Silence and Fog

On Gesture, Time, and Historicity in the Films of Aleksandr Sokurov

Ivan Pintor Iranzo
In this study, I analyse gesture, iconography, and landscape construction in Aleksandr Sokurov’s films to reveal their distinct handling of time and commitment to the historicity of their imagery. My hermeneutic point of departure is Aby Warburg’s alternative approach to the historicity of images, in particular his attention to the mechanisms of montage along with the anthropological aspiration to formulate a history of gesture transmission in the West. Warburg’s project can shed light on certain aspects of Sokurov’s poetics, specifically on its relationship to literary, pictorial, and cinematic traditions. The gesture of silence, the so-called signum harpocraticum, holds a central position in Sokurov’s filmography underscoring the condition of mediality of the cinematic gesture itself. The gesture of silence establishes the deixis of a historical-political openness and of a dialectical moment through which the figure of the historical witness takes shape. As a reverse shot to this direct appeal to the spectator, images of fog, tempest, and storm promote not only a haptic visibility but also represent the mists of history. In these mists, Sokurov attempts to tease out and ultimately “seize hold of a memory at a moment of danger” (Walter Benjamin). The historical, the political, and the sacred are located in Sokurov’s films between the gesture of silence and the depiction of fog.
Aleksandr Pushkin; Lev Tolstoi; Aleksandr Sokurov; Aby Warburg; Gilles Deleuze; Giorgio Agamben; Serge Daney; Artavazd Peleshian; Georges Didi-Huberman; Walter Benjamin; iconology; gesture; silence; signum harpocraticum; fog; storm; haptic visuality.

An Iconological Approach to the Films of Aleksandr Sokurov

Silence and the witness

The tempest

Faces and intervals

The gesture of silence

The angel of history




Suggested Citation

An Iconological Approach to the Films of Aleksandr Sokurov

Cinema not only constitutes a way of preserving the expressive language of the gesture in motion; it is also an agent of gesture creation and transmission. To borrow an insight from the criticism of Serge Daney, it could be argued that the real history of cinema is expressed in the depiction of bodies and in actors’ gestures.1 As Giorgio Agamben has suggested in Note sul gesto (1996), gestures constitute the real substance matter of cinema, and cinema itself is, to use Oksana Bulgakova’s words, a veritable “factory of gestures” (2005, 2013: 251).

This idea can be, however, found throughout the history of cinema, in particular in critical reflections on slapstick, comic movies and the invention of gestures in the context of the Hollywood star system (cf. Morin 2005). In the realm of theatre, Antonin Artaud has emphasised the contaminating power of the gesture by comparing the transmission of performed gestures with the spread of the plague in Marseille in 1720 (1958:15). Conversely, such authors, writers and playwrights as Maurice Maeterlinck, Fernando Pessoa, and Gao XingJian imagined a theatre of the inhibition of gestures, sometimes even substituting actors for mannequins (see McGuinness 2000; Maeterlinck 2002, Crespo 1995: 261, Łabędzka 2008, Xingjian 2008: 301-323).

The grand project developed by the art historian Aby Warburg – the creation of an alternative method of approaching the historicity of images through a study of the visual art of the Renaissance – offers a framework for a figurative and historical study of cinema based on the analysis of gesture. Whether referred to as iconology, or, as Warburg himself wanted to call it (1995, 1999), “cultural sciences”, the essential aspect of his legacy2 lies in the priority it gives to transmission, historicity, and artistic empathy (“Einfühlung”). Central to Warburg’s project was an understanding of art history that is less attentive to periods and authors than to the observer’s energetic, emotive response to the repertoires and afterlife (“Nachleben”) of gestures, i.e., their transmission through time, as well as to the pathos formulae (“Pathosformeln”, the singular gestural formulas of expressing emotions and feelings) that are transmitted over the course of history – evading names, schools, and trends.3

In Aleksandr Sokurov’s filmography, with its attention to a redefinition of the relationship between the sacred, history, and politics, gestures occupy a central place. In Sokurov’s films, the gesture is a point of suspension, a pause inviting a “contemporary” perspective, an occasion to examine history and reflect upon its transmission.4 The biographical spirit of Sokurov’s films is equally capable of transcribing the last moments in the lives of such historical figures as Lenin, Hitler, and Hirohito as veritable choreographies of gestures, as well as of conveying the mystery that lies behind the fixed expressions of great political figures of the Soviet Union, of writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, of musicians like Dmitrii Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich, or of a humble Russian peasant woman on a collective farm. Sokurov’s films seek to recreate a type of relationship between the spectator and history in which gesture acquires the value of an almost teleological opening-up of the image, which is why Warburg’s iconology offers a fruitful platform for analysing and understanding them in a context that combines Russian history and literary imagery with the European pictorial tradition.

