Locarno 2022 review: Skazka (Alexander Sokurov)

“In its most stunning moment the line-up of despots in Skazka is hypnotic, the audience lulled into a trance through masterstrokes of imagery and sound.”

Alexander Sokurov’s Skazka opens as a body awakens in an intricately illustrated sarcophagus. He grumbles and whines, not about the elusive afterlife, but about his weight gain, tight shoes and numb body, before defiantly pronouncing his immortality. Another figure, his silhouette turned away in survey of a grand but decaying hall, chuckles in return. The laughing man is Adolf Hitler. The rising man is Josef Stalin. Nearby, Christ lies in repose, casting a weary side-eye, goaded by his chambermate. Perhaps he’s heard it all before. Perhaps he’s only in need of sleep. As Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini peer into the tomb, Jesus ignores the quartet. The foursome doesn’t seem to notice anyway, and they drift away, rambling on. The early verses of this fairy tale (the English translation of skazka) unveil a winding odyssey but there are no heroic feats in this purgatory, only the never-ending idleness of self-absorption and power.

The departed leaders are restless, so Sokurov invites them to roam a fantastically realized netherworld via deepfake technology. It’s an unnerving visualization, intertwining now and then, compelling as a dreamlike alternative to narrative structure but just off enough to be askew. Digitally manipulating archival footage of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill against artistic panoramas allows the filmmaker to follow them around perdition. They abstractly regurgitate any thought that pops into their heads while deliberately seeking entrance into the Gates of Heaven. Axis and Allies, they meander and multiply, diffused into facets of ego. There’s Mussolini, the commander. Mussolini, Il Duce. Mussolini, the shirtless strongman. One persona emerges from the other, crisscrossing as one counterpart admonishes another or, more likely, focuses on his own successes and failures. The voice work of Vakhtang Kuchava (Stalin), Lothar Deeg and Tim Ettelt (Hitler), Fabio Mastrangelo (Mussolini), Alexander Sagabashi and Michael Gibson (Churchill), is overlapped into remarkably haunting cadence. It’s bewildering but cunning falling to the aura.

In its most stunning moment the line-up of despots in Skazka is hypnotic, the audience lulled into a trance through masterstrokes of imagery and sound. The words drone on and on—Hitler lamenting not burning Paris, Churchill seeking approval of the Queen—collapsing into meaninglessness, but the monochromatic palette becomes more real. It also becomes more horrifying. Sokurov reaches a crescendo in what appears to be a ceremonial procession. His wandering leaders gaze over a tribune, not at goose-stepping ghosts but at a pulsating sea of blurred humanity, crying, reaching, disregarded. How quickly waves of followers rush to worship ego before crashing into oblivion.

And yet the four men, enemies, cooperatives and contemporaries, endure into the beyond. Sokurov rewires the ancient cult of personality for a digitized world where nothing can be deleted. What feels peculiar in the beginning becomes more horrifyingly authentic in the end—with economy, too, and not unlike sham political movements the world over. The filmmaker admits budget considerations in realizing the effects for Skazka, and with an entirely CGI work, that’s no small admission. The film still meets those ambitions strikingly (if watching a gauzy Hitler prance through purgatory may be called striking), but even with a brief running time loses impact in its repetitive verses near the end. Though his aesthetic is rich, Sokurov deliberately avoids presumptions in this addition to his canon of histories. Instead, he illustrates how the imagined purgatory of four departed leaders, tyrants and rulers, of the past century is inescapable for the present. It runs parallel and current because what was then is most certainly now.