Vol 2, No 3
24 January 2000
Angels or UFOs?
Religion, politics and science fiction in Aleksandr Sokurov's Dni zatmeniia
Andrew J Horton
When Aleksandr Sokurov's films were banned by the Soviet authorities and he was denied funding to make further films, it was the great master of cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky, by then working abroad, who came to the young director's defence. As such, Sokurov has come to be labeled as the heir to Tarkovsky. Yet Sokurov claims that he did not see his first Tarkovsky film until after the completion of his own debut Odinokii golos cheloveka (The Solitary Voice of Man, 1978, released 1988), the film which first attracted the older director's interest.
Nevertheless, Sokurov was not afraid to flirt with comparisons, and his film Dni zatmeniia (Days of the Eclipse, 1998) - like Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979) - is based on a science fiction novel by the Strugatskii brothers, Arkadii and Boris. Also, as with Tarkovsky's adaptation, the brothers worked on the screenplay but were dissatisfied with the final result.
As in all Sokurov's work though, the relation between the original text and the final film is not close in terms of the form, but aims to preserve and express the inner content. (Perhaps the best example of this is in the film Tikhie stranitsi [Whispering Pages, 1993], in which Sokurov seeks to evoke and portray, not just one specific work, but 19th-century Russian literature in general.)
The content of the book, however, is open to interpretation and Sokurov's filmic rendering of its ideas even more so. Not least because the film has little in the way of linear plot and bears little resemblance to the science-fiction genre which its source steadfastly belongs to. Commentators have been divided in the interpretation of those science-fiction motifs which remain, with many choosing to view Sokorov's film as containing an angel (or perhaps angels) and some seeing only UFOs. Either way, all agree that the film has a profound philosophical and political message, even if they cannot agree what it is.
A plotless plot?
Dni zatmeniia is about a young, handsome, athletic and even at times acrobatic doctor, Dmitri Malianov, who has been posted in a far-flung corner of the Soviet empire, in some dry and dusty Central Asian republic (the film was shot in Turkmenistan). He seems to have made his home there and professes his happiness with where he lives whilst claiming to have forgotten all about his hometown back in Russia. Not that his words seem to match reality: as evidence that he is at home, he tells his sister that the town is full of Russians, although he can only think of two names off hand, one of whom, Sasha Vecherovskii, isn't entirely Russian and the other, Snegovi, soon commits suicide (and anyway Dmitri later admits that the two only ever exchanged pleasantries). The only other Russians are people who act in an official capacity with Dmitri, rather than a personal one.
As well as being divorced from his fellow Russians, Dmitri is alienated from the local population. Whilst we see local patients queuing to see him, we never see him examine them. His relations with the locals generally is, perhaps, best summed up in one scene when he intervenes to break up a street fight between two boys. Unimpressed, the sparring duo turn their blows to him instead.
The difference between Dmitri and the locals is further emphasised by physical appearance. Whereas Dmitri is filmed as muscular, fit and Aryanic in his looks, the locals are given a physicality which seems more embedded in reality: wide smiles reveal rotting teeth and their skin is parched and wrinkled by the dry wind. Moreover, the locals seem to enjoy life more than Dmitri does, and we see them relaxing and enjoying themselves at a music festival.
In between his hospital duties (which, significantly, we do not see), Dmitri is engaged in some private research of his own, as he is writing a paper on the juvenile hypertension in the families of Old Believers. His theory is that the family's faith positively affects the health of their offspring. The medical details are irrelevant, but it is clear that Dmitri is a man who studies faith rather than has it.
Indeed, the almost comic quantities of papers, photos and books strewn all over the place and strips of paper hanging from lines strung across the room, give the suggestion that his research is an absurd pata-physical study (which later becomes mirrored in the directionlessness of the police investigation of Snegovi's death). Dmitri himself acknowledges the need for sarcasm when it is jokingly suggested to him that he will receive a medal for his labours.
The film's "story" is principally made up of a series of increasingly bizarre encounters and visits experienced by Dmitri. An unwanted delivery of lobster, Dmitri's sister, a demented rogue soldier on the run, a mysterious boy who is later snatched by an unseen and possible extra-human being count among the visitors. Other strange events include a conversation with the corpse of Snegovi after his unexplained suicide (although this might be a hallucination caused by heat-stroke) and some sort of explosion which has left a charred mess on Sasha's wall which is covered in hair and bleeds a milky substance when cut.