Based on Warburg’s “iconology of the interval” (“Zwischenraum”), this article outlines a broader investigation of gesture construction and historicity in Sokurov’s films, with the aim of shedding light on two central aspects of his work: the gesture of silence, on the one hand, and, on the other, the modelling of a spatial and temporal landscape based on the symbolic figures of fog, storm, and tempest. I will clarify the interrelations between these two aspects through Warburg’s iconology as conceived in his project Mnemosyne (1924-1929), an atlas of images (“Bilderatlas”), conceived as a moving archive. Similar in form to Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk (1927-1940) and George Bataille’s Documents (1929-1930), Mnemosyne consists of large panels on which Warburg arranged images from different eras in order to demonstrate the figurative and gestural relationships among them. The atlas was meant to be an instrument for provoking meaningful collisions between the images which could reveal secret connections, “impurities” (Didi-Huberman 2002),5 and afterlives, or a reassembly machine to stimulate thought in boundary regions, in historical fractures. Read against each other, the reproductions of paintings, photographs, and drawings patched together on Mnemosyne’s nearly 80 extant panels aim, through the interval between one panel and another, to introduce a tension in their distance from the observer, to invoke what gazes at us in each image, and to situate this constellation against the greatest of all possible mysteries: time.

Movement, the historical spectrality of the image, is not only the object but also the method in Warburg’s research (cf. Didi-Huberman 1998). As early as in 1893, in his first essay, Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Spring, Warburg formulated a preliminary hypothesis that I wish to adopt in my approach to Sokurov, namely: that ancient gestural expressions have survived in the visual arts – mainly paintings – from more recent eras, situated between cultural, visual, and pictorial artifice on one side, and social conventions, on the other, functioning as a formulae of pathos, expressing passion, and often illustrating a dialectical relationship with the word. However, with the birth of photography and cinema, gestures became situated in time; they became a way of fixating memory and of copying unrepeatable singularity. Sokurov’s films, in their attention to painting, give an ongoing testimony to this tension between implicit movement in images and motion picture. It is in montage, a reassembly of different times, that certain resistance-images emerge, triggering memory through gesture. In the following pages, I will attempt to outline the possible conditions with which knowledge achieved through montage, as proposed by Warburg in his atlas Mnemosyne, can reveal the importance of gestuality and the specific gesture of silence in Sokurov’s films as a boundary space, a space of rupture and resistance.

Silence and the witness

Russkii kovcheg / Russian Ark (2002, Russia, Germany, Japan, Canada, Finland, Denmark), one of Sokurov’s most celebrated films due to its technical feat of having been filmed in a single sequence-shot, deploys a series of narrative, visual, and iconographic-gestural strategies based on the figure of the witness. In a 96-minute movement with no cuts, the camera travels through the Hermitage Museum accompanied by an aristocratic crowd. The story alludes to a key moment in Russian history: the end of Tsarist Russia and the beginning of the Revolution of 1917. During the first minutes, the screen remains black while a male voice-over addresses the spectator in a confessional tone: “I open my eyes and I see nothing. I only remember there was some accident. Everyone ran for safety as best they could. As for what happened to me I just can’t remember” (00:01:42). After a brief pause, when the first image appears, a distinguished-looking woman emerges from a carriage in front of a group of gentlemen, and the voice resumes: “How strange. Where am I? Judging by the clothes, this must be the 1800s. Where are they rushing off to?” (00:02:16).

While the camera, mounted on a steadicam, enters the Winter Palace, the official residence of the former Tsars and one of the buildings that constitutes the Hermitage Museum complex, the voice is constantly asking himself questions amid the crowd of dignitaries:

Those officers don’t know the way. Can it be that I’m invisible? Or do they just not notice me? Interesting. Has all this been staged for me? Am I expected to play a role? What kind of play is this? Let’s hope it’s not a tragedy. (00:03:54).

