Moscow Elegy

English Title: Moscow Elegy

Original Title: Moscow Elegy

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Leningrad Studio of Documentary Film (LSDF), Union of Cinema Workers

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

Producer(s): Vladimir Mikhailov, Tat'iana Aleshkina, Georgii Bagoturiia

Editor: T. Belousova, L. Feiginova, L. Semenova, L. Volkova, A. Zhikhareva

Runtime: 88 minutes

Genre: Documentary

Language: Russian

Year: 1988

Volume: Russian

Moscow Elegy is Sokurov’s homage to his mentor Andrei Tarkovsky on the occasion of his death on 29 December 1986. Sokurov augments extensive excerpts from Tarkovsky’s films Mirror (1975), Voyage in Time (1980) and Nostalgia (1983) with video footage from the shoot of Sacrifice (1986, supplied by Anna-Lena Wibum) and of Tarkovsky’s fatal illness and funeral (supplied by Chris Marker). Photographs document Tarkovsky’s childhood. Original footage documents Tarkovsky’s homes in Russia. The broader historical context is suggested by footage of the funerals of Brezhnev and Iurii Andropov. Eschewing chronology or analysis of Tarkovsky’s cinematic oeuvre, Sokurov’s quiet but emotional narration presents Tarkovsky’s passing as the end of an epoch in Russian spiritual existence.

Moscow Elegy culminates with video footage of Tarkovsky’s final months, his funeral and his grave. Sokurov features French TV reports on Tarkovsky’s death, highlighting the disconcerting way that this epochal event became trivialized as breaking news communicated over modern mass media to an indifferent public, to be forgotten on the morrow. But Tarkovsky’s traces are also captured only within technological media, both documentary footage and an audio recording of Tarkovsky reading his father’s poem ‘I fell ill in childhood’. By posing the problem in this way Moscow Elegy links Tarkovsky’s death to a central concern in Sokurov’s cinematic aesthetic, especially in the genre of the documentary elegy: the tension between the intimate experience of time, loss and death and the modern, mechanical media by which we access it.

In Sokurov’s numerous other cinematic homages, from Sonata for Viola (1981, about Dmitrii Shostakovich) to Conversations with Solzhenitsyn (1999), he has tended to focus his camera on the physical presence of his subject. Though Sokurov begins Moscow Elegy as a search for Tarkovsky’s presence, it ends up registering his absence: from Russia, from his own homes, from the public record and even from his own films. Sokurov highlights three key moments of Tarkovsky’s life: Russian childhood, Italian exile and death in Paris. The only specific places featured are Tarkovsky’s now-empty homes: in Zavrazh’e, Shchipok (in Moscow), Miasnoe, Mosfil’movskii pereulok; he takes us on a posthumous tour of the latter three, noting their sparse furnishings and their present state of abandonment. He shows footage of Tarkovsky in Marlen Khutsiev’s Il’ich Gate (1962) and in a documentary study of cinema protagonists (1969), but only to stress Tarkovsky’s seemingly alien guise in these ‘roles’. Only sparing traces of his grown presence remains. One stunning sequence imposes Viacheslav Ovchinnikov’s soundtrack to Ivan’s Childhood (1962) over documentary footage of Sheremet’evo airport, Tarkovsky’s final port of call in the USSR, culminating in the discovery of the birch woods that surround the airport. Sokurov tries to recover the sense of Tarkovsky’s final glance at his loved ones and his home landscape by reproducing the autobiographical elements of Tarkovsky’s fiction films.

Throughout the film Sokurov eschews the words ‘USSR’ or ‘Russia’, preferring ‘rodina’ – homeland, a concept symbolized by this birch forest. Narrating Tarkovsky’s final days, he laments that ‘We in the homeland knew next to nothing about the state of his health’. One wonders what would have changed had they known; it is, of course, a typically illogical expression of grief, of irredeemable loss. Sokurov’s despondence over Tarkovsky’s death (to which he also devoted a 1987 memoir Death: the Banal Equalizer) reveals a sentimentalism and nostalgia capable of paralyzing those who remain. All we can do, it would seem, is to open museums on the sites of his homes, lovingly preserving the arrangement of objects as he left them.

Made at the peak of perestroika, Sokurov’s lament for Tarkovsky was perceived as mourning ‘the Russia we have lost’ (to quote the title of another perestroika-era documentary by Stanislav Govorukhin). Recent history – most notably the funerals of Brezhnev and Andropov – feels as distant as if it is the history of another planet. In this sense Moscow Elegy is less about Tarkovsky per se that about the condition of historical abandonment symbolized by his death.

Author of this review: Robert Bird