Lonely Voice of a Man, Solitary Voice of a Man

English Title: Lonely Voice of a Man, Solitary Voice of a Man

Original Title: Odinokii golos cheloveka

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Lenfilm

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

Screenplay: Iurii Arabov

Cinematographer: Sergei Iurizditskii

Art Director: Vladimir Lebedev

Runtime: 82 minutes

Genre: Literary adaptation

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Tat'iana Goriacheva, Aleksandr Gradov, Vladimir Degtiarev, Liudmila Iakovleva, Nikolai Kochegarov, Sergei Shukailo, Vladimir Gladyshev, Ivan Neganov, Evgeniia Volkova, Irina Zhuravleva, Viktoriia Iurizditskaia

Year: 1978 (released 1987)

Volume: Russian

Based on Andrei Platonov’s story ‘The River Potudan’’ (with elements from his novel Chevengur) Sokurov’s first feature film depicts a soldier’s difficult re-adjustment to civilian life after he returns home from the battlefields of the Russian Civil War ca. 1921. Nikita Firsov is re-united with his sweetheart, the orphan Liubov’ (Liuba) Kuznetsova. During their courtship Liuba loses her close friend Zhenia to typhus, and Nikita also survives a bout of the illness. After his recovery Nikita and Liuba marry and he moves in with her. Crushed by his impotence, Nikita abandons home to wander the market of a nearby town, whence he is fetched home by his father, who tells him that Liuba had attempted to drown herself. The narrative scenes are interspersed with documentary sequences, still photographs and lyrical interludes, particularly of the colourful moment of the lovers’ first meeting after the war. Two sequences – of Nikita eating with a monk and of two men in a boat discussing the afterlife – are relatively independent insertions.

Sokurov cuts Platonov’s already meagre dialogue to a bare minimum, using photographs, documentary footage and an array of distorting lenses and filters to compensate for the loss of Platonov’s dizzying verbal (il)logic. The film begins with old documentary footage in slow motion: a river, lumber floating on water and (twice) a huge wooden wheel being turned by workers. After the initial credits a series of colour shots (interspersed with more credits) show a young man walking across the steppe, each one at closer distance and at a different angle. This sequence ends with an enigmatic long shot of him jumping off a river bank. A shot of his home is then followed by four more documentary shots in slow motion, showing industrial workers, after which domestic scenes alternate with old photographs, some of them examined with tracking shots and close-ups. The film is obviously less interested in telling a story than in examining the distances that separate us as viewers from the historical, emotional and technological conditions of the time. As with Platonov’s prose, the meaningful development occurs less in the narrative content than in its constantly changing texture.

Nikita is usually at the centre of the camera’s attention, but he is precisely its object, not its subject. The non-professional actors behave as if their world has just been illuminated after 50 years of hibernation. The snippets of clumsy Platonovian dialogue are pronounced woodenly, giving little insight into the characters’ subjective states. In the story the reader is informed of Nikita’s sparse memories and thoughts, but the film refrains from associating the documentary footage or family snapshots directly with Nikita’s or Liuba’s consciousness; indeed, some of them look more like Platonov himself, as if the author and his style are being made the subjects of representation. There are drastic shifts of perspective, a technique characteristic of Platonov, where familiar characters are suddenly encountered as if they are strangers; thus the watchman at the market discovers a mute vagrant who turns out to be Nikita, while Nikita encounters a man who turns out to be his father. Sokurov marks these sudden shifts visually; the scene of the mute Nikita at the market is in high-contrast black and white, and slow motion, approximating the visual qualities of the documentary sequences. This multiplicity of perspectives is not informed by any obvious hierarchy; the perspectival shifts reveal less about Nikita as a character than about our evolving vision of him and his world. Nikita’s final illumination comes when he declares to Liuba that he ‘has got used to being happy’ with her. This recovery of love in the depths of abandonment is analogous to the viewer’s rediscovery of vision amidst a world that is constantly slipping into obscurity and inscrutability. It is an intimacy possible only in the cinema.

Both in narrative and in visual style Sokurov draws heavily on the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsii, even to the point of presenting Nikita’s home village in the style of Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow (which Tarkovskii cited in Solaris and Mirror). Sokurov’s cameraman has recalled how he tried to reproduce the inverse perspective of Kuz’ma Petrov-Vodkin’s painting and the orthodox icon.

Sokurov’s film was submitted as his degree project at VGIK, but it was rejected by the administration and left on the shelf until it was restored and released by Lenfilm in the midst of perestroika. It is not entirely clear to what degree Sokurov changed the film in 1987; there is at times a marked discrepancy between the dialogue and the visuals. In any case Lonely Voice of a Man marks a high-point of Soviet art cinema and can usefully be contrasted to Andrei Konchalovskii’s Maria’s Lovers (1984), which is based on the same Platonov story. It is widely regarded as one of Sokurov’s finest films.

Author of this review: Robert Bird