Before Empire Come: Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1997)

The story of a mother slowly dying while in the care of her son, Mat i syn (Mother and Son, 1997) was lauded worldwide at the time of its release – first and foremost for its stunning visuals of idyllic countryside and misty forests, deeply informed, as most critics noted, by the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich.1

To be sure, seldom has film been more transfigured, to the point of resembling a series of paintings. Avoiding the kitsch such reproductions may have yielded, director Aleksandr Sokurov resorted to a variety of practical tricks: in some shots he used anamorphic, distorting lenses applied directly onto the camera; in other instances, the image was actually shot in the mirror reflection of miniature landscapes and ruins – accounting for the many fixed, static compositions in the film. This allowed Sokurov to layer and give additional depth to his mise en scène: the director would paint onto the surface of the mirror, adding surprising and unique effects to his already unusual, soft and gauzy representations. Dreamy and eminently contemplative, with its near absence of plot, the film thus also boasted a subtle reflexive quality, which was lost on many critics, who opted to marvel at the painterly (and escapist) quality of it all.

As Jacques Rancière has pointed out, there exists, in the films of Sokurov, a fundamental contradiction: between the undeniable technological and artistic experimentation in the director’s works, and the often reactionary, conservative views he holds in interviews.2 One could also point out to the discrepancy between Sokurov the aesthete and Sokurov the pragmatic actor of the cultural sphere, often obliquely paying lip service to an unlikely master while posing as a detached, a-political artist.

While the first contradiction could not be more salient in Mother and Son, the latter cognitive dissonance is also exemplified in the film – and is more apparent today than it was twenty years ago.

At the time of the film’s release, Sokurov exalted the bi-dimensionality and flatness of the cinematic image, relating it to the painterly tradition – specifically to that of the religious icon – elevating cinema as art. As Elena Gracheva notes, in Sokurov, art is what renders the invisible visible, but without stirring or breaking down the flatness of the cover that warrants the mystery’s integrity – thereby underlining the importance of bi-dimensionality in painting and cinema.3 Sokurov also made disparaging comments about modernism and twentieth century art at large, lamenting its loss of tradition. It is thus unsurprising that he reached for Friedrich’s sublime landscapes for inspiration, the project of romantic art being (as identified by Hölderlin) to exacerbate the real in order to show what is hidden beyond: in this case, God. Since Sokurov envisages the twentieth century as having lost this transcendental ability, we can interpret his aesthetic project in Mother and Son as the antidote to contemporary art: a blending of religious traditions with “natural religion” – as expressed in the painterly sublime.

But the “antidote” was also aimed at something else: Sokurov regarded post-Soviet Russia as a depressing socioeconomic and political environment wherein many suffered (following a regime wherein even more suffered and died). He imputed this injustice to the cultural and spiritual vacuum of the day, proposing a film that would do away with the 20th century, and inviting its viewer to another approach of cinema, of time, and existence. If the lives of many (and nowhere more so than in Russia, as it were) had gone to waste, at least, the director thought, they could find some solace in the acceptance of death. With Mother and Son, Sokurov posited himself as a “therapist of souls” for some, while reminding others of a forgotten function of art. In so doing, he purported not only to elevate cinema to the rank of high art, but also to re-inscribe a wayward medium into the great tradition, concocting a more potent remedy for the viewer than any comfort the son might have given his ailing mother: a glimpse into life everlasting. As it were.

Mother and Son

In his Cahiers article “Le cinéma comme la peinture?”, Rancière challenged the lofty spiritual aspirations of Sokurov by dismantling the very notion of bi-dimensionality and “pictoriality” in his films – and the rejection of the 20th century contained therein. He did so by demonstrating the greater proximity of Sokurov’s Tikhiye stranitsy (Whispering Pages, 1994) with the tradition in turn-of-the-century photographs for a flattening of space in order to move away from representational realism, rather than with the painterly tradition per se. More importantly, Rancière showed the contradictions of the professed bi-dimensionality in Sokurov’s corpus, by highlighting elements of depth and time in his films. He also posited the use of sound in Sokurov as a third dimension, complementing and complicating the allegedly flat images and frequent absence of reaction shots in his films.

