Skazka (Fairytale): Four Dictators at the Gates of Heaven | Locarno 75

10 August, 2022

Sokurov has returned to the international competition of Locarno, the festival that brought him worldwide recognition in 1987 with The Lonely Voice of Man, which won the Bronze Leopard. It is a rare occasion for an influential auteur, who already received an honorary award from the festival in 2006, to return to it with a new production, but the Swiss festival is one of the few that are true to their own discoveries, as they did in 2015, by screening Andrzej Zulawski’s latest film in competition, just a few years after awarding him with a similar lifetime achievement award. By far the most anticipated title in the competition, after being rejected at Cannes – it’s unclear to what extent this was due to political reasons related to the war in Ukraine and the boycott of Russian films, given that the film received no financial support from the Russian government, or for artistic reasons – Skazka reflects the Siberian-born director’s interest in history. The screening of a film that brings together the great tyrants of the past in Locarno, the place where several peace treaties were signed after the First World War, also gains a special significance in these politically unstable times that we are living in. 

Still from Skazka, by Alexander Sokurov
Still from Skazka, by Alexander Sokurov

In Skazka, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill and Mussolini meet in a black-and-white, almost monochromatic sort of purgatory, as if they were the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, predicting the end of history or, even worse, the fact that it will return. They are burdened by Lenin’s legacy, which they each claim as their own, and by their admiration for Napoleon’s imperial grandeur. Jesus also makes a brief appearance, with the leaders noting the power that religion potentially has when it comes to manipulating the masses. Interactions are largely based on the combination of famous aphorisms, spoken by real historical figures, along with fictional variations imagined by Sokurov on trivial matters in the leaders’ lives, such as their ailments, their military uniforms and romantic liasons. Unlike Sokurov’s other biopics, the dictators in Skazka are not played by actors, but are represented by old footage that is manipulated through modern techniques, such as deepfaking and compositing. The perpetual and sometimes repetitive hanguing of the despots doesn’t even come close to forming a fairy tale, as the literal translation of the title suggests, but rather originates from mankind’s most terrifying nightmares. If someone might assume that their deaths have changed their ideological outlook, they’re sorely mistaken: their only regret is that they didn’t manage to carry out their Machiavellian schemes. Hitler laments the fact that he didn’t bomb London nor Paris, while a fleeting appearance by Napoleon teases him with the fact that he at least lived in the Kremlin, a reference to the French occupation of Moscow. One by one, the dictators show up at the gates of heaven, trying to persuade God to let them in. Mysteriously, one of them seems to get a chance to enter, but it’s unclear whether the gesture is enough for him to redeem himself, as the director prefers to leave room for a critical interpretation of the sequence. 

Still from Skazka, by Alexander Sokurov
Still from Skazka, by Alexander Sokurov

The film can be regarded as a continuation of Sokurov’s tetralogy on the nature of power, made up of works focused on legendary tyrants (Moloch, about Adolf Hitler, 1999, Taurus, about Vladimir Lenin, 2000, and Emperor Hirohito in The Sun, 2005) and about ill-fated characters (Faust, 2011) who have made a moral compromise, in line with the Russian author’s aesthetic and ideological concerns. If, at first glance, it seems that this work is far-removed from Sokurov’s usual style, by using new means, it ends up achieving the same results. Skazka explores space with slowness, favoring long shots and lateral tracking shots that gradually reveal a spectacular mise-en-scène, along with a transcendental, dramatic sense of gestures taken out of context. The imperfections related to the dubbing of the characters, as each speaks in their own respective language, contribute to the artificial feeling of the premise, which is due to the difficulty of working with historical material, but also to the limited access to professional synchronization software (the director said that, due to a lack of budget, they had to work with free software). In the grandiose universe imagined by Sokurov, the imperfection of dreams is followed by the pathological logic of despots who are unable to find peace. A film that is static from a narrative point of view to those who don’t resonate with the Russian director’s fantastic premise, Skazka is impressive especially when it comes to the way it stages purgatory. Sokurov’s use of space is dramatic, as always, inspired by classical art (the Hermitage Museum, which he explored in Russian Ark, is mentioned in the special thanks section of the credits), as the four characters traverse a decrepit architectural landscape inspired by the etchings of Piranesi, or by Gustave Doré’s 19th-century illustrations. The beginning of the film depicts Stalin lying in his coffin, still yet extremely vocal, complaining that his boots are too tight, only for the four dictators to later end up walking through a monumental construction, reminiscent of Lenin’s mausoleum, from which Stalin was removed. From the stage of this symbol of imposture – which is satirized by the presence of some interconnected urinals that are carved within its marble – the four protagonists, often doubled by their “brothers”, informal copies that look like pale holograms of their long-lost glory, stare down at an amorphous mass of people, composed of soldiers who were the victims of their insatiable thirst for power. Like Peter Greenaway’s historical-academic conspiracies, or Terry Gilliam’s phantasmagorical absurdities, Sokurov imagines a world in which plausibility is irrelevant, as he places the imminence of the scenario at the forefront, his ghosts all the more present and relevant than ever, given the invasion of Ukraine and the threat of World War III. In this regard, the soundtrack (composed by Murat Kabardokov), which consists of instrumental ensembles combined with sound effects such as gunshots, deserves a special mention for its contribution to the film’s charged atmosphere. 

A hybrid work, Skaza is (perhaps the last of) Sokurov’s trademark decadent visual delight, as it artfully explores the aura and seductive force of megalomania. Photographed in a delicate world shrouded in shadows, in the vein of the sfumato technique, it’s less important whether or not any of the characters have been forgiven by history or by Sokurov himself. Literary references, from Plato’s cave, which is also represented by the claustrophobic space in which the protagonists are wandering about, to Cervantes, turn the search for truth into a journey that is more exciting than the destination. Since, after all, to quote one of the characters, everything will be forgotten and we’ll start all over again. 

Film critic and programmer, she collaborates with various international film festivals. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Senses of Cinema, Kinoscope, Indiewire, Film Comment, Vague Visages and Desistfilm. In Spanish she has written for Caimán Cuadernos de Cine and in Romanian she collaborates with FILM magazine. Programmer and coordinator of Tenerife Shorts.


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