Father Russia

Film still for Father Russia

Father and Son has been called autobiographical, homoerotic and 'sunny', but director Sokurov denies all. Julian Graffy looks into a deep Russian mystery

"Where are you? Are you there again? And am I there?"
"No. I'm here alone."

Aleksandr Sokurov's new film is set in the trance-like world of an unnamed city. It was shot in St Petersburg and on the streets and rooftops of Lisbon, and its combination of north and south, of sunlit days followed by a sudden snowstorm, suggests an abstract, allegorical landscape that recalls the symbolic use of location in such earlier films as Mother and Son (1997) and The Second Circle (1990). Father and Son is almost plotless, since, as so often before, it is mood and essence that Sokurov seeks to portray in a film where mysterious sounds, enigmatic rituals and the gaze of a succession of unidentified watcher-figures are as evocative of meaning as the dialogue between the characters. Father and Son is the second part of a trilogy begun with Mother and Son and to be completed by Two Brothers and a Sister. In order to focus on his examination of the titular relationship, Sokurov has excised the figure of the mother, dead years ago, just as there was no mention of the father in Mother and Son.

Explaining his intentions in a speech given in Moscow in September 2003 and included on the Russian DVD of the film, Sokurov spoke of the consuming emotions - love, anxiety, pain and guilt - we can feel only for those closest to us, for those family members we are"fated to love". Groping through what the Russian critic Andrei Plakhov has called the"melancholy of inarticulacy", the unnamed father and his son Aleksei seek to understand and give voice to the intense bond which connects them, a bond which underlaid the"pity unto tears" the mother and son felt for each other in the earlier film and which, in both films, leads parent and child to dream the same dreams.

As in Mother and Son, the film's key figures are played by non-professionals. The slight clumsiness of their performances - the men's very smiles seem self-conscious and their delivery of the lines is sometimes embarrassed - lends a paradoxical sense of genuineness to the characters they portray. One of the first things you notice is the youth of the father. The two men seem close enough in age to be brothers - clearly a deliberate choice by Sokurov, who has spoken of his protagonists as"a single unified soul", the father young enough to remember going through the son's experiences and the son old enough to be open to his father's emotions.

The father-son connection has featured in Sokurov's work since the start of his career. Both his first feature The Solitary Voice of Man (1978), taken from a story by Andrei Platonov set in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, and his 1990 film The Second Circle tell of the return of a prodigal son. The first comes back from war to a father who cannot comprehend his suffering; the second returns too late and must arrange his father's funeral. In Father and Son, in which the two men have never yet been separated, Sokurov offers his most direct and concentrated examination of the relationship yet.

Love on the cross

For both men here, love involves both pity and self-sacrifice. The father's love is protective and obsessive, and he behaves in ways that would traditionally have been associated with his dead wife, fretting over meals and worrying about the neatness of his son's new army uniform. In the opening scene he consoles his son, who has awoken from a nightmare, with a tenderness that has disconcerted some western viewers. For the son, too, love-dependence goes hand in hand with love-anguish. He wishes he could be allowed to love both his father and his girl. In a recurrent phrase, which he admits he does not fully understand and which is only one of several allusions to a biblical context for the relationship, the young man insists:"A father's love is crucifying; a son's love is crucified."

The warm southern light that suffuses the exteriors, and the fact that, unlike Mother and Son, the film is not directly concerned with death, have led some critics to describe Father and Son as"sunny" - but above all this is a film about parting. The son is about to be sent off on army service and is wracked by the tension between his desire to embark on his own life and his guilt at leaving his father. Each will have to live without the other's sustaining love, and parting will bring solitude, something they both recognise in their dreams. In the first scene, the words of which serve as an epigraph to this article, the son has dreamed of being distanced from his father and of his father's distress. In the near-repetition of the exchange that ends the film, it is the father who has dreamed of life without his son. So pain and anxiety are present throughout - in the son's obsessive return to the potentially ominous X-rays of his father's lungs, in his nightmares of being killed and of committing parricide, in the strange heart pains he suffers. Death, which hovered over many of Sokurov's earlier films, also stalks the characters here.

Both the heroes are military men, the father retired from an airforce regiment, the son about to become a military instructor. Their flat has the same exercise rings Aleksei uses in the barracks and a similar cult of physical fitness prevails. It may be that Sokurov is borrowing elements from his own childhood as the son of an army man, though he is insistent he never makes films about his own life because he sees the life of any one person as an insufficient source for a work of art. It is noteworthy, however, that both the hero of The Solitary Voice of Man and the dead father of The Second Circle are soldiers, and that two of his most ambitious documentary films - Spiritual Voices (1996) and Confession (1998) - concern the lives of men on active service.

Men in uniform

Russia, with its conscript armies and regular participation in major and minor wars, was a highly militarised society throughout the 20th century. Men in uniform were ubiquitous both on the streets of Soviet towns and in its popular culture, where the army man or pilot devoted to the defence of the Soviet motherland was a much-loved hero. The world of the soldier in Soviet films was one of intense comradeship within a masculine family in which the commander, like the legendary Chapaev in the Vasilev brothers' popular 1934 film, played the role of surrogate father.