In other words, Rancière debunked the proverbial “anxiety of influence” in Sokurov, or his Oedipal rejection of the Soviet and/or modernist father, and the reactionary stance lurking behind Sokurov’s death-ridden characterisations and overly aestheticised and de-populated realms.

It is however the film’s treatment of time, rather than its fabled visuals, which calls today for further inquiry. As I noted elsewhere, Mother and Son proposes a new phenomenology of time, the feeling of which it nearly abolishes to remarkable effect. But was it only in order to come closer to the contemplative, absorbing regime of the religious icon as mediated here through the secular mystery of the romantic sublime that Sokurov had decided to remove, inasmuch as is possible, the feeling of passing of time from his film?

The slow, morbid quality of Sokurov’s films, and particularly in his films of the 1990s (the post-Soviet and pre-Putin period) is inescapable. In Mother and Son, death is thematised through the mother’s fate, but also through the network of allusions of the romantic representations, and the proximate nature of anamorphosis and the Vanitas as a genre (think of the anamorphic skull in Holbein’s amply commented The Ambassadors). There is little question that, after the funeral of Krug vtoroy (The Second Circle, 1990) and the ghost of Chekhov in Kamen (The Stone, 1992), through his use of distorting lenses and mirrors in Mother and Son, Sokurov had accomplished yet another memento mori. Even the film’s carefully produced sound design, itself replicating the sensation of a cotton-like coating, enshrouded the whole (including the viewer) like a funeral veil.

Mother and Son

Conversely, there was undeniably a vibrant, ebullient (juvenile, almost) quality to Sokurov’s Perestroika films (Skorbnoe beschustviye [Mournful Insensitivity, 1982, released 1986], Dni zatmeniya [Days of the Eclipse, 1986, released 1987], and Spasi i sokhrani [Save and Protect, 1989]). In his documentary (think only of Sovietskaya Elegiya [Soviet Elegy, 1989]) Sokurov laid the Soviet heritage to rest in a famous series of tableaus of its leaders cross-dissolving on top of one another, leaving a hapless, blob-like Boris Yeltsin (whom Sokurov knew well and even momentarily attempted to “enlight”, as he recounts in his collection of essays V tsentre okeana [St. Petersburg: Amfora, 2012]) to face the task of running a crumbling empire. His films, in a most transparent way, marked a departure, a retreat from the social sphere in these years of failed and aborted reforms and socio-economic turmoil, their hazy, ghostly aesthetics and the characters that float through rather than inhabit them being a direct reflection of the despondence and powerlessness felt by the director. Nonetheless, this despondence and sorrow fuelled the artist’s Muse – The Second Circle and Mother and Son being perhaps his two greatest films. Of the former (the story of a hapless son incapable of tending to his dead father’s funeral arrangements), John Mackay aptly pointed out to the feeling of “surplus” of death.4 The film thus spoke to the very belated coming to terms, in Russia, with the horrors of Stalinism, kept under a lid until the collapse of the USSR. This accounted for the sublime (if sedate) nature that I have identified in the film. Though this sublime morphed into a different form of affect, reaching its more appeased, spiritualist form, in Mother and Son, the helplessness and pain of the son remain nonetheless. He too is absent when his mother dies (in The Second Circle, the son arrives too late). But in the 1997 opus – much like its warmer, sepia and gold hues are in contrast with the wintry, muted chromatic palette of The Second Circle – the promise of a reunion in the afterlife is asserted. The characters speak to one another from an unlikely beyond. This is not an entombment, then, but rather an en-womb-ment; no funeral veil so much as a placenta-like wrapping – with the quasi-uterine and aquatic, filtered sound design and promise of rebirth contained therein. A promise is hinted at – and articulated later in the more triumphant if equally melancholy Russkiy kovcheg (Russian Ark, 2002) – of a renewed faith, and the possibility for these “eternal souls” to sail forever.

