Alexander Sokurov - The Russian auteur and his Faustian pact with Putin

When Alexander Sokurov wanted to film Goethe's tale, help came from an unlikely source

Modern mass culture, aimed at consumers, is crippling people's souls," the late Andrei Tarkovsky claimed. This is hardly the remark you expect from a film-maker. Cinema, after all, is the mass-culture medium par excellence. It's expensive, collaborative, industrial, and reliant on technicians, labs, marketing and distribution.

There have been few film-makers able to escape the commercial constraints on their craft. Tarkovsky, who made his best films within the straitjacket of Soviet-era censorship, used to talk of his work as being akin to "sculpting in time". The phrase would have made film financiers in the West wince. The idea of directors chiselling away at their images was the antithesis of Western studio working practices, which were about budgets, deadlines and release dates.

The Russian was an anachronistic and unusual figure 30 years ago (he died in 1986). From today's vantage point, he seems as outlandish as a dodo, or a director from another planet. "Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn't explain. What should he explain anyhow?" Ingmar Bergman wrote of him.

The door to that room has long since been closed. That's why it was so surprising at the Venice Film Festival when the competition jury, headed by Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky, ignored the claims of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Shame and various other much-hyped movies to give the Golden Lion to Tarkovsky's disciple, Alexander Sokurov, for his cinematic version of Goethe's Faust, one of the movies showing in a season of the director's work at London's BFI.

What made Sokurov's triumph in Venice register all the more strongly was that it came at a time when governments across the world were slashing their culture budgets. His brand of film-making seems to be under threat more than ever.

"Culture is not a luxury. It is the basis for the development of the society," Sokurov chided politicians when he picked up his award. However, Faust had an unlikely politician-patron in the form of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"The film would not have seen the light if Putin had not found the funding," Sokurov told the press in Venice, explaining how Putin invited him to his country house to discuss the project, which was then, promptly, and mysteriously, supported by a charitable fund in St Petersburg. Putin also phoned him with congratulations minutes after he was awarded his Golden Lion. When I interviewed Sokurov in London this week, the Russian was a little bashful about having had to rely on Putin to get the film made. He had spent seven years trying and failing to raise the finance.

"That's a lot, both in terms of the film industry and of your life," he sighs, reflecting on the "strong resistance" he encountered. "I went to see him [Putin] to save my work," he says. "To my surprise, two or three weeks after our meeting, I received confirmation that there would be money allocated to my film." He is not a Putin supporter but he is adamant that government has a responsibility to support the arts.

"What is the state there for unless it is there to help us in the social sphere and the sphere of culture?" he asks. Sokurov and Putin spoke for an hour, discussing such subjects as the likely fate of the Lenfilm Studio in St Petersburg and the plight of the Russian film industry in general. Sokurov also touched on social issues such as how prisoners were treated in Russian jails.

"During this conversation, our opinions, our points of view, coincided [sometimes] but very often they did not. I did not feel any discomfort about that." He speculates it was Putin's interest in Faust and German culture that prompted him to back the movie. Given that Faust is the fourth in Sokurov's cycle of films about "men of power" (following his earlier films about Hitler, Lenin and the Japanese Emperor Hirohito), it's bizarre but fitting that Putin should be its champion. "There is an irony when a man who has such power helps you to complete your work about men in power," the director notes.

Sokurov's films are not at all flattering about their subjects. In Taurus, he showed Lenin as wheelchair-bound, wasting away from illness and powerless to prevent Stalin's machinations. In Moloch, the focus was on the relationship between a very neurotic Hitler and Eva Braun. In The Sun, Hirohito was shown pottering around writing poetry even as the Americans bombed Tokyo to smithereens. Faust is a fictional character but what he has in common with his predecessors is that he suffers (as Sokurov has written) "from pathological unhappiness in everyday life" – and "unhappy people are dangerous".

Over the years, Sokurov has proved a very disconcerting interviewee. He talks a lot about the Russian soul. Ask him about his influences and he'll discuss Chekhov and Dostoevsky before he even mentions anything to do with film. In preparation for his film Mother and Son (1996), about a mother dying as her devoted son tends her, he and his cinematographer went to Berlin and spent hours together sitting in front of Caspar David Friedrich's painting The Monk By the Sea. Before shooting his film Father and Son (2003), he studied JMW Turner's watercolours. He calls many of his films "elegies," as if he is a composer or a poet, not a director. Although he reveres Ingmar Bergman and Alexander Dovzhenko, he is contemptuous

about 3D and James Cameron. In short, he takes an utterly uncompromising and sacral approach to his art.

It is hard to identify any contemporary Western film-makers who approach their craft in the Sokurov manner. A generation ago, the British still had a few film-makers whose work was as personal and as self-consciously "artistic" as that of Tarkovsky and Sokurov. These film-makers were often supported by the British Film Institute. Directors like Terence Davies with his trilogy, Peter Greenaway early in his career, Derek Jarman, Sally Potter and Bill Douglas were all able to make idiosyncratic and very personal films in the late 1970s and 1980s. Greenaway and Davies are still at work. Greenaway's Goltzius and the Pelican Company, about a late-16th-century Dutch printer and engraver of erotic prints, started shooting in Zagreb in July. Davies's new feature, The Deep Blue Sea, closed this year's London Film Festival.

Nonetheless, what became increasingly apparent over the 10-year period in which the UK Film Council was the lead agency for film is that the British really don't regard cinema as an art. The UK industry is producer-led, not director-led. Its idea of a perfect film-maker is of a solid craftsman who can tell a story: a Tom Hooper (director of The King's Speech), not a Sokurov or Tarkovsky. When artists themselves have moved into the film arena, as Steve McQueen has done so memorably with Hunger and Shame and Sam Taylor-Wood with Nowhere Boy, they have made narrative films. Meanwhile, experimental work is kept out of the mainstream.

It was telling that no British distributor had bought Faust at the time it won the Golden Lion. There can be something intensely off-putting about Sokurov's mysticism and nationalism. What can't be gainsaid is his fervent conviction that film is an artistic and deeply personal medium. He is determined to work in the "room of dreams" even when he has to rely on Vladimir Putin to allow him to get in there.

Sokurov: A Spiritual Voice, BFI, London SE1 (www.bfi.org.uk) to 30 December

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links