On Cinematic Ekphrasis: Aleksandr Sokurov’s Otets i syn Redux
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Once regarded as solely a literary device, ekphrasis—the re-presentation in one medium of a representation in another medium—has been part of filmmakers’ toolset since cinema’s inception. New technologies introduced over the past thirty years have enhanced the quality and quantity of ekphrastic re-presentation across media and expanded the functions ekphrastic allusions play in film narrative. Aleksandr Sokurov relies heavily on ekphrasis, but the tendency to interpret his work relying on ostensible themes has led to confusion about his parametric narratives (here following David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film), particularly interpretation of the ekphrastic allusions on which those narratives build. The present paper proposes a revision of held opinion on Sokurov’s film Otets i syn (Father and Son, 2003) through a close reading that explicates ekphrastic allusions, their sources, and the ways in which they combine to form narrative, offering a possible framework for analysis and interpretation of Sokurov’s other films.
Aleksandr Sokurov has been making films for near fifty years, and for almost as many years his work has elicited vastly divergent reactions—from amazement and delight to confusion and disapprobation. Of all his films, Otets i syn (Father and Son) is among the most confounding. Viewers in attendance at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, where the film premiered, were shocked by opening shots of the eponymous heroes in bed, scantily dressed, wrestling, and groaning. The few journalists attending the press conference afterward besieged Sokurov with questions about “incestual homoeroticism.”  Variety reported: “. . . the film has an unintentional but unmistakable homoerotic subtext which transfixed many viewers, and which could become, paradoxically, its major commercial selling point.” Russian critics used its “selling point” abroad to derail it at home: “Explicit incest fills the screen for several minutes. . . We’ll note immediately that foreign viewers remain convinced that the film’s meaning rests on a homosexual relationship between father and son. [ . . . ] [O]bviously, Sokurov intended precisely this.” To this day Sokurov is attacked in the Russian press for using this film to promote “untraditional values” (a crime in the Russian Federation). Sokurov, in response, has vehemently denied anything sexual in his “chaste” film: “For the father his son is still the child he once carried in his arms: how can anyone find vulgarity in that? . . .”
Sokurov’s protests have gone unheeded: Otets i syn quickly acquired the reputation of a gay soft-porn classic, and that reputation followed it into the scholarly literature. José Alaniz bemoaned critics’ focus “rather obsessively” on the homoerotic, but essentially followed Armand White’s queer reading, while proposing additional thematic sources in Sokurov’s real-life vision problems. Jeremi Szaniawski devoted a chapter of his monograph to the film’s homoeroticism and the director’s (supposed) homosexuality. Mikhail Iampolski, who has written extensively on Sokurov, cautioned against such readings as “misleading” and “extravagant,” but offered no alternative. With viewers and critics focusing on the film’s ostensible homoerotic “themes” and Sokurov vigorously denying them, Otets i syn seemed to merit reconsideration using an analytical approach to cinematic narrative that would accommodate such radically divergent readings.
In the 1980s, faced with similar challenges to thematically based interpretation raised by late modernist cinema, David Bordwell and Noël Burch advanced the concept of parametric narration. In the parametric narrative “style [is] promoted to the level of a shaping force in the film” and takes precedence over ostensible theme in the creation of syuzhet. “If a film's stylistic devices achieve prominence, and if they are organized according to more or less rigorous principles, independent of syuzhet needs, then we need not motivate style by appealing to thematic considerations.” Following Bordwell, “I take style to be a film’s systematic and significant use of techniques of the medium. Those techniques fall into broad domains: mise en scene (staging, lighting, performance, and setting); framing, focus, control of color values, and other aspects of cinematography; editing; and sound. Style is, minimally, the texture of the film’s images and sounds, the result of choices made by the filmmaker(s). . . .” In Otets i syn, I hope to demonstrate in this paper, Sokurov’s stylistic choices were governed, as the director stated in the same interview at Cannes, by his desire to create a “cinematic fairy tale” not bound by the constraints of real life or conventional notions of how fathers and sons interact. “I ask that when you write about this film you tell your readers: observe carefully what is taking place in the film. . . . Don’t rush to insert your own problems and complexes into the work of art. Don’t destroy the work, allow it to exist as it was created.” He could not have issued a stronger invocation to address the film’s style before interpolating theme.
