Dir: Alexander Sokurov. Russia. 2001.90 mins.
Alexander Sokurov's examination of fallible tyranny continues. After Moloch, in which Hitler and Eva Braun conducted what was often a non-relationship at Berchtesgarden, comes Taurus, in which Lenin, crippled by a stroke, negotiates a living death in a requisitioned mansion surrounded by strangers no longer terrified of him. Sokurov's second film in his planned tetralogy on men of power in the 20th century, suffused in a heavily filtered, greenish light by Anatoly Rodionov, is plainer and less eccentric than Moloch. But those who found that film too near to parody as a screeching Hitler chased his Eva around the bedroom may well like Taurus better. It may be thinner in content but, like all of Sokurov's films, it emanates a kind of poetic power and lyricism that only he among latter-day Russian directors can muster.
This Lenin, beautifully played by Leonid Mozgovoi, is a man who changed the course of history but can now only watch as his devoted wife (Maria Kuznetsova) and no longer abject staff - some of them guards appointed to watch over him - try to contain his sudden tempers with picnics, mud baths and walks within the grounds of what looks like a summer palace. He has no telephone, no mail and no contact with the outside world he once commanded as of right. The Politburo, headed now by Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin, have sent him a walking stick. But it isn't embellished with an inscription because there was one vote against - predictably, he says, that of his old enemy Trotsky. All around him are waiting for him to die, some with relief and some with dread. He himself is thinking of asking the Party to allow him to acquire poison to end it all ("those with no one left to kill should themselves be killed"). But his wife, who knows what might well become of her when he goes, tells him to think of others, not himself.
When he does think of others, it is of the mess in which the Soviet Union has been left, riven by famine that has killed five million, by the consequent unrest and by the horrors of an often incompetent dictatorship. He knows he has failed but he rails against the dying of the light right up to his end when a half-smile, as if finally remembering something pleasant in his life, flits across his face.
This is a film upon which you can often place your own interpretation even as Sokurov himself suggests the horrors of Bolshevism and the excruciating ambition of power. One of the best set-pieces of Taurus is the visit of Stalin, played by Sergei Razhuk not as an obvious monster but as a man of some charm who hovers over Lenin with a mixture of mock affection and patronising indifference, as if he knows that the man is now helpless. Their conversation, written by Youri Arabov, shows Lenin still able to attack but with Stalin realising that his bullets are now totally harmless. It's a meeting, before which Stalin glides into the house like a tiger seeking his prey, that remains in the memory, partly because we know what happened afterwards.
The film is not without its humour. "We know that electricity makes a generator work. But we don't yet know if God can be counted on," says Lenin at one point. And his brave sallies with the probably German, and possibly Jewish, doctor who attends him remember a Russian who went to the doctor with a headache, caused by a nail stuck in his head. The nail was removed, and he instantly died. "That's so Russian," says Lenin. "A nail as a condition for life!"
The film, set during a long, hot summer and equipped with a soundtrack with less music than Moloch (what there is from composer Andrei Sigle is based on themes from Rachmaninov) consistently catches birdsong, the clink of plates on the dinner table and the ordinary sounds of life. It's as if Sokurov is comparing a dramatic turning point in history with the mundane, and the approach of death with continuation and renewal. He is a director who is surely the true heir of Tarkovsky, whether you approve of his approach or not. He calls Taurus the finale of the first act of the revolution. It may not be exact history any more than Moloch was, but psychologically it is as acute as that film, and as holding.
Prod cos Lenfilm; Ministry of Culture, Russian Federation; State Committee of Cinematography.
Int'l sales Lenfilm Studios
Prods Victor Sergueyev, Vladimir Persov, Eduard Artsikhovsky
Scr Youri Arabov
Cinematography Alexander Sokurov
Lighting Anatoly Rodionov
Prod des Natalia Kochergina
Ed Leda Semyonova
Music Andrei Sigle
Main cast Leonid Mozgovoi, Maria Kuznetsova, Sergei Razhuk, Natalia Nikulenko.