As is well known, Russian Ark was shot entirely in the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest art collections. Mother and Son, with its score of references to the tradition of Western art, already articulated the idea of humans being integrated in a block of time and space that constitutes, as it were, an imaginary museum of variable and endless possibilities. Sokurov clearly stated – most recently in his Francofonia (2015) – that the redemption of humanity (and the latter’s highest and noblest mission) was to rescue and uphold this tradition. This belief ties in with the Russian man’s equally strong belief that the redemption of the West, now in decline, would come from Russia, harboring and protecting the great ghost, the great spirit of the West, now imperiled.

The question “what could have motivated Sokurov, the mournful, but vibrant filmmaker of films such as Days of the Eclipse, to retreat into a cinema increasingly preoccupied with death and contemplation, through the 1990s?” is thus correlated to the equally problematic “how is a superb chamber artist like Sokurov […] moved […] to reflect on the lives of ‘great men’ like Lenin, Hitler and Hirohito?”5. The answer to both questions must have to do in equal parts with the end of communism and the near total collapse of the Russian economy as with its rebirth under Vladimir Putin. Much as the ghost of Stalin was never entirely gone from Russia (through the 1990s and early 2000s it was stupefying to see the number of cab drivers in St. Petersburg or Moscow who adorned their cars with an effigy of the Batyushka – as many as those who would boast an Orthodox icon, making the two essentially indistinguishable in their function), so was Sokurov’s “retreat” into contemplative and slow cinema never entirely bereft of ideological agenda and implications.

Mother and Son

Which leads us back to Mother and Son’s treatment of time – and its meaning – proper. Many have pointed out to the a-chronological and “fairy tale” nature of the film. Even the soundtrack does not quite contradict this temporal indeterminacy, signifying little in terms of narrative progression. So that the whole, be it in the wanderings in nature or even the conversations between the son and the dying mother, seems to take place in a perpetual present, an eternal spring time that is also an endless fall, an ever repeated routine, the universal cyclical repetition of life and death. This is what Fredric Jameson has identified in other Sokurov films as “l’emploi du temps”,6 a time of routine and contemplation, perambulatory or fixed, which never seems to end – nor ever to start, for that matter. A time of waiting, possibly outside of time. Yet the mother dies in the end, and so this is not what Rancière (in reference to Bela Tarr’s films) has identified as the “time after7. Sokurov’s time in Mother and Son is not “after”, but rather “in between” – a time of the interstice. One that nests itself in the crack following the apocalypse (the deluge, the fire, as in his friend Andrey Tarkvosky’s films to whom his own are so often inaccurately compared) and preceding rebirth. This is not a post-narrative time as Rancière reads it in Tarr, even as both filmmakers show an equal interest, in this antechamber of sorts, for the fabric of the sensitive (“l’étoffe sensible”). Sokurov’s film shows us what happens not when the story is over, but before it has started, in which humans who had the misfortune of living in the “wrong time” (or their descendants), can see, at least, the dignity in their death, until (or rather, and again, before) Empire Come. In this, and despite all its Germanic and Western influence, the film and its maker could not be more Russian.



  1. An art historian would easily find a wealth of references in Mother and Son, not only just to the landscapes and ruins of Friedrich, but also to the stretched-out bodies of El Greco, pieta figures by Rogier Van Der Weyden or Andrea Mantegna, seascapes by J.M.W. Turner, spring orchards by Jean-François Millet, and chiaroscuros echoing Rembrandt and Caravaggio.
  2. Jacques Rancière, “Le cinéma comme la peinture?”, Cahiers du cinéma 531 (January 1999): 30-32.
  3. Elena Gracheva, “Kolybelnaya” in Arkus Lyubov (ed.), Sokurov – Chasti Rechi (St. Petersburg: SEANS, 2006), pp. 207-211
  4. John Mackay, “Some notes on The Second Circle”, Academia, 11 November 2015
  5. See Thomas Campbell, review of Bipedalism, (Kinokultura, 2005)
  6. Fredric Jameson, “History and Elegy in Sokurov”, Critical Inquiry 33 (Fall 2006), pp. 1-12.
  7. Jacques Rancière, Bela Tarr: le temps d’après (Paris, Capricci, 2011)