The present analysis will address a range of stylistic devices Sokurov introduced in Otets i syn, but it will center on a feature that, while suggested in earlier studies, has not, to my knowledge, been explored as a fundamental instrument in Sokurov’s toolbox, that is, cinematic ekphrasis. Inherited from classical rhetoric, until recently ekphrasis has been regarded largely as a literary device, Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Dostoevsky’s depiction of Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520–1522) in The Idiot providing classic examples. As new technologies have provided more opportunities to employ the device across media, the concept of ekphrasis has expanded to include the re-presentation in one medium of a representation in another medium, regardless of media. Beyond verbal re-presentations of visual representations, ekphrasis may involve visual allusions to visual texts in other media (e.g., to painting in cinema), visual or verbal re-presentations of music (e.g., Paul Klee’s “harmony” paintings), or musical re-presentations of verbal or visual phenomena (e.g., Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition). Similarly, transmedial ekphrasis may be realized to varying degrees, from subtle quotation to explicit dramatization. A sub-category of intertextualité as introduced by Julia Kristeva, ekphrasis differs from other types of intertextual allusion in two significant ways. First, ekphrastic transpositions must occur across different media: the medium of the re-presented representation must differ from that of the representation. Second, in order for the transposition to be appreciated as trans-medial, the re-presented representation must be indexed as originally belonging to another medium. The index may be explicit, as in The Idiot where Dostoevsky describes the Holbein as a “painting” or when the camera in Sokurov’s Russkii kovcheg (Russian Ark, 2002) captures not only the images, but their frames and the rooms of the Hermitage Museum that hold them. But indexing may also be indirect, realized perhaps only as a violation of the formal features of the framing medium (in Sokurov’s case—film) to accommodate the form of the re-presented representation (e.g., painting). The notoriously slow pace of Sokurov’s narratives has already been related to the similarly often-commented painterly quality of his film images, but to note these features as violations of cinematic convention is to stop short of defining their function. As Julia Kristeva insisted in her explication of intertextualité, the transposition of “various signifying systems into another . . . implies the abandonment of a former sign-system” for the creation of a new one.
How Sokurov’s ekphrastic transpositions create new meanings, as well as the difficulty of identifying ekphrastic transpositions in his work, can be illustrated with one example from Faust (2011). At the conclusion of this “free” recasting of Goethe’s original, following Faust’s rape of Gretchen, the Pawnbroker (aka Mephistopheles) dresses Faust in medieval armor. To insure that the armor does not pass unnoticed, Sokurov’s camera captures how the armor inhibits Faust’s movements, first as he clumsily mounts his horse, then as he struggles through rocky passageways. Absent from Goethe’s original, violating the film’s nineteenth-century mise-en-scène, complicating the protagonists’ movement, and serving no other apparent purpose, the “borrowed” armor signals an ekphrastic transposition of Hubert Lanzinger’s propaganda poster Der Bannerträger (The Standard Bearer, ca. 1934–36) onto Goethe’s narrative (figures 1, 2), which in turn places the seemingly apolitical hedonist doctor in a direct line with at least one of the central protagonists of the “power” series Faust concludes, Adolf Hitler. Ironically, German viewers, who noted in Faust allusions to the work of Biedermeier painter Carl Spitzweg, appear not to have caught the allusion introduced by the armor.
Like the armor in Faust, Sokurov’s ekphrastic allusions in other films generally occur where, to paraphrase Bordwell, the film's stylistic devices achieve prominence independent of syuzhet needs, that is, when a disconnect emerges between image and ostensible theme. The scandalous opening scene of Otets i syn illustrates. What shocked viewers at Cannes was the disjuncture between the film’s title (at that point all viewers had to rely on for theme) with the style of the scene. Extreme close-ups shot through soft filters are visual conventions for intimacy; combined with mise-en-scène—scantily clad actors embracing in “gladelike” surroundings, the scene’s style would seem to fit the film’s title only in one way. But initial associations are immediately challenged by the characters’ actions and their dialogue: the men never engage in sex or even kiss, and the dialogue addresses Aleksei’s recurring nightmares. Further, stylistic elements combine with dialogue to indicate not proximity, but distance between the protagonists. As Aleksei dreams himself in a verdant field, Father looks out across the fourth wall of cinematic space, to ask:
A parallel violation of the fourth wall of cinematic space occurs seventy-two minutes later in the film’s closing segment, as mise-en-scène restores the film’s opening setting, a crosscut reintroduces the verdant field, now empty, Aleksei lies asleep in bed, undressed, birds once again chirp in the background, and Father—mission accomplished—exits onto the snow-covered roof, barefoot, wearing only pajama bottoms. This time Aleksei, unseen, asks from extra-diegetic space, and Father answers, again through the screen’s fourth wall:
As Gérard Genette noted in his study of narrative, such metaleptic insertions as breaks in the screen’s fourth wall “produce an effect of strangeness” and “play on the double temporality of the story and the narrating.” In Otets i syn these parallel breaks through the fourth wall suggest that although they occupy the same screen space in a dream-like, almost heavenly, setting, Aleksei and Father are in some way temporally and spatially removed from each other, their separation the source of Aleksei’s distress, alleviated only when Father appears nearby. What separates Father and Aleksei? Put another way, what occurs in the seventy-two minute segment separating these two scenes? Unified by their identical stylistic features, the opening and closing segments form one of the film’s two chronotopes, the function of which, in Roland Barthes’ terms, is “hermeneutic”: “to articulate in various ways a question, its response, and the variety of chance events which can either formulate the question or delay its answer; or even, constitute an enigma and lead to its solution.”
Events depicted in the film’s second chronotope, the seventy-two minutes bracketed by this frame, are introduced when Aleksei remarks, “Now I see you,” as he falls asleep in Father’s arms. This second chronotope, again following Barthes, functions proairetically, providing “the code of actions and behavior.” In this second chronotope the comforting realm of Aleksei’s bedroom has been replaced by the harsh realities of the real world, and the segues back and forth between the two chronotopes are marked stylistically to underscore the difference: close-ups give way to mid-shots and full shots; lighting brightens and focus sharpens; softly filtered pastel tones intensify into the vivid colors of mid-afternoon. As the setting moves from bedroom to a park, the men’s whispers are covered by women’s laughter. These stylistic differences between the two chronotopes have been noted before. One critic commented that the vision of the boisterous women was part of a dream, but he did not explore the significance of this dream for the plot. Another scholar commented on the stylistic resemblances between the opening and closing segments, but she also stopped short of considering the narrative implications of the film’s circular structure.
