By Dennis Lim
February 2, 2013
In 1999, the Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov, the prolific filmmaker who remains probably best known for the 2002 art-house hit "Russian Ark," launched the eccentric Men of Power tetralogy, dealing mainly with the obscure inner lives of 20th-century dictators: Hitler ("Moloch," 1999), Lenin ("Taurus," 2001) and Japan's wartime emperor, Hirohito ("The Sun," 2005).
He concluded the series by drawing not on history but on legend, with "Faust," the winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2011.
If the Men of Power movies take an unorthodox approach to the historical biopic, the three features in "Sokurov: Early Masterworks," a new three-disc boxed set from independent distributor Cinema Guild, represent a no less perverse notion of literary adaptation.
The generous supplements include a commentary by curator James Quandt, and a selection of Sokurov's short works, including the found-footage collage "Sonata for Hitler" (1979) and two documentaries on Boris Yeltsin.
"Early" is a bit of a misnomer. A former protégé of Andrei Tarkovsky, the previous generation's great Russian master, Sokurov had been working steadily since the 1970s, sometimes butting heads with Soviet censors.
But it was the work from the post-perestroika period — the years covered in this set — that put him on the international map. Susan Sontag, an ardent fan, included two of his films on her Top 10 list of the 1990s.
"Save and Protect" (1990), inspired by "Madame Bovary," is the most straightforward film here. Dramatizing several key events from Gustave Flaubert's novel, it retains an odd mood and slow-burning unpredictability that is all its own, thanks in part to the curious performance of its nonprofessional lead actress, Cecile Zervoudaki, who switches between French and Russian.
The death-obsessed Sokurov expends considerable energy and screen time on staging his heroine's funeral.
Sokurov's insistence on the fundamental differences between literature and cinema means that his adaptations do not attempt in any conventional sense to transfer actions and thoughts from page to screen.
If anything, they are more likely to evoke the relationship that a rapt, transported reader has with a particular book or author.
Considerably stranger than "Save and Protect," "Stone" (1992) is a black-and-white chamber piece, shot mainly in Anton Chekhov's mansion in Yalta (now a museum), where a young caretaker talks to and tends to an old man who is presumably the ghost of the writer. Little happens, but the spectral atmosphere, prone to slippage and reverie, is gripping.
The Chekhov figure is played by the great actor Leonid Mosgovoy, who would later incarnate Hitler and Lenin for Sokurov.
"Whispering Pages" (1994), included in Blu-ray and standard-definition versions, is one of Sokurov's supreme achievements. The opening credits nod to "works of 19th-century Russian literature" without naming them, but there are obvious echoes of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," with a Raskolnikov character wandering the catacombs and caverns of a city by the water.
This is Sokurov's first sustained immersion in what would become his trademark environment: a dream world of permanent dusk. Everyone is a ghost of sorts in this phantom zone of creeping shadows and swirling fog. The very air in "Whispering Pages," as the title suggests, is thick with portent.
Almost every shot is a hypnotic study in mist and light. The image, sometimes warped with distorting lenses, shifts between faded color and monochrome; the intricate sound design, combining faraway voices and gently lapping water, adds to the hallucinatory effect.
Something of a high-culture mandarin, Sokurov has said he considers cinema an unnecessary medium, unlike painting, literature and music. While cautioning against the dangerous power of the visual, he maintains that movies belong at the bottom of the cultural totem pole.
The irony is that Sokurov has among the strongest signatures of any living filmmaker. Which is to say, he's one of the few capable of reminding us, often in just a few indelible frames, what cinema alone can do.