The films of Aleksandr Sokurov hold true to the classical representation of the cinema as a primarily visual medium. For over 30 years, the Russian experimentalist has drifted effortlessly between fiction, nonfiction, and documentary narratives, often blurring the lines between these varying modes of presentation, but in each instance has betrayed an unparalleled commitment to the aesthetics of iconography. In the 2008 documentary Questions About Cinema, Sokurov posits that, "Even a single word said on screen becomes an image." And that theory is certainly reinforced in the man's work. Take nearly any individual image from any of his films, regardless of context, from The Second Circle to Mother and Son to Russian Ark, and what you're left with an exquisitely constructed, delicately captured moment of artistic synergy, one vivid yet intangible enough to instill a fleeting sense of mystery, terror, or romance in the viewer.
One could say, then, that Sokurov is less formalist than impressionist, and in that sense his list of influences, which seemingly reference everyone and everything except that which is related to the cinema, register at once as spiritual foundation and aesthetic inspiration. If Andrei Tarkovsky, the one name critics consistently reach for in an effort to align Sokurov with some sort of spiritual cinematic predecessor, was said to be "sculpting in time," then Sokurov, for his part, is painting in even more temporal brushstrokes. "The surface of the screen and that of the canvas are one and the same," Sokurov once said, and the man's work has indeed felt preternaturally attuned to processes traditionally attributed to that of non-cinematic visual stylists, particularly the work of mid-millennium renaissance painters. Yet despite the archaic allegiances, Sokurov's films never feel grounded in a bygone era, instead freely floating between periods both past and present, real and imagined, refusing to settle or be interpreted solely through lineage.
Sokurov has gradually constructed more concrete historical frameworks around his films (his "Tetralogy of Power" representing the peak of this methodology thus far), but from the beginning he's utilized works of literary and historical import as prisms through which to reflect on the transient nature of our collective existence. In fact, three of his best early works take as inspiration major literary touchstones. Save and Protect, Stone, and Whispering Pages—three of the five features Sokurov made between 1989 and 1994—all have roots in academia to varying degrees, but unlike later biographical interpretations such as Moloch or The Sun, these works divorce character from their respective source material, allowing the films to work beyond contextual constraints and register on a more ingrained, emotional level. The result is a grave procession of some the most bracing and unforgettable visual dioramas of Sokurov's career.
Save and Protect, ostensibly an adaptation of Madame Bovary, takes Gustave Flaubert's sexually autonomous protagonist and a succession of her encounters and conquests and abandons much of the novel's remaining narrative in favor of a more existential portrait of a woman in search of her true self. Unlike much of Sokurov's work from the period, Save and Protect is a comparatively dynamic, plot-oriented affair, with dialogue working alongside the washed-out color palette, gathering a notable forward momentum. As such, it plays as a precursor of sorts to Sokurov's latest film, Faust, with its barrage of feverish exposition, bridging a gap between these two periods in a manner many may not have predicted as he has mostly worked in more meditative modes in the years since. As suggested by the above quotation, as well as intimated by his liberal delineation between fiction and documentary forms of filmmaking, Sokurov seems to treat dialogue (and, by extension, narrative) as another shade in his aesthetic palette, adding, subtracting, even disregarding, as befits his current project/portrait.
Stone and Whispering Pages, meanwhile, represent the darker, more abstract result of Sokurov's meditations on mortality, and stand as two of his most beguiling works. The former, a haunted tour of Anton Chekhov's house guided by a young caretaker and the ghost of the modernist Russian writer and dramatist himself, is a near-wordless rumination on our cyclical physical essence, and an enrapturing vision of our finite bodies as vessels to keep the soul alive, even in death. The latter, a thematic transposition of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment narrative, treats existence as no less impermanent, but imparts less hope for the fate of the spirit. The characters in these two films wander among the landscape like—and in some cases, as—apparitions, ruminating on humanity and our futile attempts at spiritual connection. The distended, disorienting compositional strategies employed on each only further emphasize the sense of impermanence to which these characters have long resigned.
