Aleksandr Sokurov: Delusions and grandeur

He is the great Russian director who once shot a whole film in a single take. Aleksandr Sokurov talks to Steve Rose about Soviet spies, fallen dictators – and how he got Putin to fund his latest work
Aleksandr Sokurov
Sokurov, whose new film Faust won at this year’s Venice festival Photograph: Linda Nylind for the
Sokurov, whose new film Faust won at this year’s Venice festival Photograph: Linda Nylind for the
Mon 14 Nov 2011 16.30 EST

At the end of a challenging conversation that, conducted via a translator, strains my intellectual faculties to their limit but barely flexes his, Aleksandr Sokurov makes an astounding statement. "I'm a very literary person, not so much a cinematographic person. I don't really like cinema very much."

Pardon? He doesn't like cinema very much? That's like hearing David Attenborough say he's never really liked animals. Here is a man who was persecuted by the communists for his films; the man who gave us a miraculous feature conducted in one single, unbroken shot, 2002's Russian Ark; the man who is the custodian of Russia's great cinematic heritage. What would he have done if he did like cinema?

Sokurov's films are characterised by poetic imagery, spiritual allusions, big, big themes and long, long takes. They can be challenging to the point of impenetrable, but when they work, the results are undeniably powerful, transcendent even. His international breakthrough, 1997's Mother and Son, struck deep spiritual and emotional chords with little more than two actors and a painterly eye for landscape. "Ten minutes in, I started quietly crying and continued to do so for the 73-minute duration," Nick Cave wrote at the time.

Russian Ark, a virtuoso tour of St Petersburg's Hermitage museum and its history, is probably Sokurov's most accessible work; but overshadowing his entire career is his "tetralogy of power", a magnum opus conceived in 1980 and only completed this year. The first three films focused on 20th-century leaders – Hitler in 1999's Moloch, Lenin in 2001's Taurus, and Emperor Hirohito in 2005's The Sun – pinning them down in isolated, almost abstract domestic situations. The final movie, a loose adaptation of Goethe's Faust, is almost a complete departure.

Due here next year, Faust is a hallucinatory period piece full of clutter, chatter, carnality and the usual unforgettable imagery. In the opening shot, the camera descends from the heavens, across a mountainous landscape, into a medieval-looking village, before settling on the genitals of a corpse out of which our doctor Faust is scooping the organs, searching for the human soul. The film, memorable yet demanding, won the top prize at this year's Venice film festival.

"They're all very serious, significant subjects," says Sokurov, himself the subject of a two-month retrospective now on at the BFI in London. "It's basically like a big novel, and novels take a long time." The Sun alone took 10 years of research, says the film-maker, a well-built man with greying hair and mournful blue eyes. "I was travelling to Japan regularly. I lived in different parts of the country. I met historians, people who were close to politics, to the emperor's family, writers, researchers, TV people. Then again, it took Goethe at least 40 years to write Faust!"

Why make three movies on historical subjects and one on a fictional one? "Why do you think?" I suggest Faust is a sort of prequel to the other three. "Maybe," he nods. Or is it that the first three deal with the death of power, whereas Faust addresses its acquisition? "But he never gets this power," Sokurov says. "It's impossible to have this power, because it doesn't really exist. It only exists to the extent to which people are ready to submit to it. Power is not material." Do some people have no choice but to submit to power? "No. There is always choice. Even during Stalin's terror, people had choices. They could betray or not betray, for example." Does he mean that people were persuaded, rather than forced, to submit to power?

'We enjoy being forced'

"I would be more precise, even," he replies. "They wanted it. Because it's the most comfortable position for most people. We enjoy being forced. It takes responsibility off your shoulders. People are more afraid of responsibility than anything else. Especially all-encompassing responsibility for your country, for the security of your people, for war and peace. Many millions survived only because they withdrew from these responsibilities. For example, they voted for Hitler, they tolerated Stalin. Millions of people did nothing to stop the Cultural Revolution in China. Just like now most of us are refusing to think about the conflict going on between Christian and Muslim civilisations."