Set apart stylistically, the two chronotopes present narrative in differing ways. Events in the hermeneutic chronotope occur in the space of several minutes within and/or around an enclosed space and, more importantly, are governed by cause and effect: Aleksei has a nightmare and calls for Father, Father comes to rescue Aleksei, Aleksei falls back asleep, Father withdraws. Events in the proairetic chronotope span a whole day, from Saturday to Sunday, occur indoors and outdoors, and, while the events themselves seem realistic enough, they occur in unrealistically rapid succession, punctuated by coincidences and non-sequiturs, with little cause-and-effect logic. Girlfriend and Father arrive at Aleksei’s institute simultaneously. Aleksei brings home a bag of laundry one night, then changes out of his fatigues to go to bed, waking the next morning fully dressed in a new uniform he says he brought home the night before. Fyodor, the son of Father’s army friend, Nikolai, arrives at the apartment for a second time in twenty-four hours yet asks Father if he recognizes him. During his visit he, Aleksei, and Sasha (Aleksei’s close friend) spend a full three minutes of screen time (39:06–42:07) cavorting on a plank connecting apartments, receive a scolding from Father, then engage in a Thomas-Eakins-esque wrestling match that culminates in a torn undershirt. Without further comment, as if the fight had never occurred, Fyodor then departs, still ignorant of his father’s whereabouts and agreeing to meet Aleksei an hour later, although neither mentions where. In town Sasha stalks Aleksei and Fyodor, and somehow passes unnoticed despite the close quarters of the tram they ride to follow Aleksei to Girlfriend’s new apartment, although Girlfriend had never disclosed her new address to Aleksei. After an argument with Girlfriend, Aleksei returns home to blame Father for having always overshadowed him, as Father, once again, implores Aleksei to eat. The absence of cause and effect to link these events has led even experienced critics to consider the film “plotless” and to focus on themes to construct meaning. Rather than obviating plot, though, these slips and gaps stylistically connect the sequences within the proairetic chronotope as the visions of Aleksei’s nightmares: “The dreamer works to regulate and reduce . . . distress by recontextualizing the dream imagery, constructing a story or sequence of shifting images [ . . . ]. When this works, successive dreams over the course of the night become less troubling; when it fails, the sleeper may awaken with a frightening dream.”
Discontinuities within the proairetic chronotope and the disjuncture between the film’s proairetic and hermeneutic chronotopes point to a parametric narrative: “The parametric syuzhet will thus tend to be recognizable by its deformities. One symptom is an abnormal ellipticality. Causes and effects may be disjoined, major scenes may be omitted, duration may be skipped over.” Significant here is “ellipticality”: the two chronotopes must be linked by a central occurrence that both causes Aleksei’s nightmares and makes possible Father’s return to comfort him. That event is Father’s death. But his death is never depicted on screen, it remains to be inferred. In the next section I will address sequences of ekphrastic allusions that taken together indicate unambiguously that Father visits Aleksei from beyond the grave, as Aleksei’s guardian angel.
As noted earlier, at film’s end, the season has changed to winter, the roof covered with snow and ice, although minutes earlier in screen time Father had said that the White Nights (late June) kept him from sleeping. Were it still June and not snowing, Father’s exit onto the roof would hardly raise questions. But why, barefoot and barely dressed, would he risk life and limb, slipping on a precarious icy plank, to sit in the snow at the edge of the roof, instead of retiring to his room? At roof’s edge, though, actor Andrei Shchetinin not merely sits down, he positions himself, shoulder blades protruding like truncated wings (figure 3), in the pose of a grieving “angel of solitude” (figure 4).
Father’s appearance as an angel on the roof is his last in that guise, but I cite it first because typically the key to the style-driven parametric narrative occurs near the end of the film, causing viewers to re-evaluate scenes earlier in the film. This is precisely what happens in Otets i syn: the image of Father as an angel on the roof prompts reconsideration of suspiciously unmotivated or thinly motivated scenes earlier in the narrative. For example, thirty minutes into the film, as he falls asleep in Father’s arms, Aleksei dreams himself in the verdant field, Father behind him, both of them dressed in camouflage (figure 5).
This dream mise-en-scène recreates another familiar guardian angel image, made famous by Hans Zatzka and Fridolin Leiber as Guardian Angel on the Perilous Bridge (ca. 1900 and pre–1912, respectively, figures 6 and 7). Seemingly a far stretch from the film’s action, the Zatzka and Leiber images share with Sokurov’s mise-en-scène the perilous bridge (in Leiber’s version, a plank) traversed by Father at film’s end and the locus for the visually breath-taking, but narratively inexplicable three-minute sequence (39:09–41:57) shot on and around the “perilous plank” between Aleksei’s and Sasha’s apartments (figure 8). Unlikely as this association might
seem, Zatzka’s and Leiber’s effeminate angels and Sokurov’s muscular, gun-bearing guardian Father both originate in Psalm 90 in the Russian Orthodox Old Testament (Psalm 91 in the King James and other Western versions), which reads in the translation: “He shall cover you with the shadow of His shoulders, and His Truth will encompass you as a weapon.”
