English Title: Taurus

Original Title: Telets

Country of Origin: Russia

Studio: Lenfilm

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

Producer(s): Viktor Sergeev

Screenplay: Iurii Arabov

Cinematographer: Aleksandr Sokurov

Art Director: Nataliia Kochergina

Editor: Leda Semenova

Runtime: 94 minutes

Genre: Biopic/Drama

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Mariia Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoi, Nataliia Nikulenko, Sergei Razhuk, Lev Eliseev, Nikolai Ustinov

Year: 2000

Volume: Russian

Unfolding over two days in 1924, the film depicts the dying Lenin, world revolutionary and father of the USSR, now powerless and isolated at his Gorki estate. Cared for by his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaia, sister Maniasha, his German doctor and several attendants, Lenin raves about his diminishing faculties, discusses the deaths of great figures (including Marx), rides a car to a picnic in a meadow and ponders his historic legacy. In a key scene the ‘great leader’ interacts with a visitor, his eventual successor Joseph Stalin, asking for poison to hasten his demise. At film’s end, Lenin is left alone in his wheelchair while Nadezhda rushes off to answer a long-awaited telephone call from the Party Central Committee. His cries are answered only by the distant lowing of a cow. The once-all-powerful despot, at the end of his life, stares longingly at clouds in a bottomless sky. A storm looms.

Like the other works in Sokurov’s ‘Men of Power’ tetralogy – Moloch on Hitler (1999), The Sun (2005) on Hirohito and a planned adaptation of Goethe’s Faust – Taurus utilizes unconventional cinematography, unorthodox performances, slow pacing and a highly imaginative approach to its subject for a meditation on the dehumanizing effects of absolute power. While some critics fault Sokurov for the film’s rambling script and ‘stagy’ shots, others highlight the comedic potential of a once-towering figure like Lenin diminished to a sick, ranting old man (seen naked more than once). Still others accuse Sokurov of over-humanizing his dictators, glossing over their crimes in pursuit of some a-historical ‘universality’ of mortal existence. In evoking compassion for Lenin’s death agonies, so goes this critique, the film risks betraying the many victims of his policies. On the other hand, Taurus hardly heroicizes its subject. Deprived of the telephone, even a newspaper (rudely snatched away by an orderly), Lenin knows the Party he founded has abandoned him; explosions of rage alternate with a muted resignation and transient pleasures of the natural world (birdsong, thunder, sunlight through a window). While based on accounts of Lenin’s final days (following a series of strokes), the film’s idiosyncratic representation of historical figures renders them by turns sympathetic and grotesque – perhaps a corrective to the many Soviet-era cine-panegyrics to the ‘dear leader’ such as Mikhail Romm’s Lenin in October (1937). The petty, whining Lenin of Taurus could not be further from the strong, avuncular figure of Stalinist propaganda.

Still, at times the film seems fascinated by the iconicity of its subjects: one shot in particular lingers on the just-arrived Stalin in his greatcoat, standing like a predator beside his car. These images enact a haunting ‘resurrection’ of the dead; from such a distance the illusion of a living Stalin seems disturbingly convincing. Yet Sokurov will often deflate such apotheosizing imagery; for example, the meeting between Stalin and Lenin includes shot-reverse shot extreme close-ups of the two leaders, revealing (through his facial expressions and eyes) Lenin’s craven baseness as he begs for poison, and Stalin’s deceitful, pock-marked, mannequin-like visage. Here the director most blatantly strips the legend from the man.

For Taurus, Sokurov served for the first time as his own cinematographer; his dark, saturated, oft-blurred images flirt with inscrutability. The estate often appears in fog, its interior a labyrinth of murky, green-tinted rooms; even when the sun breaks the imagery recalls day-for-night photography. As in Mother and Son, many shots hark back to the silent era. As pointed out by several critics, the film’s greenish, gloomy palette makes it appear as if the action is occurring underwater. As in much of Sokurov’s work, these atypical visual strategies reference European art, in this case Vermeer and – in part through the colour scheme and repeated mentions of an approaching storm – Giorgione’s ‘The Tempest’ (1506–1508).

Like many films of its time, Taurus focuses on themes of death and decay, in part as a means of exorcising Soviet-era ghosts. In this sense one may compare it to Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (1994) as a re-examination of the Stalinist past, albeit in an unorthodox manner. Similarly, like Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (2003) and other recent films, Taurus ironicizes the theme of paternity through the figure of a decrepit father whose ‘progeny’, the Soviet Union, is itself now defunct.

Taurus seems to be a sustained meditation on illness, the body and the universality of the dying process, the loss of control at the end of life – regardless of one’s earthly achievements. Yet some have seen in Sokurov’s dying yet stubbornly atheistic Lenin a perverse parody of the communist fixation on materialism.

Author of this review: Jose Alaniz