinariness. You couldn’t ask for a better extra feature on the film than this.

Alexander Sokurov’s study of Adolf Hitler does not make any major revelations in moving away from the public persona of the man and showing him as a flawed and ordinary person, nor perhaps does its unconventional, lyrical treatment quite make the full necessary connection between the two disparate aspects. At the end of the film only, as Hitler prepares to return to the business of the war after his weekend break, the film fuses the two elements successfully and we glimpse the fact that his insane belief that he can conquer death through war is in reality an attempt to transcend its own mediocrity. It’s a powerful realisation but perhaps not one that justifies being in the company of these dull people for the remainder of the film, no matter how beautifully filmed and lyrically expressed it may be.

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