Father’s identity as Aleksei’s guardian angel illuminates two other scenes that challenge traditional conceptualizations of relations between fathers and sons. Following his roof-top profession of love for Father, Aleksei suddenly mounts Father’s shoulders, as the camera moves downward to capture them at a low angle against clouds in the sky, Father exclaiming, “fly off” [poletel] (figure 9).
In this scene Sokurov recreates yet another iconic image, that of “the guardian angel carrying a soul to heaven,” modified to accommodate Shchetinin, who, despite his physique, could not possibly have held actor Aleksei Neimyshev in outstretched arms. The most unexpected scene in which Father appears as an angel, though, is the scandalous opening segment, for which Sokurov repurposed Rembrandt’s rendering (ca. 1659, housed in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie) of the Old Testament story of Jacob wrestling the angel at Penuel (Genesis 32:23–31). This Biblical legend has inspired works by Eugène Delacroix, Alexandre-Louis Leloir, Gustave Doré, Gustave Moreau, and Léon Bonnat, to name only the most famous. But Rembrandt’s (figure 10) stands apart for precisely the enigmatic qualities Sokurov dramatized. The angel’s posture is ambivalent.
Aggressive, one leg pressed against Jacob’s lower back, and yet gentle, right arm embracing Jacob’s left shoulder, the angel maintains a calm demeanor, its half-closed eyes cast lovingly downward at Jacob’s right shoulder. The painting’s tight framing and obscured background remove the two figures from any physical setting, so that a naïve viewer might misconstrue who they are and what they are doing. Sokurov positions his pair as had Rembrandt, the men’s bodies captured in mid-shot, shaded by chiaroscuro lighting. His knee in Aleksei’s back, Father embraces Aleksei with his right arm and looks down towards his son’s right shoulder (figure 11).
Unlike Rembrandt, Sokurov disambiguates the background to remove doubt as to the scene’s meaning. The plants surrounding Father and Aleksei blend them into the scene depicted in the wall-rug behind them of a buck watching over its young, a visual allegory for paternal protectiveness (figure 12).
Considered together as a sequence, these ekphrastic allusions to angel art function precisely as Bordwell had outlined for parametric narration, occurring with sufficient redundancy to establish a pattern, a “paradigmatic set,” that spans the narrative’s diachronic axis and forms the basis for plot. But, again, in order to become Aleksei’s guardian angel, Father first had to die.
Additional chains of ekphrastic allusions—verbal, visual, and musical—reinforce the centrality of a father’s death to his son’s emotional state and illustrate how Sokurov creates meaning by weaving seemingly disconnected allusions from multiple media into parametric sequences. For example, when Father tells Aleksei that he came to the academy “for no other reason” [i nichego bol’she] than to see him, Aleksei replies in English, “and nothing more.” An allusion to Poe’s “The Raven” and the title of Sokurov’s own essay film on twentieth-century tyranny, I nichego bol’she (1982/1987), Aleksei’s words foreshadow the film’s elegiac conclusion, the loss of a loved one and the potential consequences of that loss for the survivor. Minutes later in screen time Aleksei quotes “what the saints say about love”: “The Father’s love crucifies. The Son’s love is crucified,” Aleksei whispers to Father, adding “but I myself don’t entirely understand what that means.” Father responds: “Where [in the world] did you read that?” One scholar has linked the quotation to Sokurov’s religious beliefs, but like the line from Poe, justification for this quotation lies in foreshadowing a conclusion through which Aleksei will come to understand the meaning of the words he quotes. That epiphany is foreshadowed a third time in the scene on the outcropping (filmed at the Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon) when Aleksei and Fyodor reference Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son (1668–69):
Once again, Aleksei proves unwittingly clairvoyant: everyone in the film will survive Father. “Those are not your words. And not your ideas either,” Fyodor responds, adding ominously, as if knowing of Aleksei’s impending loss: “You have a father, but I don’t envy you.”
Besides verbal allusions to prodigal fathers and sons, the outcropping scene delivers a tableau vivant that belongs to a series of ekphrastic allusions linking Sokurov’s troubled sons in this film to the “infantile” sons of “truncated families” in the “power series,” Hitler and Lenin. The scene opens with a vertical pan of a gnarly tree that umbrellas the boys as they face the sunset and Fyodor slowly raises his arms towards the sun, as if saluting a swastika (figure 13). Here Sokurov has recreated Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men in Consideration of the Moon (ca. 1830, figure 14), a painting associated with the rise of German nationalism.
For Sokurov Friedrich’s work epitomizes German Romantic thought, which, witness the Faust-Hitler connection noted earlier, the director views as having fueled twentieth-century fascism. As one observer commented on Faust: “[the film] addresses the theme of the German Romantics’ responsibility for what happened in Germany in the twentieth century, that is, for the rise of fascism.” In this vein, readers may recall how in Moloch (1999, figure 15) Sokurov posed “Addie” as Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (ca. 1818 , figure 16).