After this, the camera comes upon a man dressed in black whom the voice-over believes to be another man lost in time, exactly like him. “He nods to me, but goes away,” he says, and he calls to him, but now he is even more disoriented, as he thinks he is in Chambord during the period of the Directory and is not even aware that he is speaking Russian.6 According to the 6th of Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History,

Between the voice and the man in black, i.e., the Marquis, a field of tension opens up. The figure of the witness (often single and distant in other works of Sokurov’s) thus doubles and establishes a dialectic that also allows room for anachronism, for the coexistence of the nobility of old with the visitors to the museum in the 21st century within one shot. Through its splitting of the figure of the witness, Russkii kovcheg reflects the mechanisms of the image as a “dialectics at a standstill” (“Dialektik im Stillstand”), that is to say, as a dialectic, visual, and thinking movement suspended in history, from which to think events. According to Benjamin, the dialectic image allows an interruptive stasis of the image over the continuity of time: “The concept of historical time forms an antithesis to the idea of a temporal continuum” (Benjamin 1991-1999: 407). Indeed, Sokurov’s cinematic explorations are often closely oriented toward Benjamin’s thought, especially as it appears in Über den Begriff der Geschichte / Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), in which Benjamin refutes the academic historicism that turns the past into an inalterable substance.

In the dialogue between the two witnesses and in the sequence wherein the man in black enters the throne room, the film is orchestrated around a gesture performed by the man in black: this is a gesture of silence that he directs at the camera (Fig.1) – and, consequently, at the voice-over and the spectator (while Nicholas I receives some Persian emissaries who apologise for the assassination of the Russian diplomatic delegation to Tehran). This gesture of calling for silence constitutes the man in black’s only decisive action, the only turning point in his wanderings through the Hermitage Museum. The nuance of difference between the two words used in Latin to refer to a witness, “testis” and “superstes”, is illuminating when we consider the space of representation where the gesture occurs: while “testis” comes from “terstis” and means the person who constitutes the third party in a litigation, “superstes” refers to the one who has experienced certain events in the first person and can give a full account of them, or otherwise is left mute and powerless due to the extreme nature of what he or she has seen. In the juxtaposition of the two figures time travellers – the man in black and the voice-over – there is an expression of the separation between “testis” and “superstes”.

Aleksandr Sokurov. Russkii kovcheg (2002).

Aleksandr Sokurov. Tikhie stranitsy (1992).

Aleksandr Sokurov. Faust (2002).

Aleksandr Sokurov. Faust (2002).

The gesture of silence, which connects them and establishes a triangle with the spectator, is, however, not unique to this film; it is a recurrent bodily movement in Sokurov’s work. This gesture appears in Tikhie stranitsy / Whispering Pages (1993, Russia, Germany) (Fig. 2), which is a synthesis of some of the most significant Russian novels of the 19th century, particularly Dostoevskii’s, as well as in the adaptation of Goethe’s Faust (2011, Russia) (Fig. 3-4), and in Elegiia dorogi / Elegy of a Voyage (2001, Russia, France, Netherlands), a film commissioned by the Bojimans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. The gesture of silence is a way of signaling an entrance into an enigma, the threshold that the viewer is required to acknowledge as Sokurov stages his or her encounter with something unattainable, imaginary or potentially sacred. The fog, the tempest, or the blizzard emerges as a counter-shot to the silence admonition, reverting the spectator’s gaze inward, insisting on the existence of thresholds and opacities in relating experience.

Elegiia dorogi begins with images of fog and sleet enveloping a fruit tree and introducing a journey that fluctuates with the weather and concludes in front of a Pieter Saenredam’s painting, where the camera fades to black, while the voice-over says: “No going back. But the canvas remains warm”. Conversely, Russkii kovcheg begins with darkness and culminates in fog. Towards the end of the film, the crowd of aristocrats leave the palace while the clamour of the Revolution is unleashed. Then, the camera pans to the threshold of a door hanging over the sea, that in turn evokes an eternity noted by the voice-over: “Sir, Sir. A pity you’re not here with me. You would understand everything. Look. The sea is all around. And we are destined to sail forever, to live forever.” (01:32:47) (Fig. 5).

Aleksandr Sokurov. Russkii kovcheg (2002).

