Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (1999, Russia) Aleksandr Sokurov

August 12, 2008 at 11:09 pm

I had purchased this DVD in Paris earlier in the year, but only watched it now, probably prompted by the news of the death of the author who, even spending years in the Gulag, lived to be 89.

This is yet another one of Sokurov’s pensive and masterful documentaries that manage to come really close to the person that is being interviewed. At moments one really wonders how does Sokurov manage to make his subjects behave in a way as if there is no camera nearby. The silent observation of the writer working in his study, the close ups of his hands while editing, the quiet light of his home, it all looks as lived, not filmed. The most remarkable part of the film, however, is the one shot outdoors, during a walk Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn take outside of the writer’s datcha near Moscow, through the woods, visiting the site where a lighting recently stroke, split and burned a giant old tree.

The film, commissioned by a Russian TV channel and shot in 1999 consists of two parts of about 90 minutes each, thus the total comes to slightly over three hours. The first part s called The Knot (Uzel) while the second is entitled simply Dialogues. At the time of these interviews Solzhenitsyn is about eighty years of age, but his mind is remarkably agile and his judgement is swift; he has strong opinions on many issues. He talks a lot about writing and literature, about aspects of the Russian language, and about many of the most important Russian writers, from Gogol and Dostoyevski through Plekhanov and Karamzin, to present-day Valentin Rasputin or emigre Nabokov. Themes of politics are touched only in passing, but there is lots of convesation about religion, historical fate, national identity, guided by the director’s subtle questioning. Sokurov pays exquisite attention to the writer’s working environment, his need of quiet and light, his love of nature. The writer’s wife is also interviewed about their three sons, life in America and the activities of the foundation they run to help victims of the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn talks about his own origins, his parents and grandparents and his early life and beliefs, war time experience, surviving the Gulag, the exile in Kazakhstan.

It is all placed in a framework of a voiceover narrative that the director provides himself, on the background of various photographs related to stages in Solzhenitsyn’s life. The film is richly textured also because the director interweaves references to his own work, like his breakthrough The Lonely Human Voice (1987), clearly revealing to what significant extent Solzhenitsyn’s work has influenced his own formation. Even though there is no footage from his remarkable Days of Eclipse (1988), a film about existential displacement that, accidentally, is shot in Kazakhstan (the place of Solzhenitsyn’s internment), things that were said in reference to the writer’s time in the Kazakh steppe fully resonated with the haunting imagery found in this most memorable work of Sourov.

Dina Iordanova
13 August 2008