Soviet Union, 1990
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 06 July 2006
Source Kino Video DVD
In many ways Alexander Sokurov’s international breakthrough with Mother and Son has provided a rather false impression of the nature of the man and his films. In that film, with its minimal dialogue, its intense emotionality, its painterly effects, and its mood of almost ineffable spirituality, Sokurov made his biggest play to be the heir of Tarkovsky, even if there’s no place for Tarkovsky’s religiosity, let alone God, in Sokurov’s spiritual world. But Sokurov’s work is far more varied (and uneven) than Tarkovsky’s—just consider how different Mother and Son’s companion-piece Father and Son is: far wordier, more bogged-down in the sometimes banal details of plot, dialogue and character interaction, and quite lacking in the sense of heightened spirituality that the earlier film had.
A big difference between the two directors is how the artistic seriousness that Sokurov shares with Tarkovsky is leavened with passages of often black humour—after all, any kind of humour is pretty much absent from Tarkovsky’s work. In Sokurov’s case, as disconcerting as I find it, it seems that he intends us to find his portrait of Hitler in Moloch to be funny; there are certainly plenty of comic elements in The Sun; and in The Second Circle, an earlier film than any of those I’ve mentioned here and, incidentally, one of Sokurov’s best, there’s a central sequence of grotesque humour.
Above all, though, The Second Circle is a film that is dark, bleak, and despairing, a portrait of the profound loneliness and isolation of the individual in a symbolically wintry spiritual landscape. The tone is set from the start with the opening pre-credits sequence: the film’s unnamed protagonist trudges through the snow, buffetted by the wind, until the increasing gusts force him to his knees and the swirls of snow and mist effectively bury him from our view.
“Bury” is appropriate, for our hero has returned to his home town to bury his father, but nothing that he undergoes here will offer any kind of emotional or spiritual consolation for the pain of his grief. The physical environment is cold and unrelenting, the father’s apartment impoverished and dilapidated, and the city itself dysfunctional. There’s not even running water for the son to wash his father’s corpse with—he has to drag it out into the snow to do that; the son has to go through a series of ludicrous bureaucratic hoops; and what seems to be a nightmare he has of hands looming down at him on a bus turns out to be a scene of everyday theft in a decaying Soviet city. (A political critique, while not being the first level of the film’s meaning, is obviously there to be drawn.)
Sokurov has drained the image of almost all colour, with tones varying between grey, monochrome, and sepia, with the very occasional flash of red (fire, the reflection of a setting sun). Slow, long takes predominate, with a frequent depth-of-field aesthetic, such as the shot when the son crouches on the floor in the foreground room as we look through the door to the adjoining room and the mortician assistants dressing the father’s corpse. But then Sokurov varies this with flat, single-plane images; a good example of this is the conversation between the son, the hospital doctor and her young son which is played out in a tight murky shot which each face pressed closely together and all faces staring evenly out at the camera.
As shots change, shot-size and camera position constantly vary, from long-shot to close-up, low-angle to overhead, with these variations often occurring within a single shot. (This Kino DVD also boasts cuts by Sokurov of about five minutes for “pacing.” I’m guessing—as I don’t have another version to compare with—that these cuts take the form of the fair number of dissolves within long takes, a stylistic feature I find rather disruptive of the steady slow pace of the film, a pace which is absolutely right for the film and which makes it such a success.) Sokurov also offers a couple of explicit visual homages to his master Tarkovsky: the son’s trip to the hospital which is a direct quote of the trip along the railway track into the Zone in Stalker; and an overhead shot of the kitchen as water drips down from above. All in all, the visual style of The Second Circle is absolutely masterful.
And why the “Second Circle”? In Dante’s Inferno the Second Circle was reserved to those sinners overcome by lust, which hardly applies to Sokurov’s film, an illustration of how filial love leaves the son spiritually bereft upon the death of the father. But in this allusion Sokurov may be after a more general mood, for the punishment in the Second Circle of Hell is for the souls to be buffetted eternally by a violent storm, a fitting enough image of the film itself.
There is no respite for the son’s pain. The film’s first few post-credits shots isolate the son in his solitude and grief: standing in shock beside his father’s bed (the corpse is kept hidden from our view); a cut to a high-angle distanced shot of the son standing by the window; then the next shot of the son is a close-up of his face now turned towards the viewer, close to tears. Similarly, the grotesque sequence where the son and the mortuary worker take the father’s corpse outside to wash it in the snow ends with a reinforcement of the son’s emotional suffering. Here, the camera holds on the son as he rises, stands, and turns one way and the other overcome with emotion, before it lowers to the body and the image whites out in a visual signal of palpable emotional force.
The Second Circle not only deals with the son’s emotional state but also with the material mechanics of attending to the body of a loved one after death, a materiality which is intensified by the dire physical conditions of life here, the poverty, the decrepitude, and the intense cold. So the son has to see to the washing of the corpse, visit a distant hospital to obtain a death certificate, negotiate with the strong-willed, overbearing woman undertaker, and observe the dressing of the body. There’s a comic element to the son’s obduracy in his negotiations with the undertaker as he debates each arrangement detail by detail; but there’s also a moral/spiritual force to his refusal here of cremation—”I’ll burn everything, but not my father.”
By the two-thirds point of the film The Second Circle’s tone has grown to a quiet interior intensity as the soundtrack almost drops away to nothing and Sokurov’s camera explores the minutiae of the apartment’s possessions. Suddenly this mood is broken by a sudden cut to a low-angle shot of the undertaker, throwing her bag at the off-screen son as she abuses him. Now follows the film’s lengthy comic set-piece where the undertaker bullies him into action, taking command as the son scuttles around setting up the coffin precariously on two chairs. He crawls under the coffin looking for socks to place on his father’s feet, eventually takes off his own, and the two literally tussle to mutual cries of abuse over the corpse in the coffin. Then there’s the grotesqueness involved in actually getting the coffin out of the apartment—they eventually have to wrap it with rope and manhandle it vertically.
This comic break-in-tone (but one that still emphasises the materiality of the events describes, as has been the case throughout the film) offers a kind of respite to the audience and builds up to its own kind of climax (the removal of the coffin), before returning to stillness and quiet in the film’s epilogue. After close-ups on objects—mounds of clothing, a box of trinkets that the son’s grubby fingers work through, the last of the father’s possessions being bundled up—and on the son’s now blank face, expressive of his pain and emptiness, the film moves outside. In the distance the son burns his father’s possessions in a giant bin, lighting up the murky shot with flashes of red, and the camera pans slowly across what appear to be a bizarre line of miniature houses to rest on the reflection of the fire in a window of the apartment building. The Second Circle’s final shot is of the unoccupied apartment, redolent of the feelings of loss and emptiness that the son has represented throughout the film. All that is left now is the bleakness of the film’s final title, sitting over literal black:
Lucky are the nearest and the dearest of ours,
who died before us.
In The Second Circle the pain is absolute.