Aleksandr Sokurov’s Dni zatmeniya (Days of the Eclipse) “centres” on Dmitry Malyanov (Alexei Ananishnov), a Russian doctor sent to an isolated village in central Asia. In the sweltering heat, he endures a series of strange incidents that distract him from his work, perhaps estranging him from reality itself. The tenor of the film is that of a mirage, a waking dream.

Malyanov seems alienated from Russians and Asians alike, although the opening sequence does (perhaps somewhat problematically) linger on the faces of the villagers as if documenting their visages for some ethnographic study. The sequence recalls Luis Buñuel’s documentary Las Hurdes (Land without Bread, 1933), but despite the stately pace of the narrative, the style – unlike Buñuel’s – never settles into a coherent aesthetic, as if Sokurov is still considering the best way to communicate his intentions.

The dense, claustrophobic atmosphere created here is much more characteristic of Sokurov’s work than the levity of his most well-known film, the internationally lauded Russki Kovcheg (Russian Ark, 2002). Nevertheless, he demonstrates the same fascination with the perspective of wide-angle lenses that he does in Russian Ark, as well as portraying a reality that seems to shift and re-arrange itself.

The film alternates between monochrome and colour in a muted and not clearly motivated fashion. This lies in contrast to A Matter of Life and Death (1946), in which Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger use monochrome for heaven and colour for earth, and thus the separate “realities” or vernaculars are clear. Even Jean-Luc Godard’s obtuse Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001) clearly separates the present (monochrome) from flashbacks (colour). The refusal to allow such cinematic properties to signify something clear within the story is an approach associated with Andrei Tarkovsky, with whom Sokurov is often compared. Sokurov though, experiments with a yellow/orange tint, as if trying to communicate the stifling atmosphere Malyanov works and lives in.

Comparisons of Sokurov to Tarkovsky largely began with this film. Days of the Eclipse is freely adapted from a science fiction novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, as was Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) (1). Soviet science fiction was both a conduit for extolling the virtues of a glorious future and an arena for raising questions about the present that might otherwise be branded as dissident, and “dissident” was equally a label that had been applied to Sokurov from the beginning of his career. This was his fourth fiction film, and although he had been active in documentary since the late 1970s, it took until the fifth council of filmmakers in 1986 to see any of his work screened domestically (2). A turn to science fiction, then, provided a refuge for his wayward views. By the time the novel reached the screen though, it resembled magic realism; an eruption of the fantastic into everyday life rather than a speculative narrative (3).

The novel deals with scientists about to affect massive breakthroughs. Inexplicable things begin to happen to them, causing them to believe that a preternatural conspiracy is afoot: the universe wants to protect its secrets. Sokurov jettisons the idea of a breakthrough. Bizarre things befall people whose lives seem aimless in this film. As Mikhail Iampolski more brazenly states, “the difficulty… lies largely in the multi-worldliness of his films” (4).

Sokurov constructs a film in which there is no base line of reality against which dreams or visions can be judged. This is most evident when Malyanov converses with a character who has earlier died. This is not presented as a dream or flashback, but merely included alongside the other curiosities for our contemplation. Such techniques are also associated with Tarkovsky; specifically, the impossible conversation between Rublev and Theophanes in Andrei Rublev (1966). Sokurov would expand – perhaps perfect – his exploration of a “time out of joint” in Russian Ark, where figures from different historical eras mingle and interact within a single take.

One hostile contemporary remarked that the animals in the film (the lizard named Josef, the snake) are obvious symbols of Stalin and Satan (5). I prefer, rather, to see these creatures as evidence of Sokurov’s “otherworldliness”, introducing an element of unpredictability into the film that mirrors the unpredictable reality that Malyanov finds himself in. These creatures do not act, they merely “are”, and this mirrors the laconic performance Sokurov coaxes from his actors.

Two recent films, Dikoe Pole (Wild Field, Mikhail Kalatozishvili, 2008) and Bumazhny Soldat (Paper Soldier, Alexei German Jr., 2008), deal with the same milieu and explore similar themes to Sokurov’s film. If the Caucasus symbolises adventure and danger in the Russian imagination, then perhaps the steppes of Central Asia test the horizons of experience in a much more subjective, internalised way.

Today it is clear that, while Russian Ark comes to us from a post-Soviet vantage point, one from which Sokurov seems to regard communism as a mistake best passed over, quickly atoned for by a return to traditional Russian culture, Days of the Eclipse reflects perestroika – new freedoms, but also confusion and upheaval.

The image of a rocket was used frequently by the Soviets back “when the future seemed unusually bright and the march of progress triumphant” (6). Days of the Eclipse begins as if from the point-of-view of a rocket or other flying machine, and we remain with it as it comes crashing back down to earth. This descent, and the subsequent exploration of a barren landscape and its bewildered inhabitants, do more than hint at a once powerful realm on the verge of dissolution.

Endnotes

  1. Sokurov’s film is adapted from Definitely Maybe, trans. Antonia W. Bouis, Collier Macmillan, London, 1979. Tarkovsky’s Stalker is adapted from Roadside Picnic, trans. Antonia Bouis, Gollancz, London, 2007.
  2. Andrei Plakhov “Soviet Cinema: Into the 90s”, Sight and Sound vol. 58, no. 2, February 1989, p. 80.
  3. Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, Indiana University Press, Indianapolis, 1992, pp. 87-113.
  4. Mikhail Iampolski, “The World as a Mirror for the Other World”, Russian Critics and the Cinema of Glasnost, ed. Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, p. 114.
  5. Tatyana Moskvina, “A Billion Years Before the End of Cinema”, Russian Critics and the Cinema of Glasnost, p. 118. Sokurov’s later film Solntse (The Sun, 2005) would seem to bear out Moskvina’s comments, as it associates the Japanese Emperor Hirohito with amphibians and fish to communicate his cold, distant nature.
  6. Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, Basic Books, New York, 2001, pp. 345-6.

Dni Zatmeniya/Days of The Eclipse (1988 USSR 133 mins)

Prod Co: Lenfilm Dir: Aleksandr Sokurov Scr: Yuri Arabov, Piotr Kadochnikov, Arkady Strugastsky, Boris Strugatsky, adapted from the novel Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugastsky Phot: Sergei Yurizditsky Ed: Lena Semyonova Prod Des: Yelena Amshinskaya Mus: Yuri Khanin

Cast: Alexei Ananishnov, Eskender Umarov, Irina Sokolova, Seryozha Krylov. Vladimir Zamansky, Kirill Dudkin

About The Author

John A. Riley studies and writes about film in London, England. He is currently working on his thesis on Andrei Tarkovsky.