The relevance of the outcropping scene in Otets i syn, particularly Fyodor’s strange pose, was suggested by another otherwise inexplicable close-up during the wrestling match, when a Celtic cross—the symbol of White Supremacism and Russian neo-fascism—had slipped from Fyodor’s shirt (figure 17).
Like Hitler, Fyodor has been raised by a domineering mother who has trained him to despise his absent, alcoholic father. As for the link between Sasha and Vladimir Lenin, who also lost his father as a teenager, Sokurov establishes the connection through an ekphrastic allusion to a well-known photograph of Lenin holding a kitten, taken in the same time period depicted in Telets (Taurus, 2001, figures 18 and 19). In addition to linking the protagonists of the family cycle with those of the “power series,” these allusions point to the evolution in Sokurov’s treatment of father-son relationships, first explored in Odinokii golos cheloveka (The Lonely Voice of Man, 1988) and Krug vtoroi (The Second Circle, 1990), from the personal to the historical.
A third chain of paradigmatic ekphrastic allusions in Otets i syn that signal Father’s death is borne by the film’s extradiegetic music. This final, musical, sequence illustrates well how ekphrasis differs from other forms of intertextualité as transmedial and as indexed as such, and it may offer an insight into why Sokurov’s use of the device has passed largely unexplored. As noted by Tamar Yacobi, whose work has contributed greatly to the revival of ekphrasis studies, ekphrastic transposition destabilizes the relationship of the re-presentation to the original representation, the difference between the two taking precedence over their proximity, new meaning formed as a synthesis between the original and its new context, much in the way the tenor and vehicle of metaphor operate. What this means in practice is that ekphrastic re-presentation occurs in a kind of liminal zone between the recognizable and the unrecognizable, a condition well-illustrated by the examples above. For a director whose work under the Soviets was heavily censored, its very existence threatened, and who in his post-Soviet films posits politically damning links between Soviet and current Russian ideology and that of Hitler Germany, this kind of cinematic “writing between the lines” would have obvious appeal. What is confounding, though, is the degree to which Sokurov has relied on this device not merely for nuance, but for the very construction of narrative. This last chain of allusions demonstrates both their complexity and their centrality.
Sokurov has said that sound is the soul of his films, and his soundtracks contain layers of diegetic and extradiegetic sound, those layers often difficult to differentiate. The soundtrack of Otets i syn incorporates both audio and musical ekphrastic allusions. Two verbal audio allusions occur diegetically as broadcasts from a vintage “Festival” radio. As Father leaves Aleksei’s room following their discussion of filial piety, he approaches the radio to adjust the tuning (in close-up), pauses, then looks directly at the photograph of a woman holding an infant, presumably mother and son, strategically placed atop the radio. At that moment the radio broadcasts a dialogue from Sokurov’s own Mat’ i syn, in which the mother expresses her fear of dying and the son flippantly responds: “Then don’t die.” As Father trudges to his room, the conversation between mother and son segues to the Gregorian chant requiem Dies Irae (“The Day of Wrath”), the music still audible as Father peruses photographs of his friend Nikolai. The audio quotation from Mat’ i syn, the distinctly women’s furnishings in Father’s room, and the requiem seem to suggest Father’s loss of his own mother, from whom he and Aleksei apparently inherited the apartment, her old-fashioned fur jacket hanging in the entrance. The requiem also signals another of Father’s losses, Nikolai, whose face Father says he has begun to forget.
Death hangs in the air (and air waves) of the apartment as Aleksei several minutes later experiences a patricidal nightmare, and the extra-diegetic sound quotes the laughter of children with which Sokurov’s Dni zatmeniia (Days of Eclipse, 1988) opens. Invoking a Russian folk belief, Father sends Aleksei to the kitchen to “whisper on water” to float evil thoughts down the drain. As Aleksei approaches the kitchen, voices are heard beneath a teapot’s whistle: a conversation from Sokurov’s Tikhie stranitsy (Whispering Pages, 1994), based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In the dialogue Raskolnikov denies god and shuns the “insatiable [Christian] pity” Sonya offers him. Raskolnikov’s words anticipated Nietzsche’s Übermensch, a theme that has preoccupied Sokurov since 1980 as part of his Faust research. In discussing Otets i syn as related to Sokurov’s investigations of Russian fascism, Evgenii Bershtein noted muscle-bound, sports-fanatic, cadet Aleksei’s resemblance to the “new man” of Nazi art and Socialist Realism, epitomized when, while changing his sweater, Aleksei demonstratively strikes the pose of the Discobolus of Myron (460–450 BC). Like the gymnast on the poster in his room, though, Aleksei, protected by Father, is merely the poster boy for the new order who, under Father’s tutelage, will float evil thoughts down the drain. Any suggestion that he might follow troubled Fyodor and Sasha is allayed by a third quotation emanating from the radio, this time a 1961 Melodiya recording of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling (Gadkii utionok) heard as he tumbles from gymnastic rings in the entrance way and revisits in a flashback his disgraceful performance at combat practice. The quotation could serve as the epigraph for Aleksei’s story, a variation on the Bildungsroman, a young person’s progression to maturation through trial and error.