The cult of the military man survived the fall of the Soviet Union untainted, even taking on a new tragic romanticism in the face of betrayal by the system, by history, by fate. Several films of the early 1990s focused on demobbed participants in the Afghan war, pariahs in a society that didn't want to be reminded of an ignominious defeat. And the new confidence fostered by the Putin regime has spawned countless films about the daring exploits of special-operations groups - always led by a burly father-figure - fighting the schemes of treacherous Chechens, alongside a rediscovery of World War II as a theme for popular cinema.

This tragic-romantic view of the military man, whose dark experiences change him and preclude a return to normal life and the world of women, is hinted at in the story of the father in Sokurov's film, and emphasised in the prominence given to the tale of his former comrade-in-arms Nikolai. Nikolai's son Fedor comes to the flat to learn more of his absent father. Forced to obey a misguided order, Nikolai led his men into battle, only to see them all perish as he alone survived. Traumatised, he took to drink and was thrown out of the family home by his resentful wife. Fedor, whose only experience of his father is one of abandonment, complains to Aleksei that the Bible tells of a prodigal son when prodigal fathers are much more the norm. His lack of respect for a soldier and a father is deeply troubling to both the main characters.

It is the absence of Aleksei's mother that is felt keenly by both Aleksei and his father: the father recognises traces of his dead wife in his son and the son awakes from a nightmare calling out for his mother. The sense that without her they are incomplete, that they need to re-make the family, is apparent both in Aleksei's assurance to his father that he will marry again and in his dream of his own future family. And yet the son's romantic relations are doomed to failure. In the first of his encounters with his unnamed girlfriend she is pointedly excluded from the male world of the barracks and the couple have to communicate through its closed windows. In the second she is inaccessible on a high balcony. The rift between them is caused in part by her sense of the exclusivity of Aleksei's bond with his father:"You seem self-sufficient without me," she tells him. But it also derives from the sexual anxiety that is a consequence of the infantilising male comradeship of the military world. The girl tells Aleksei that his preferred rival is older, whereas he is "still a child", adding to a sense of inadequacy that mirrors the impotence felt by Nikita Firsov, the hero of The Solitary Voice of Man.

Return of the father

At his Moscow press conference Sokurov stated that he regarded the father-son relationship as of fundamental importance not only for the individual but for society as a whole. And it seems he is not alone, since key recent Russian films have shown a new preoccupation with the subject. In Stalinist culture biological parents were often suspect figures, bearers of the values - political, social, religious - of a reviled past. Hence the heroes of Stalinist films were often orphans, though there was no shortage of candidates for the role of adoptive father, from factory boss or political commissar to army officer or even Stalin himself. Later films, set during the massive social disruption of World War II and the post-war years, continued to address the fate of fatherless heroes, and the tradition stretched on into the post-Soviet period: the actions of popular hero Danila Bagrov, the protagonist of Aleksei Balabanov's Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000), are motivated by the search for a father-figure.

The typical male protagonist of early post-Soviet cinema was young and self-obsessed, preoccupied with gangland disputes, 'New Russian' consumerism and erotic entanglements. Perhaps a straw in the changing wind was the phenomenal popular success of Stanislav Govorukhin's Rifleman of the Voroshilov Regiment (2000), in which, in the absence of her father, it is the heroine's grandfather, a World War II veteran, who takes it upon himself to avenge her rape when the official organs of a weak and corrupted society prove ineffective.

But now it seems that the father himself - flawed, confused, but basically well intentioned - is back in Russian film-makers' field of vision. In her dazzling Motifs from Chekhov (2002) Kira Muratova turns two early works by the master into a disquisition on the relationships between hapless fathers and their disaffected children. In Valerii Todorovskii's The Lover (2002) a middle-aged university professor discovers following his wife's death that for many years she had a lover, who may be the father of the 15-year-old son he had thought his own. This blow to his male pride leads him to question the meaning of fatherhood.

Two of the most absorbing and ambitious films of 2003 - Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Return and Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii's Koktebel - approach the subject in the allegorical mode favoured by Sokurov. Both erase the mother from the picture - in Koktebel she is dead and in The Return she figures only in the opening sequences - and both tell their story by means of a symbolic journey. In The Return an almost forgotten father reappears to take his two teenage sons on a trip into the empty woodlands of the Russian north, but his well-intentioned scheme to re-integrate them into the world of masculine values is doomed by his emotional roughness. In Koktebel a younger boy sets out with his widowed father from Moscow on the long journey south to the Crimean resort of the title. On the way the father goes on a drinking spree with a crazy old man who gives them shelter and then begins a love affair with a young woman doctor, ignoring his paternal responsibilities and leaving his son feeling excluded. Eventually the boy runs away, determined to make his own way to Koktebel. In the final scene, on shore of the Black Sea, his father comes back and they sit looking out over the water into an uncertain future.

None of these films offers a cloudless picture of the behaviour of a father or of father-son relations. But the very fact of the return of the theme is perhaps a sign that, as Russia re-enters the world, it is anxious to articulate ways of living responsibly in this new age. Of all these stories, Sokurov's is the most daring and existentially fearless. His view of living in the family and in the world seems to involve stoic acceptance of human solitude and mortality combined with an insistence that family love can make our lives more bearable. The snow that falls suddenly on the soon-to-be-abandoned father at the end of Father and Son recalls the icy fog into which the narrator returns at the end of Russian Ark (2002) and the ubiquitous snows of The Second Circle, which ends with the epitaph:"Happy are those near to us who die before us."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012