Fairytale, Alexander Sokurov
Credit: Locarno Film Festival
by Ayeen Forootan Film

Fairytale — Alexander Sokurov

August 17, 2022

It’s possible to make the claim that, from a certain point in his career, the works of the veteran (and outcast) Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov have emplaced the notion of history as their main focal fascination, at least in a more explicit sense. History, in its grander discursive aspects (in terms of the corrupting effects of power, tyrannical decadence, or its socio-political panorama), is vividly present in his Tetralogy of Power (Moloch, Taurus, The Sun, and Faust), in Russian Ark and Francofonia (where the director also exhibits art and culture as the true antitheses and resistant forces against the maladies and tragedies of modern civilization), and even in the more personal realms of Mother and Son, Father and Son, and Alexandra (where the familial contexts both reveal their own small-scaled (hi)stories and are situated within broader narratives). Thus, his most recent film (after seven years), Fairytale, once again invites viewers into this familiar domain, but with fresher artistic vision and aesthetic innovation than what we’ve seen before.

Opening with the ominous chirping of birds and thundering explosions in the sky, Fairytale reveals its comically absurdist tone and atmosphere through the juxtaposition of a biblical quote — “You strangled Satan, passion bearer, with the godly strings of your suffering” — with an encounter between the Communist dictator Joseph Stalin (newly awoken on his deathbed) and Jesus Christ. Much of this absurdism is somewhat reminiscent of Jan Švankmajer, although Sokurov’s dark, fable-like satire (which one may regard as an essayistic mockumentary) incorporates a very peculiar and novel technique of synthesizing deep faked archival footage with a series of animations into a dreamlike, chimerical collage of charcoal. Set in a purgatorial space in which the infernal quartet of Second World War dictators (Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Churchill) appears as if resurrected in death, Sokurov reanimates their bygone ghosts to remind us of the vanities and horrors of the 20th century; that while they may be invisible, they still persist and haunt the present. Within this temporal and spatial dead zone, the men of power and tyranny meander, carelessly and with a sense of glorious self-satisfaction, through a phantasmagoric landscape of ruins and corpses. The infamous foursome, engaged endlessly in conversation (or, more accurately, a hallucinatory and lyrical blend of riposte and soliloquy), are playfully reimagined as still entangled in reality, in their futile ideals and egos, manifesting their high hopes for a future now past. They talk excessively, sneakily mock and insult one another, admire their inglorious achievements, and — most comically — overlap, multiplying corporeally and mirroring one another through various versions of themselves.

The overlapping monologues and dialogues, the free-floating streams of monochromatic and expressionist images, the repetitive actions and gestures, the ambiance of poetic surrealism, the eerily gloomy beauty; all these contribute to Fairytale’s misty, post-apocalyptic wasteland in a way that deliberately stops time and stifles life. Sokurov’s aesthetic and thematic strategies, underscored in the central motif of repetition, help cement in the film’s circular and agonizingly slow-paced montage an undivine comedy of eternal, irredeemable damnation. The film’s deliberately atemporal and non-spatial milieu reunites its eternal inhabitants in a seemingly (and admittedly painfully) aimless conflagration of eccentricity, but — even as a minor riff, compared to the enormity of the filmmaker’s oeuvre — it still provides, through its epic and visual virtuosity (one of the most notable scenes is when we see a flood of masses/victims march in distorted images to orchestral music), plenty to muse over. As a multilayered and crucially complementary work to Sokurov’s previous output, Fairytale reconsiders the ever-present horizons of humanity’s past, and somberly suggests that these once-vistas may still be malevolently reincarnated for the future.

Published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.