Ekphrastic allusions also occur in the film’s extra-diegetic music. Musicologist Lydia Goehr has distinguished two modes of musical ekphrasis. In the first, “a piece of descriptive speech or writing brings an image or scene of music before the imagination (the ‘mind’s eye’). . . . The second mode reverses the transaction: . . . a musical work re-presents a poem, painting, or sculpture.” Assisted by composer Andrei Sigle, in Otets i syn Sokurov employs both modes in two instances of musical paraphrase. The first instance occurs during Father’s and Aleksei’s conversation in Aleksei’s room, when Aleksei turns up his radio, which plays a paraphrase of Lensky’s aria in Tchaikovsky’s opera Evgenii Onegin, “Chto den’ griadushchii mne gotovit?” (What does the day ahead have in store for me?). “Do you like Tchaikovsky?” Aleksei asks Father, apparently oblivious to the allusion to death in Lensky’s prophetic words, which might just as well be his own.
The second musical allusion, also composed by Sigle as a paraphrase of another piece, works similarly. The melody is the film’s leitmotif (hereafter “Father’s Theme”), which recurs non-diegetically whenever Father contemplates something he does not share with Aleksei. Forty-five minutes (almost exactly mid-way) into the film, Sokurov incorporates a dramatic ekphrastic repurposing of the original melody on which Sigle’s paraphrase is based. Out on the roof, Father recounts to Aleksei how Nikolai, following miscalculated orders, had led his unit into fatal combat from which he returned the sole survivor. Aleksei fails to register the extent of Nikolai’s tragedy or that it may have driven him to suicide, precisely what Father had withheld from Fyodor and the reason Father had begun to forget Nikolai’s face. As Aleksei exits to rejoin Fyodor, Father, alone on the roof, contemplates a wedge of noisy cranes overhead, as “Father’s Theme” crescendos in the background.
By now Russian readers of this synopsis will probably have identified the music that should be heard in this scene as “Cranes” (Zhuravli). Said to be the most well-known song in Russia today, “Cranes” is a requiem for fallen warriors, delivered by a first-person narrator soon to rejoin his comrades in death. One stanza suffices to convey the song’s relevance to Otets i syn as it foreshadows Father’s death, when he will rejoin Nikolai and leave Aleksei behind:
|Настанет день, и с журавлиной стаей||The day will come, and with this flock of cranes|
|Я поплыву в такой же сизой мгле,||I’ll float away into the same grey dusk,|
|Из-под небес по-птичьи окликая||And like these birds from heaven I’ll call down|
|Всех вас, кого оставил на земле...||To all of you I’ve left upon the earth.|
“Cranes” is so well-known that had Sokurov inserted only the first five notes of the vocalese, the enigma of this scene’s composition would be resolved, and Father’s death explicit. But to use this music would be anathema, especially given Sokurov’s reverence for veterans of the Great Patriotic War (World War II). As for “Father’s Theme” as a paraphrase of “Cranes” there can be little doubt: in addition to the context in which it occurs, both melodies have the same key (E minor), their melodies build on the same four notes (B,G,F#,E), and subtle rhythmic differences between their 3/4 and 12/8 time signatures are attenuated by their adagio tempo. As in Gehr’s example above, dramatizing the lyrics as cranes fly across the screen following news of Nikolai’s perished soldiers and the implication that Nikolai too is dead, this extra-diegetic musical paraphrase sends (comprehending) viewers back to the original melody, from that melody to the song’s lyrics, and from the lyrics to Father as the first-person narrator contemplating the cranes overhead and his own imminent demise. Capping this allusion in reference to Nikolai, in the scene on the outcropping that follows minutes later, Sokurov has Fyodor sight a crane soaring above the city. “There’s a bird looking for someone,” Fyodor says, unaware that the lone crane may be his own deceased warrior father searching for his son.
While ekphrastic allusions may range from quotation to dramatization, the evidence in Otets i syn indicates that Sokurov relies most heavily on dramatization, tableaux vivants, where his protagonists act out the re-presented works. The re-presentation may be drawn from painting, music, and even cinema, in Otets i syn transformed as radio and overheard voices. The stylistic idiosyncrasies many critics have noted in Sokurov’s films serve as indices of transmediality: slowed tempo, unexpected mise-en-scène, and strange poses suggest painting; sound unmotivated by mise-en-scène may originate in a variety of sources, but particularly from classical (in the broadest sense of that term) music and the soundtracks of the director’s other films. These re-presented representations occur not haphazardly, but in sequences, and by linking those sequences a viewer constructs narrative. Thus, the story (fabula) of Otets i syn traces the experience of a young man, motherless for reasons not explained (or relevant), raised—and spoiled—in the absence of his father, a professional combat helicopter pilot, (likely) by a grandmother, (likely) the father’s own mother who passed away, leaving the apartment to her son and grandson. A basically well-intentioned, if egocentric, “ugly duckling” who has difficulty accepting responsibility or empathizing with others, the son comes to appreciate his father only after the father has died of war injuries, an outcome the son had rejected, naively claiming to be able to read his father’s x-rays. In recurring memories that comprise the seventy-two minute proairetic chronotope, the son revisits his repeated failures to appreciate his father’s love, those memories the cause of his nightmares, from which Father unfailingly returns as his guardian angel to protect and reassure him. As for plot (syuzhet), the film’s circular structure suggests that Aleksei will never escape his nightmares and guilt, but that Father also will never abandon him. Thus, viewed through the lens of ekphrastic allusions, Sokurov’s Otets i syn, like the director’s favorite Rembrandt painting, reimagines the parable of the Prodigal Son, introducing a wealth of connotations not apparent without that lens.