The characters react to all of these strange events as if they are curious, but not entirely unnatural. Indeed, throughout the film there seems to a suspension of the natural physical laws. Dmitri himself, for example, has the useful ability to jump on and off fast-moving trains instantly and effortlessly, at one point he becomes a giant walking amongst the tiny houses of the provincial town and in the film's final scene the whole town vanishes. Furthermore, there are occurrences which are unusual but necessarily unnatural, such as an earthquake and the eclipse of the title, which nevertheless arouse little reaction or curiosity.
The film changes from colour to monochrome (both predominantly yellow in hue) and back again without explanation and with no apparent link to the mood or significance of the action. Furthermore, the colour quality is and film texture is similarly varied. As Sokurov's favoured critic Mikhail Iampolskii has noted that "the biography of a person is revealed through the agonising biography of the film texture." In other words, Sokurov is trying to drag us into Dmitri's own alienation from the world around him and make us experience it directly. [Click here for an analysis of how György Szomjas's Gengszterfilm achieves the same effect.]
The film's key themes, though, are played out in the conversations between Dmitri and Sasha, not only Dmitri's best friend but, as he admits, his only one. Sasha himself is also an outsider in the town - but not by choice. As a Crimean Tartar he and his foster parents (who are Volga Germans) were exiled there and forbidden from returning to their respective homelands. In one of the film's critical scenes, Dmitri recounts the oppression which his family has experienced and the detachment he feels from his homeland. Dni zatmeniia ends with Dmitri seeing Sasha off as he leaves; quite where and why we are unclear, but we know it is for good and there is the suggestion that it is a voyage linked with self-discovery and possibly reconnecting with lost roots.
All the encounters are seemingly geared at making Dmitri question his identity and self-imposed exile. His sister, the runaway soldier and Sasha's old history teacher actively try to persuade Dmitri that his writing is futile and that he should give it up. There is often the implication that he should lead a more physical existence, based on the land and in a family, rather than in abstractions of the mind. Furthermore, throughout the film, more mundane interactions - such as a bureaucratically minded postman, an overly insistent mother of a patient and basic parental responsibilities towards the boy - seem to be acting in concert to direct him away from his work. The postman even tries to steal some of Dmitri's papers.
The literary source
The distractions showed in the film relates to plot elements of the original novel, Za milliard let do kontsa sveta: rukopis, obnaruzhennaia pri strannykh obstoiatelstvakh (A Billion Years to the End of the World: A manuscript discovered under unusual circumstances aka Definitely Maybe, 1976). Malianov in the book is a Leningrad theoretical astrophysicist (Boris Strugatskii was himself an astronomer) and one of a series of scientists who are working on research which will ultimately - in a billion years - cause the end of the world. The novel consists of a series of encounters and interventions which are the clear descendants of those in the film and which seemingly seeking to prevent the scientists from completing their work.
The explicit plot of Za milliard let do kontsa sveta is the discussion between the scientists to unravel the mystery. First if they are going crazy in the summer sun, then what sort of force they are dealing with and lastly how they should react to it. They quickly come to the conclusion that they are not mad, but stumble over the question of what kind of force they are dealing with. Arguments centre around a supercivilisation for some time, with various sub-theories as to why they might want to stop the research, such as jealousy or wishing to prevent mankind from discovering something for their own good. But the novel eventually focuses on the theory that it is the universe itself which is ganging up against them - not consciously, but as part of some unknown conservation law to preserve its state.
The scientists all come to different conclusions about how to react to the mysterious interventions: Snegovi, a military physicist, commits suicide under the pressure, Weingarten, a biologist, allows himself to be bought off; Gubar, an engineer, dissolves into uncertainty and hysteria and Dmitri decides to give up his work in order to devote himself to his wife and child, whose lives are threatened. A fifth scientist, Vecherovskii, collects their papers and announces he is going into self-imposed exile in order to use their research to study how the mechanisms by which the universe is intervening in their lives. Whilst Weingarten and Gubar's capitulations are viewed negatively, Dmitri's family-orientated decision is implicitly approved and Vecherovskii comes over as eccentrically heroic.
The book, unlike the film, is relatively linear in nature, although it is made up of a series of fragments and chapters start and end mid-sentence, to fulfil the book's subtitle. The book also to some degree anticipates the shifting visual effects of the film, by changing the narrative from third person to first person half way through. Despite that and the film's content, the overall writing style of the book is relatively mundane compared to the visual language the Sokurov applies to it.