The tempest

Although it is difficult to speak of a shared identity in Russian cinema, there are certain historical constants that make it possible to locate Sokurov’s work within Russian cinematic gestural and figurative tradition. In a special issue of Cahiers du Cinéma from 1990, dedicated to the cinema of perestroika, Serge Daney, after conducting a brief review of the major movements in Soviet film history, stressed in particular that the collapse of the Soviet Union gave rise to a series of films which revealed a crisis: a rarefaction of space and a crack in the time-image. Daney refers to filmmakers as diverse as Konstantin Lopushanskii, Aleksandr Rogozkhin, Vasilii Pichul, Pavel Lungin, Sergei Bodrov-senior, and Aleksei German-senior, in whom he identifies – between extreme intimacy and wandering in the vastness of expansive horizons – the expression of an attempt to secure a system of transparency based on action and a causally oriented narrative. Against these directors Daney posits Andrei Tarkovskii and Aleksandr Sokurov as “filmmakers of the invention of distances” (Daney 1990: 11; my translation). But to what distances is Daney referring? Does he mean those which crystallise in the articulation of the montage and express human relationality with the surrounding world? Or, perhaps, it is the distance that triggers the journey? Or the distance that requires the creation of a certain model of spectatorship?

When the Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Peleshian (2005) reveals the need to “drill” cracks between the images to distance them from the mode of narrative transparency, he invokes two kinds of distance: geographical and a distance related to the construction of meaning. When dealing with filmmakers associated with the heritage of the former sphere of Soviet influence and as diverse as Herz Frank, Kira Muratova, Aleksei German, Viktor Kosakovskii, Sergei Loznitsa, Sharunas Bartas, Darezhan Omirbaev, and Sergei Dvortsevoi, it is possible to recognise a shared attention paid to the dual-sided question of distance.7 Its common source originates from the films of Aleksandr Dovzhenko, capable, through montage, of exploring the fracture between intimate pain and the emergence of history. Dovzhenko demonstrated this in one of his last films, Michurin (1949, USSR), co-directed with his wife, Iulia Solntseva. There, Dovzhenko shows the disconnect between the lyrically depicted death of the protagonist’s wife and the epic ardour with which the protagonist, after the historical interval introduced by Lenin’s death, pursues his scientific enterprise: develops new, resistant varieties of fruit trees to blanket Soviet land. The motif of the land and its swelling up with the storm, with the fierce whirl of wind and sleet, acts as a primordial image and evokes the representations of the Russian steppe, the Siberian taiga, and the solitude of the forests so often found in great Russian literature. Following Dovzhenko’s model, not only do Dvortsevoi in Chlebnyi den’ / Bread Day (1998, Russia) and Kosakovskii in Belovy / The Belovs (1992, Russia) discover the shift of drama towards remote gusty outposts, but Sokurov, recognising Dovzhenko as his direct influence, gathers the legacy of a visuality previously elaborated in literature by Alexandr Pushkin, Lev Tolstoi, and Anton Chekhov.

In some of the best stories in Russian literature, the tempest at first draws out clay scents from the earth and conjures up the pleasure of the primordial mud of the trails. Ultimately it cleanses and dries up the air, and it casts a blanket of snow over the ground on which borders are marked; in short, it suspends the image of movement, and thus the sequential continuity of time. In the motif of the tempest, there is a tradition that can be traced back at least to Pushkin, who, in his short story Metel’ / The Blizzard (1830), creates a love story, that of Mar’ia Gavrilovna vanishing in the whirlwind of a storm changing her destiny. The fate of Mar’ia Gavrilovna, her fiance, and Burmin, whom the young woman marries by mistake in the middle of the snowstorm, is interwoven with a metaphorical “shipwreck” – a notion that Hans Blumenberg (1996) has identified as a cipher of European culture. In the face of this disaster, the depiction of the landscape enables the reader to appropriate the view of the storm, i.e., to construct a “haptic” gaze founded on the turbulence, the loss of vision, and the disturbance of movement caused by the weather.