In his ground-breaking survey of cinematic modernism, film historian András Bálint Kovács has argued that “modern cinema is . . . a form of modernist art, applying various stylistic solutions to express thoughts and feelings. . . . [M]odernism’s most salient formal traits are not specific to the cinema; rather, they are cinematic applications of the stylistic features of modern art more broadly. . . .” A latter-day modernist who came to filmmaking just as, according to Kovács, cinematic modernism was beginning to wane, Sokurov inherited from his modernist predecessors, Tarkovsky included, the belief that film is “a vehicle for mental associations,” those associations prompted by “stylistic solutions.” As the present analysis has revealed, among Sokurov’s most basic “stylistic solutions” is cinematic ekphrasis, through which images (verbal, visual, audio) in the film evoke associations drawn from other artistic texts, the juxtaposition of the re-presentation and the representation creating new meanings. While space has limited the extent to which Sokurov’s use of this and other devices in his other films could be elaborated here, the examples from Moloch and Faust indicate that both ekphrasis and parametric narration merit more consideration in Sokurov’s case than they have received so far and may point towards heretofore unexplored directions for analyzing the director’s difficult oeuvre.
Diane Nemec Ignashev is the Class of 1941 Professor of Russian and the Liberal Arts at Carleton College, where she teaches Russian language and culture as well as film studies, and Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Lomonosov Moscow State University, where she teaches film studies, identity studies, and writing. The present article is part of a larger study of Sokurov’s oeuvre.
A[ndrei] Plakhov, “Muki interpretatsii. ‘Otets i syn’, rezhisser Aleksandr Sokurov,” Iskusstvo kino, no. 9 (2003), http://old.kinoart.ru/archive/2003/09/n9-article16, accessed September 23, 2019.
Deborah Young, “Father and Son,” Variety (June 3, 2003), https://variety.com/2003/film/markets-festivals/father-and-son-3-1200541322/, accessed February 7, 2018.
E[katerina] Barabash, “Propoved’ v stile miagkogo porno,” Nezavisimaia gazeta (May 26, 2003) http://www.ng.ru/culture/2003-05-26/8_kann.html, accessed October 5, 2018.
“Drama Sokurova ‘Otets i syn’ s gomoseksual’nym podtekstom mozhet nosit’ avobiograficheskii kharakter,” FANTIV, Federal’noe agenstvo novostei, https://riafan.ru/1187307-drama-sokurova-otec-i-syn-s-gomoseksualnym-podtekstom-mozhet-nosit-avtobiograficheskii-kharakter, accessed June 20, 2020.
Valerii Kichin, “Aleksandr Sokurov: Chto za pomoika u vas v golovakh?” Rossiiskaia gazeta (24 May 2003), https://www.film.ru/articles/aleksandr-sokurov-chto-za-pomoyka-u-vas-v-golovah, accessed July 7, 2018.
José Alaniz, “Vision and Blindness in Sokurov’s Otets i syn,” Cinepaternity: Fathers and Sons in Soviet and Post-Soviet Film, ed. Helena Goscilo and Yana Hashamova (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 290.
In his discussion of Mat’ i syn (Mother and Son, 1997) Szaniawski applied the term ekphrasis to Sokurov’s adaptation of painterly styles (Szaniawski, The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov, 128). Alaniz, although he does not use the term ekphrasis, also clearly sensed the influence of painting, especially Rembrandt’s, on Sokurov’s cinematic style (Alaniz, “Vision and Blindness”). Among the first to note Sokurov’s reliance on painterly style was Tim Harte, “A Visit to the Museum: Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark and the Framing of the Eternal,” Slavic Review 64, no. 1 (2005): 43–58.
For typologies of cinematic ekphrasis see Laura M. Sager Eidt, Writing and Filming the Painting: Ekphrasis in Literature and Film (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2008), 9–26, and Liliane LouvelBrow, “Types of Ekphrasis,” Poetics Today 39, no. 2 (2018): 392. DOI:10.2307/1773367.
A thorough review of recent theories of ekphrasis on which the current approach draws is provided in C. Cariboni Killander, et al. “A New Look on Ekphrasis: an Eye-tracking Experiment on a Cinematic Example.” Ekphrasis. Images, Cinema, Theatre. Media, 12, no. 2 (2014): 10–31.
Anett Werner, “Zwischen Dalí, Spitzweg und Altdorfer—Interpikturalität in Literaturverfilmungen am Beispiel der Goethe-Adaptionen Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1976) und Faust,” Visual Past (2015): 283–89, http://visualpast.de/archive/pdf/vp2015_0271.pdf, accessed March 24, 2019.
Moritz Pfeifer, “Alexander Sokurov’s Father and Son (Otets i syn, 2003),” East European Film Bulletin (November 11, 2017), https://eefb.org/retrospectives/alexander-sokurovs-father-and-son-otets-i-syn-2003/, accessed February 7, 2018.
Julian Graffy, “Father Russia,” Sight and Sound 14, no. 9 (2004): 22–24, http://ezproxy.carleton.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/237109594?accountid=9892, accessed February 7, 2018.
