Part of our ongoing From the Vidéothèque Vault series, Chris Houkal explores Alexander Sokurov’s Confessions (1998). Shot aboard a Russian Navy ship in the late 90’s, this five-part epic is a strikingly beautiful, achingly sad meditation on desperation and loneliness on the high seas.
The storm covers skies with darkness,
Spinning snowy whirlwinds tight;
Now it wails like a beast wildest,
Now it cries like a weak child.
Let us drink, o comrade dear
Of my youth, so poor and hard, –
‘Gainst our woe; is a cup here?
It will cheer the saddened heart.
– Last stanza of “Winter Evening” by Alexander Pushkin
By all measures Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 magnum opus Russian Ark is a landmark in film history. As much a testament to the potential of filmmaking as it is an engrossing lesson in Russia’s long, sad history, Russian Ark astounds on nearly every level. Sokurov may not have invented the long take (for an interesting list of famous long takes read this), but he surely pushed it to new heights with this film: at 96 minutes, it remains, to my knowledge, the longest film consisting of a single take ever made. There isn’t a single cut. Not one. (Look here for more on Sokurov’s take on time and editing.) And it never gets dull. What a slap in the face to the Transformer fanboys of the world. Newsflash – drama doesn’t require quick, short cuts. Of course, this is no secret: For thousands of years theaters have been doing drama live with nary an edit. Long live the long take!
If Alexander Sokurov’s Confession isn’t quite as audacious an effort as Russian Ark, it remains fascinating in its own right. Made a few short years before the latter film, Confession explores some similar territory even though it employs a very different aesthetic. From a stylistic standpoint, for example, it also relies heavily on the extreme long take. When it’s done well, as it is here, there’s something about this technique that seems to implicate the viewer in the story itself. I can’t quite put my finger on the how or why of it, suffice it to say that there’s nothing like numerous fast cuts to remind you that you’re watching a film. Life just isn’t made up of five-second shots edited together for action’s sake with all the boring bits cut out. How unreal. And if nothing else Sokurov is a director obsessed with presenting life onscreen, real life, with all the dead time and loneliness and pervasive sadness that real life has to offer.
Like Russian Ark, Confession has a lot going on beneath its surface. Where the former film attempted to tell the tragic history of Russia via ghosts wandering through the Hermitage, Confession is strictly personal. I still haven’t determined exactly what this film is – there’s simply no category to stick it in. It was shot aboard a Russian naval ship with real sailors. So it’s a documentary, right? Sort of, but the narrative and dream sequences (which can’t yet be filmed to my knowledge) somewhat belie such a categorization. But the use of non-actors simply doing their daily tasks while a camera roles kind of rules out fiction, at least as a strict definition. Confession seems to lie somewhere between documentary and fiction, with the sailors and commander actually going about their business while a tacked on narrative and spliced in dream sequences blend and blur the two genres. What is beyond question, however, is that this is a film of pure reflection.
Take the repeated shots of waves and swirling snow. Can there be anything more meditative? I admit to being put into a somewhat catatonic state after parts one and two. No, I wasn’t bored nor had I fallen asleep. I was thinking. My initial thoughts centered on the look of the film – after all, film is a visual art – its rough, almost degraded feel. Why would such a talented filmmaker choose to shoot on what appears to be video – isn’t 35mm the pinnacle of the medium? On top of this, most of the exterior shots are unlit, resulting in barely recognizable images. Confession was filmed in the Arctic, I reminded myself, and we’re told that the sun comes out just ten minutes a day there. Darkness reigns supreme, and to Sokurov, a man concerned with nothing if not filmic truth, the use of artificial lighting here would be tantamount to sacrilege. I realized that this film is about the darkness.
This epiphany led me to delve deeper: Why shouldn’t this film look the way it does? Why is it that all films have to follow a particular “look”? I hate to admit that I, like most members of the filmgoing public, have just come to expect certain things from my movies. But, honestly, what difference does it make, especially when so many films today are mere lookers with so little substance? Confession has something to say and does so via the use of minimally obtrusive visuals.
Once you accept the image quality you realize there really is something oddly mesmerizing about it. Even as it forced me to question my most basic expectations for a film, I must confess that I became fully absorbed in the barely lit shots, often static camera movement, and rather spartan soundtrack. There is something of the Monet in many of his compositions, very free and light, and, well, impressionistic. Especially the scenes on land. They have a seductive quality to them that is hard to describe.
The story as such, comprised of the commander’s inner thoughts (or narrated diary entries), is a difficult one. The film is called Confession, and that seems to be exactly what’s going on, though I’m not absolutely sure what it is that he’s confessing. Considering the sheer agglomeration of shots featuring half/fully-naked young men, a lengthy physical exam requiring certain boys completely undress, as well as several reaction shots of boys looking on suggestively as others bathe, it seems that this confession could very possibly be that of his homosexuality. As a sailor, and especially an officer, this of course could never be admitted – and so the confession itself is never direct. But, for me, the confession could just as easily be that the commander is not a military man at heart. He isn’t cut out for the long, solitary expeditions. He’s bored, he wants to do other things. He says at one point, “I don’t live, I survive.” This seems to me more a complaint about the tolls taken on him by the elements and solitude than the confession of a closeted gay man. He is getting by but only in that he still breathes. Like the speaker in Pushkin’s “Winter Evening”, Confession’s ship commander finds himself alone in a world of spinning snow and crying wind. Never mind that he’s surrounded by young sailors – as the man in charge he has no one with whom he can share a cup (made even more desperate if you subscribe to the homosexual interpretation). His is a life of thankless responsibility.
Near the end of the film the commander has this to say: “One should live a life of imagination, of fancy, not the life of cold grey sky.” Hear hear! Our ship commander is a poet. Perhaps he comes from a long line of naval men and his fate was unavoidable – he was groomed since birth to be what he now is. But this is not the life for him. It is telling that the activities that we (and presumably he) see onboard the ship are mostly of men lying around or completing the same monotonous task they do every day in ritual manner – there is nothing fanciful or imaginative in any of this. In contrast, those sequences in which the commander tells of past incidents appear abstract and shadowy, very fanciful… but fading.