Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, who has more than 50 feature films and documentaries to his credit, is rated by the European Film Academy as one of the world's best 100 directors. His new project The Sun, which is about Japan's Emperor Hirohito, is the final instalment of a trilogy dedicated to 20th century leaders. The first, his 1999 release Moloch concentrated on Hitler's personal life, while Taurus, which came out in 2000, focused on Lenin's last days. Critics have called all three pictures art for the select.
"The trilogy is about hubris, which rules the world and pushes humanity into a dead-end," Yuri Arabov, who wrote the script for all three movies with Alexander Sokurov, said in a RIA Novosti interview. "The protagonists are lost souls who take it on themselves to save the world and influence the destinies of millions of people, but fail to share even a tiny bit of their warmth with their own close ones. At any rate, this is how the films' makers view them".
Arabov explains that arrogance is not defeated in Moloch, even though Eva Braun warns Hitler that there is one force that cannot be conquered, i.e., death. "The Fuhrer here is depicted as an utterly amoral personality," he says. "Taurus shows how arrogance can be overcome through suffering from a disease and physical immobility, because disease forces a person to think about what he has done in life. But Lenin, although he at times wanted to, fails to overcome his arrogance. The Sun will probably depict a victory over hubris."
"The prevailing opinion in Japan is that Hirohito is a sacred figure and any artistic takes on him are not encouraged," says Sokurov. "The Japanese actor playing the leading part will probably come under fire in Japan and we shall try to keep his name secret until the last minute."
This is not the first time that the director has turned to Japan. His documentary Oriental Elegy, which won the Grand Prix at the prestigious Oberhausen Short Film Festival, explores Japanese ideas about happiness, life and death. Following its release, books about Sokurov were published in Japan, while some of his other works were also screened.
"Emperor Hirohito," says Alexander Sokurov, "is the only dictator of the Germany-Italy-Japan axis who survived after the victory over Nazism and was not even prosecuted, though among others he had been responsible for unleashing the Second World War and Japan's actions in South-East Asia."
"The action in The Sun takes place in 1945," continues the film director, "when American troops had already occupied Japanese islands and the emperor was waiting in Tokyo for the final judgement: whether he would be left alive or executed."
"This movie, like the previous two in the trilogy," Sokurov explains, "is a reflection on how power affects man and how man is reflected in power."
Sokurov, 52, studied history at Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) University while concurrently working for local television. By the age of 19, he had already directed several TV programmes and continued his education at the All-Union Institute of Cinematography in Moscow in 1975.
At first, only film connoisseurs took note of Sokurov, especially after his debut feature in the 1970s, The Lonely Human Voice, won the blessing of Russian cinema's leading light, Andrei Tarkovsky. His second work, The Mournful Insensitivity, adapted from George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House in 1983, won acclaim for its depiction of loneliness and the lack of affinity between people. It was then that Sokurov established his style of "intellectual painting". He spent hours shooting every scene with exquisite skill, but his movies often failed to make it to the screens because they had a reputation for being too irrational.
It was only in the mid-1990s that he was promoted to the status of intellectual movie idol, winning one award after another, from the Vatican's International Prize Third Millennium to the main Russian State Prize. He has represented Russia at the Cannes Film Festival ever since.
Indeed, his Father and Son, which describes the harmony of close souls, took the FIPRESCI prise in Cannes in 2003. "The father sees his past in his son, while the son sees the future in his father," Sokurov says about this movie, a sequel to the award winning Mother and Son, in which the mother peacefully passes away in the lap of her affectionate son.
Sokurov's Russian Arc was released in 2002 to mark the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg. Following its US release in August 2003, Time marvelled at its unprecedented virtuosity, while The Washington Post hailed its cinematographic magic. It also sold out in Europe and South America.
The film, which is based on the reminiscences of the French writer and traveller Astolph de Custine's time in Russia, charts three centuries of Russian history played out in the Hermitage, with 900 actors, as well as hundreds of wigs and costumes. The name of the movie can be interpreted as follows: like the Biblical arc, Russia floats on the waves of time, preserving, despite all the historical upheavals, its priceless cultural wealth.
Alexander Sokurov has taken the director's chair for films about 20th century Russian geniuses: Fyodor Chaliapin, Anton Chekhov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Dmitry Shostakovich and Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as unknown soldiers who served on the Tajik border.
On completing the movie about Emperor Hirohito, Sokurov will embark on another project to present a more general picture about the 20th century's dictators.