Military matters feature often in the films of Alexander Sokurov, but their duty and function is never viewed from the conventional perspective that you would expect for this subject. Even his two long documentary series Spiritual Voices (1995), following the lives of Russian troops on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, and Confession (1998) set on board a naval ship in the Arctic, are more impressionistic, personal, meditative and reflective of the inner lives of his subjects and the extreme conditions that they find themselves in as human beings. The distinction between what makes a person human and the conflict this represents with the perseption of them as military leaders is examined on a grander scale in the director’s proposed tetralogy of films based on historical figures – so far examining Hitler in Moloch (1999), Lenin in Taurus (2001) and Hirohito in The Sun (2005) – Sokurov going against the grain of normal representation of these important and imposing figures in his attempt to find the essential human element that lies behind each of them.
Following the journey of an elderly lady down to a military camp in the Chechnyan war zone to see her grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), an officer in the Russian army who she hasn’t seen in seven years, Alexandra similarly very much views the position of Russian troops in Chechnya from an unusual angle. From the perspective of this old lady (Galina Vishnevskaya, a famous Russian opera singer), wandering inquisitively around the camp, looking in on their quarters, speaking to both officers and soldiers, we find out nothing about the dangers they face or their belief in what they are doing. Alexandra Nikolaevna is more interested in finding out who these men are from what they have left behind. “I’m sick of this military pride”, she tells one officer, “you can destroy, when will you learn to rebuilt?” This might sound like a political comment – a weak one, and not one particularly well expressed verbally – but in reality Alexandra would seem to be talking about rebuilding the human characteristics and values that have been replaced by military ones. The concept of “freedom” is meaningless to men with no home life, no wives – many of them are divorced – no money of their own and no ability to walk out of the camp as she does, mingle with the locals and buy simple things like cigarettes. They are well-fed, their needs looked after in the camp, but still they are hungry, lacking some other need that they are unable to define.
It’s the ability to suggest and define what this need is that is the strength of Sokurov’s technique, not just here in but elsewhere in his work, and its is what ultimately determines its success. Sokurov does this by drawing on those earlier meditations of the extreme circumstances of men in the military, and aligning them in Alexandra with his thematic trilogy on family relationships, the existing films Mother And Son (1997), Father and Son (2003) to be completed with Two Brothers and a Sister. It’s this unusual combination of elements that in the absence of any conventional or even specific events, conflicts or expression through dialogue ultimately draws those human elements from the soldiers. There are direct correlations in the circumstances of the father and son of Father and Son being soldiers (although in that case the converse situation of using military bearing to draw something deeper out of their relationship was I thought less successful), but most notably in the scene where Denis carries his weary grandmother in a display of deep love, care and affection that is straight out of the rather more successful Mother And Son.
In Alexandra the other soldiers no doubt also see their own mothers and grandmothers and, watching the old woman walk around the camp, seeing how she interacts with people outside the camp, listening to her question the basic freedoms they have given up, it brings out their own lost or submerged humanity. In particular, watching Alexandra sit down to a simple but wholesome meal, the hunger in their eyes – that hunger that is not sated by the ample food provisions – is seen to be the hunger for family togetherness, communion of a kind that the military cannot provide. Those values however are expressed by Sokurov in many other ways – some just as direct and obvious, as in her relationships with the locals and her advice to one young man native to the region that wisdom is the greatest gift one can have, but others less easily defined. In the desaturated golden brown tones, the world seems to be coloured by the presence of the soldiers, their uniforms blending with the sand and dust of the surrounding land. Elsewhere, Sokurov characteristically blends sounds, music, indiscernible murmurings, plays with shifts of light, morphing and tilting the image to create a symphony of impressions. If the film lacks any definable conventional narrative drive then, the overwhelming richness of all the other elements at his disposal as a filmmaker and Sokurov’s consummate ability as an artist ensures that the ultimate humanitarian meaning of his film is abundantly clear, at least – and probably most appropriately - on a sensory rather than a rational level.
Alexandra is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is not region coded.
Shot on HD cameras and often subjected to a large degree of manipulation in colour, tone and even shape, it’s often difficult to assess the quality of transfers of Sokurov’s films. In the case of Alexandra it’s not too difficult to see that Artificial Eye have given it a fine transfer – anamorphic, progressive at a 1.66:1 aspect ratio - but there are a few curious features that may or may not be intentional or simply just a side-effect of the digital processing. The image itself is clean, clear and sharp, the desaturated colours much as you would expect, giving the film that usual luminous golden ethereal look of much of Sokurov’s recent work, as are the morphing shifts and tilts in image. There is a faint jerkiness in panning shots, but there are few of these – there’s one looking at the ground from the moving train early in the film – and possibly what looks like a faint jump in one place, both possibly a consequence of the conversion of the digital image to 24fps (from the running time, PAL speed-up seems to have been applied). In isolated sections of the film I also noticed banding, horizontal tracking lines, haloing and some low-level noise turning shadows into flat blues – but none of these issues are consistent throughout the film and probably a result of the aforementioned post-production manipulation of the image. A good transfer then, but perhaps not perfect – if such a thing is even possible to determine in a Sokurov film.
The film comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. Such is the expansive use made of the soundtrack elements on Sokurov films that I’ve complained before of the stereo track being insufficient for the purpose, but the Dolby Digital 2.0 track here copes reasonably well. It’s no match however for the surround Dolby Digital 5.1 track which is active on every level, with murmuring voices, ambient noise, snatches of music and swathes of symphonic sound dispersed all around. Lower frequencies sound a little dull and muffled, but this is mostly murmured voices which are not meant to be distinguishable.
English subtitles are optional and in a clear white font. For those who don’t speak Russian, subtitles are problematic on Sokurov films, often obscuring foregrounds and distracting from focal points and upsetting compositional arrangements, but they are a necessary evil and are handled here as well as can be expected.
Interview with Alexander Sokurov (14:46)
An exclusive interview with Sokurov literally gets to the roots of the director’s method of working, Sokurov explaining how he allows the branches of the film to grow freely and organically from the roots of a very definite idea, and seeing the film being very much within a Russian literary tradition (the connection to Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Sebastopol Stories particularly evident in their human interest approach to war). The director also considers questions of war, killing, politics and the place of humanity in all this and his depth of feeling for the subject is obvious.
Interview with Andrei Sigle (8:25)
The producer and composer talks about his approach to scoring the director’s films and how this one differed, inspired by the filming itself and the location in Chechnya, most particularly a visit to Beslan, where the school massacre took place. As producer, he talks about his responsibility to keep the crew safe in a dangerous region, and discusses the film’s reception in Russia.
A beautiful trailer, it’s long but captures the subject of the film and its tone. Evidently, there are no spoilers.
The director’s filmography covers only his feature film work, not the documentaries, shorts, elegies, TV work or other indefinable pieces.
A silent sideshow gallery pans over a few of the promotional stills for the film.
I don’t think that Alexandra is any easier to approach than any other film by Alexander Sokurov, the director’s techniques being as far removed from any traditional treatment of the subjects of war and military operations as his other films on the subject. The deeply humanist stance of the director and his ability to reach those levels through his extraordinary use of every visual and aural element open to the filmmaker – elements that surprisingly few other directors take full advantage of – allows this message however to come through clearly and powerfully. Artificial Eye’s fine DVD release also assists by giving those qualities in the film the best possible transfer.