But weren't these people just victims? He puts his hand on mine. "Of course," he says warmly. "Precisely."

We barely see the victims in Sokurov's films. His historic studies focus tightly on their subjects, portrayed as frail, fallible, almost ridiculous creatures with little power left to wield. In Moloch, Hitler is an arrogant hypochondriac, holed up with Eva Braun in his foggy mountain retreat. In Taurus, Lenin is irritable and bedridden, exiled to the countryside to live out his last days. And Hirohito is a beleaguered ex-deity, dazed by the reality of Japan's wartime defeat. In a way, suggests Sokurov, they are victims, too. "They submitted as well. They submitted to the desire of their compatriots, to their own weakness, to their own delusions. In reality, greatness and power are incompatible."

Sokurov's understanding of political power was not acquired solely through research. He made two documentaries on Boris Yeltsin in the years before he became president, which gave him a ringside seat at Russia's post-glasnost political chaos. Then there's his personal experience. Born in south-eastern Siberia, he grew up moving around the Soviet empire with his military family, before enrolling at the prestigious VGIK film school in Moscow. His student films were criticised for displaying "formalism and anti-Soviet views"; but his debut feature, 1979's The Lonely Voice of Man, earned the approval of the great Andrei Tarkovsky, who helped him find work. Bizarrely, Sokurov was allowed to continue making his "anti-Soviet" films throughout the 1980s.

"The totalitarian state doesn't have the objective of destroying artists but of making them submit to its influence," he says. "Dozens of artists gave up and did what was expected of them. There were not many who resisted. But I kept on fighting. It's happy to play cat and mouse with artists, up to a point." Sokurov knew he was reaching that point. He was summoned to KGB interrogations. He knew his colleagues in the film industry were writing reports about him. "Some of them I still see and say hello to. They don't know that I know." He even knows which Siberian labour camp he would have been sent to. "But suddenly God sent us Gorbachev. Otherwise I wouldn't be talking to you now."

Ironically, Sokurov finds it harder to make films in today's free market than he did in the Soviet era. That's the other reason his tetralogy has taken so long. He was preparing Faust, his most expensive film, just when the economic downturn struck, and couldn't find funding. But a surprise saviour stepped in: Vladimir Putin. Sokurov met Putin at the Russian PM's country residence. "I told him, if I don't have this opportunity to make this film, it will never happen. A few days later, I was told that the amount I needed was going to be allocated. How and why it happened I don't know. Maybe because he has a very clear idea of German culture and history. I don't think it was because of me. I've never demonstrated my loyalty to his party."

Wouldn't Putin himself make a good subject? "I'll never make films about people like Putin because they're not of interest to me." Does his association with Putin compromise him? "When I met him recently, he asked if I was going to dub Faust into Russian. Reading between the lines, you could see these words as a sort of order. But I wasn't afraid to say no to him. The money allocated by him was the state's, not his own. I don't know whether he has any money. According to his official salary, he shouldn't have any money. I can only be responsible to my audience, that's all."

Tarkovsky's apprentice

For all his fascination with political power, Sokurov has also presented the case for cultural power in his prolific output: his films have adapted stories by everyone from Chekhov to Dostoevsky, from Flaubert to George Bernard Shaw. And in the course of his many documentaries, he has chronicled some of Russia's most influential artists: composer Dmitri Shostakovich, writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, not to mention, Tarkovsky, whom he lovingly appraised in 1998's Moscow Elegy.

Sokurov himself could be said to be part of this great Russian tradition, although he describes himself as "more of a European". "Dickens, Flaubert, Zola, that's my world. That's what brought me up." It's in this context that he declares he doesn't like cinema very much. Nor, despite the regular comparisons, does he consider himself Tarkovsky's successor. "I never wanted to be his student. I loved him as a person. His death was the biggest loss of my life. I was half his age, but he treated me as an equal, with unlimited warmth and trust. I was embarrassed by it. It felt like admiration I could never actually deserve."

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