Psalom 90, Polnyi Pravoslavnyi molitvoslov—Sbornik molitv, http://molitvoslov.com/text420.htm, accessed November 7, 2019.
For this illustration I have used a publicity still: https://www.film.ru/img/afisha/FTHRSON/large/01.jpg, accessed June 14, 2020.
Taschner, Johannes. “Mit wem ringt Jakob in der Nacht? Oder: Der Versuch, mit Rembrandt eine Leerstelle auszuleuchten,” Biblical Interpretation, 6, nos. 3–4 (1998): 373–77, deepdyve.com/lp/brill/mit-wem-ringt-jakob-in-der-nacht-oder-der-versuch-mit-rembrandt-eine-MXwAjhaCbu, 10.1163/156851598x00066, accessed February 7, 2018.
Again, the publicity still (see above, note 28) illustrates mise-en-scène with more detail than a shot from the film: https://www.film.ru/img/afisha/FTHRSON/large/01.jpg, accessed June 14, 2020.
Little wonder Aleksei does not know what he quotes: the words were delivered in an 1816 sermon by Metropolitan Philaret Drozdov (1782–1867). Philaret Drozdov, “Sv[iatoi] Filaret, ‘Slovo v Velikii piatok,’” Pravoslavie.Ru, http://pravoslavie.ru/34748.html, accessed February 7, 2018.
Decimation of the Soviet male population during World War II and in Stalin’s gulag lent the theme of absented fathers particular urgency in Soviet Russian literature and cinema. On fatherhood in cinema, see Helena Goscilo and Yana Hashamova (eds.), Cinepaternity: Fathers and Sons in Soviet and Post-Soviet Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).
Brent Maner, Review of Busch, Werner, Caspar David Friedrich––Ästhetik und Religion, H-German, H-Net Reviews, November, 2005, http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=11249, accessed February 7, 2018.
Marina Timasheva, “Faust: Sokurov vs Gete,” Radio Svoboda (January 30, 2012), http://www.svoboda.org/content/article/24467287.html, accessed February 7, 2018.
Evgenii Bershtein, “Melankholicheskie atlety Aleksandra Sokurova, Neprikosnovennyi zapas 2, no. 76 (2011): 6–7, magazines.russ.ru/nz/2011/2/be7.html, accessed October 16, 2018.
Mark Brown, “Lenin the Cat Lover: Rare Photos of Soviet Leader Go on Show in Oxford.” The Guardian (November 6, 2017), http://theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/06/lenins-disguise-little-seen-photos-of-soviet-leader-go-on-show, accessed February 7, 2018.
Aleksandr Sokurov, “Zvuk – eto dusha fil’ma,” radio interview by Inga Dobrovskaia, RFI, October 24, 2010, http://www.rfi.fr/ru/kultura/20101024-aleksandr-sokurov-zvuk-eto-dusha-filma, accessed February 7, 2018.
At the time he was filming Otets i syn Sokurov’s Faust consultant, Marina Koreneva, had just published an article on Nietzsche’s influence on Russian revolutionaries in which she posited the Übermensch as the “new man” of both the USSR and Nazi Germany. See M[arina] Koreneva, “Iz istorii russkogo nitssheanstva,” Vozhdi umov i mody. Chuzhoe imia kak nasleduemaia model’ zhizni (St. Petersburg: Nauka, 2003) 246, http://ec-dejavu.ru/n/Nietzschismo.html, accessed February 7, 2018.
Lydia Goehr, “How to Do More with Words. Two Views of (Musical) Ekphrasis,” The British Journal of Aesthetics, 50, no. 4 (2010): 389, https://doi.org/10.1093/aesthj/ayq036, accessed February 7, 2018.
Composed by Jan Frenkel, first recorded in 1969 by Mark Berne,s and since performed by singers like Iosif Kobzon and Dmitry Hvorostosky, “Cranes” has become the musical icon of May 9 Victory Day commemorations in Russia. The song’s lyrics belong to Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov, who, while traveling in Northern Ossetia in the early 1960s, encountered a sculpture of a woman weeping beneath seven cranes—a monument to the Gazdanov family, whose seven sons perished in different battles during World War II, followed in death by their mother, who died of a heart attack on learning of her seventh son’s death. Inspired by the monument, Gamzatov wrote his poem “K”unk”rabi” (“Cranes”) in his native Avarian. ("Zhuravli: Istoriia odnoi iz samykh izvestnykh pesen o voine," http://izbrannoe.com/news/lyudi/zhuravli-istoriya-odnoy-iz-samykh-izvestnykh-pesen-o-voyne/, accessed September 19, 2019.
Natalia Kononenko, “Zvukovye metafory kul’turnykh prostranstv v fil’makh A. Tarkovskogo I A.Sokurova,” Andrej Tarkovskij: Klassiker – Klassik – classic – classico : Beitrage zum Ersten Internationalen Tarkovskij-Symposium an der Universität Potsdam (Potsdam: Universitatsverlag Potsdam, 2016), 323–338.
In the “director’s preface” to the film Aleksei’s mother is said to have died at a very young age after giving birth to her son. Ostrov Sokurova, http://sokurov.spb.ru/isle_ru/feature_films.html?num=40, accessed July 7, 2018.