And that's where Tarkovsky and Sokurov diverge most sharply: Both express awe in the face of the physical world, but where his predecessor reconciled fate with that of the unforeseen and the miraculous (see the denouement of Stalker or the resurrections in Mirror and The Sacrifice), Sokurov's cinema braces for the inevitable, often times eulogizing the past, but never suggesting anecdotal reality as any less dire than that of our own. Sokurov's cinema is open to experience, but mostly plays on memory and dreams and the fine line separating the two. His work is malleable and not easily outlined, but is unmistakably alive, a living, breathing visual manifestation of our inner reality and one therefore specific to individual experience. But Sokurov himself is quick to counteract concrete interpretation, continuing in the aforementioned interview that, "Image isn't analyzable. It can't be understood. You can only feel it." Feeling certainly permeates every frame of Sokurov's films, and the heightened, palpable, overwhelming sensations inspired by his best work—to which Save and Protect, Stone, and Whispering Pages undoubtedly belong—continue to transcend artistic boundaries.
We often take film preservation for granted, particularly for works of a recent vintage. But it's something to keep in mind while exploring the Sokurov: Early Masterworks collection. Cinema Guild makes it a point to note how precarious the condition of the original materials comprising their new set truly are: The prints for Save and Protect and Stone were rather shamefully neglected, and it shows in the rough shape in which they survive. Scratches and damage marks persist, and contrast tends to flicker, particularly in the darker passages of Stone. It would likely take a full-scale digital restoration to even potentially curb some of the celluloid's inherent imperfections—something that films of such niche appeal probably won't be receiving anytime soon. In their current presentation, both are watchable and, honestly, kind of beautiful in their imperfection, not unlike the artistic artifacts Aleksandr Sokurov pays tribute to in the films themselves.
The original print of Whispering Pages, meanwhile, was reportedly "completely unusable." In fact, if not for a 35mm negative recently located in Germany we may never have seen this film make its way into the digital realm at all. To that end, I can confidently state—judging, at least, from the bootleg of the film that I've made due with for years—that this presentation of Whispering Pages is one of the more revelatory home-viewing experiences I can remember. Believe it or not, I had no knowledge that the film was originally shot in a combination of both color and black-and-white stock, so dark, muddy, and near-indiscernible were its images in bootleg form. This new Blu-ray—the only film in the set, presumably based on the condition of the existing material, to receive the 1080p treatment (it's also included in DVD format on a third disc)—features a straight, un-restored transfer. But the negative survives in nice enough shape to warrant significant praise for Cinema Guild's curatorial effort of this little-seen masterpiece.
Sound quality is more or less consistent with each film's respective look. Much of the dialogue in Save and Protect and Stone is muddy and low in the mix, difficult to hear at times, particularly with Sokurov's classical music cues competing with ambient noise amid a shallow sound field. Each of these Dolby 2.0 mixes (in Russian with removable subtitles) play about as well as possible considering the source. Whispering Pages again fares better than its counterparts with the capacity for high-definition audio. The DTS-HD Master Audio track (mislabeled on the box as another Dolby mix) adeptly handles Sokurov's busy mix, with its low ambience, non-diagetic field recordings, and classical recordings all humming evocatively in the middle distance. Dialogue, when present, is pushed more to the forefront than in the other films, resulting in a pleasing overall aural experience. It should go without saying that simply having these films at our disposal is this set's biggest blessing for hardcore cinephiles, regardless of A/V limitations.
Extras are a stacked mix of various Sokurov shorts and documentaries, interviews, and audio material. The highlight of supplements, however, is critic and curator James Quandt's extraordinarily detailed and informative audio commentary for Stone. Quandt digs into themes, compositional strategies, and contextual information, as well as the film's place within the greater Sokurov canon. It's an essential companion piece to a mysterious, under-discussed film. The three documentaries directed by Sokurov, which include Soviet Elegy, An Example of Intonation, and Diary of St. Petersburg, come from roughly the same period as the features and deal with the political and cinematic figures Boris Yeltsin and Grigori Koztinsev, respectively. Elsewhere, Sokurov further anticipates his later obsessions with dictatorships with the 1979 short, Sonata for Hilter, also included. Rounding out the extras is a 30-minute BBC audio program dedicated to a discussion of Anton Chekhov's house, the setting for Stone, and Questions About Cinema, the hour-long documentary interview with Sokurov which provided many of the above quotations.
This handsome, expertly curated collection rescues from certain fate three of Russian master Aleksandr Sokurov's greatest films. Along with an impressive array of documentaries, shorts, and an invaluable audio commentary, this is essential viewing for anyone interested in the continued vitality and preservation of film. [Slant]