In his short story Metel’ / The Snow Storm (1856), Tolstoi, foreshadowing Franz Kafka’s narrative techniques, narrates a loss of any visual reference through the blizzard in which the narrator’s troika becomes lost. The narrator’s gaze tries desperately to fix on a solid landmark, but the fog makes it difficult. Tolstoi’s story creates, thanks to the storm, an interregnum in time, in the formation of the image itself. He establishes a visuality of going astray, introducing what Kafka, in his Die Acht Oktavhefte / Blue Octavo Notebooks (1917-1918), refers to as a “nibbling at our own limits” (1991: 14). In a similar way, Sokurov’s films attempt to explore the threshold of death in order to rescue something from the past.8

In Sokurov’s first feature film, Odinokii golos cheloveka / The Lonely Voice of Man (1987, USSR), a film inspired by Andrei Platonov’s prose, the agony of the suicidal youth who leaps into the freezing water is the first in the row of death rites repeated throughout his cinematography. Thus, the young Malianov confronts his father’s corpse and the ghost of Chekhov in Krug vtoroi / The Second Circle (1990, USSR); a similar situation is shown in Kamen’ / The Stone (1992, Russia); the fleeting loves of Emma (Bovary) reverberate over the extraordinary scene of the funeral in Spasi i sokhrani / Save and Protect (1989, USSR, Federal Republic of Germany); a voice-over explores the ruins painted on the canvases of the artist in Rober. Schastlivaia zhizn’ / Hubert Robert, a Fortunate Life (1996, Russia); and in Mat’ i syn / Mother and Son (1997, Russia, Germany), the son, lonely and without further help carries his dying mother in the arms (Fig. 6).9 By means of anamorphic deformations that flatten the paths traced in Mat’ i syn, Sokurov dissolves temporal development and blurs the lines of space. If to live is, as Hölderlin suggests, to dwell upon the earth (2000: 189), in the absence of a path and of movement, only death remains, welcomed by a hazy twilight , evoking – as it often happens in Sokurov’s cinema – the nebulous light of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting. Shrouded in fog, the idyllic setting that surrounds this inverted pietà, at the same time inverts the locus amoenus that opened Tarkovskii’s Ivanovo detstvo / Ivan’s Childhood (1962, USSR), imbuing it with the abysmal melancholy that Gérard de Nerval called “the black sun”.10

Aleksandr Sokurov. Mat’ i syn (1997).

The image of the murky background, through which the spectator witnesses the duration of time itself, an agent of a Gadamerian rescue11 of the single experience inscribed in history, is the driving force behind the visual construction in both Mat’ i syn and the documentary Elegy-series about such figures as Andrei Tarkovskii, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Boris El’tsin. But the fog in Sokurov’s films completely transcends its metaphorical dimension and becomes a genuine non-place. There, the idols are devoured by the voraciousness of the land, as in the Tetralogy of Power series and in the long documentary ode Dukhovnye golosa / Spiritual Voices (1995, Russia), which portrays the life of a Russian battalion in a fort at the Tadzhik-Afghan frontier.

The cadence of the words describing Mozart’s death in the long opening shot to Dukhovnye golosa (Fig. 7) is intermingled with the music Olivier Messiaen, of Gustav Mahler’s (Kindertotenlieder), and of Mozart himself, and thus moves from the tonality of elegy to that of requiem. It is indeed the liturgy of the requiem that gives shape to the images in Dukhovnye golosa and, later, in Molokh / Moloch (1999, Russia, Germany, Japan, Italy, France), Telets / Taurus (2000, Russia), and Solntse / The Sun (2005, Russia, Italy, Switzerland, France). These films bear witness to everyday routine in the lives of key persons of the twentieth century (Hitler, Lenin, and Hirohito) in proximity to moments of dramatic historical disruption: the Battle of Stalingrad, Lenin’s death, and the capitulation of Japan after the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The hypercontinuity of the sequence-shots in the so-called Tetralogy of Power – following Eva Braun through the murky hallways of the Führer’s alpine retreat (Molokh) (Fig. 8), converting Lenin’s “dacha” (Telets) into a replica of Arnold Böcklin’s painting Die Toteninsel / Isle of the Dead (1880) (Fig. 9), or enclosing Hirohito in the semi-darkness of a bunker (Solntse) (Fig. 10) – reproduces the reverse in the semi-darkness of the external storm, the slow world of “marvels and magical forces” referred to by Chekhov in another iconic Slavic literary representation of the motif of the tempest, Na puti / On the Road (1886). Indeed, this text appears to presage all of Sokurov’s work, in its depiction of isolated interior settings, of storm, and shipwreck far from any possible theodicy – a gnostic universe of the fall.12