Imagery and allegory
Despite the oddity of Dmitri's encounters in Dni zatmeniia, the film is very much not science fiction. There are, however, occasional hints at the film's origins, but as Frederic Jameson points out, these are in fact in no way related to what happens in the book. Moreover, the ambiguous manner in which they are presented leaves them open to interpretation, with some critics falling firmly in a "UFO" camp and some in an "angel" camp. Interestingly, this means that critical response to the film has mirrored the book's plot.
I myself veer towards the idea that the mysterious beings are angels, despite the fact that this contradicts the story and at least one layer of meaning in the book. The arms that take the young boy away from Dmitri seem too human to me to be considered extraterrestrial, and as the being flies away he says to the boy "Come here my angel, spread your wings." Such an interpretation is not inconsistent with Sokurov's own beliefs, as he has declared "...I am religious...." However, we should not be too particular in pinning the director down to endorsing a particular denomination, since he then continues "...I do not trust the Church as an institution...." Sokurov is more interested in faith itself than actually which faith.
If this interpretation of the film is correct, the book's central dilemma of how one should behave when confronted with an outside power which wants to dictate the course of your life (thought-provoking subject matter for a book written under totalitarianism) is recontextualised for a time when Communism was losing its harsh edge and starting to crumble.
In this sense, the film and the book have to be different from each other if the former is to retain the philosophical significance of the latter. Sokurov's new context for his ideas is, therefore, the struggle of the individual against a literal, perhaps even pantheitical, universe rather than in the book where it is the struggle with a universe which merely serves as a metaphor. Dmitri is an individual who defies nature, not just in his train-boarding antics and the like, but in his rejection of faith and, more importantly, his rejection of life in favour of isolation.
Dmitri's self-removal from life is contrasted with sequences which show the ordinariness of the local people (who are seemingly immune to the fantastic goings-on which take place around Dmitri). The comparison is multileveled, since Dmitri's life is in the genre of film fiction whereas the local inhabitants are shot, as Jameson notes, in a manner which looks as if the material was originally intended for a documentary. Living a life as a piece of fiction is thus contrasted with living a life as fact.
The arrival of the boy and the consequent close relationship that exists between them, could thus be seen as some external mechanism to rouse his paternal instincts and settle down to family life after the child has been taken away.
The end of an empire
The film's location augments the book's theme of sweltering heat, but was undoubtedly chosen to enhance Dmitri's sense of removal from the mainstream of real life. This setting on the periphery of the Soviet empire at the time of its impending collapse suggests a whole new level of meaning. All the more so, given that Sokurov chose to look east for his film, rather towards the West, as were many of his compatriots at the time.
Jameson in his analysis links the film's east/west themes with those of an outside controlling power. Whilst the book could be viewed as a philosophical dialogue on how to behave in a police state, the film, Jameson argues, discusses the relationship between the West and Russia. The two had traditionally been sworn enemies but also equals, but at the time of shooting the film this was changing, with the West gaining the upper hand and aiming to steer Russia towards a democratic political system and a free-market economy. As such, the West in the film is the book's "supercivilisation," who act in seemingly bizarre, incomprehensible and even heavy-handed ways to assert their will and may chose either charitable or punitive courses of action to affect their wishes.
This might seem like an unusual diversion for a piece of "science fiction" (if we can call Dni zatmeniia that, but it is in fact a continuation of science-fiction tradition. As Jameson puts it:
Sokurov, therefore, reverses the traditional narrative by taking the perspective of the less-developed society with respect to the West. The setting in Turkmenistan raises further questions about the nature of empires, and contrasts Russia's position as a declining power with the might of its former days when it held Central Asia with an iron grip. This grand theme is replicated in miniature by Dmitri's ill-advised intervention in the fight between the Asian boys.
Dni zatmeniia is permeated by the shadow of the unstated question to Dmitri "Why are you still here?" and this is reflected on a larger level with the question "What are we [the Russians] still here [in Central Asia]?" In one scene, some oil pipes hints at one of the reasons why they might have come, but they lie unassembled across the landscape and cannot answer the question wholly. Several times the camera passes over symbols of Communist might in such a way that they look as strange and out of place as any of the unexplained happenings. Thus whilst the film looks to the east instead of the West, it questions the power relationship between the two, just as Vecherovskii questions the relationship between the universe (or supercivilisation) and scientific progress.
Dni zatmeniia, therefore, examines existence not just on a personal and philosophical level, but on a political one as well. In a sense, though, it does not matter if Sokurov is showing us angels or UFOs, as somehow either are just an instrument of allegory in this multileveled work rather than the end products of it.
Andrew J Horton, 24 January 2000
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