Alexander Sokurov’s fairy tale imagines a surreal, stuffy purgatory journey

All along Fairy tale (a.k.a Skazka), characters recite the overture to the Divine Comedy and Dante’s preamble to his plunge into hell. But the black and white world in which Alexander Sokurov’s souls are stuck is more like a kind of purgatory. A liminal wasteland of abandoned buildings, rubble and skeletal trees, it’s a nightmare straight from a Gustav Doré print, and it’s no surprise that one of its inhabitants – none other than Winston Churchill himself – even – wonders early on if it’s all a (very bad) dream. Churchill shares the hallucination with a number of other iconic 20th century figures, a sleazy cast that includes Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin (add to the mix Jesus Christ, the only bedridden, briefly caught lying in the same room than the Soviet Generalissimo). But Fairy tale does not have a distribution strictly speaking: the four play themselvess. The film’s sleight of hand – and the source of its disturbing appeal – lies in its technical wizardry. Directed by Sokurov and his team of visual effects experts, who put them together using a combination of archival footage and counterfeit technology, the quartet travel through the film in their real-life appearance, engaging with each other in a otherworldly walking tour that sits somewhere between Dante and Monty Python.

There is something subversive in the choice. For all his funeral decorations, Fairy tale rolls out like a grand farce, stripping its heroes of their mythical greatness and mocking them as they struggle with their spiritual impasse. God has them all trapped in what is essentially a large waiting room, and they must wait, taking turns knocking on heaven’s doors only for them to close in front of them, the Almighty teasing the gang pestilential with vague promises that the doors will open soon – but not now (curiously, Sokurov already places Napoleon in heaven, much to the dismay of dictators queuing for their own place under the sun).

As surreal and deranged as the premise may seem, what follows in this journey through limbo is pretty straightforward. Dubbed in their mother tongue, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Churchill cross Fairy tale in an endless loop, ridiculing themselves and wondering how much longer they will be forced to be stuck with their sworn enemies. Purgatory, as Sokurov imagines it, is a sterile VIP lounge. No one else is seen wandering in these monochromatic vistas; the few times other souls show up, Fairy tale depicts them as a tidal wave of ghosts (is it the millions of innocent people the quartet led to their deaths?), flowing through canyons and quarries, their unrecognizable faces and bodies, blurred into a lugubrious clash of shadows. These scenes have a sinister beauty, and indeed Fairy tale is full of all sorts of fascinating and haunting details. The entire film is bathed in a silver haze, with dust particles swirling and flickering all over like nuclear fallout. Stalin and company plod through the apocalyptic landscape on a restless quest with no destination or goal, and it’s not long before they spawn their own doppelgangers: each of the four spawns three identical twins, who cram Sokurov’s scattered compositions.

But more characters doesn’t mean more action, and more talk doesn’t necessarily translate to more insightful exchanges. Like the walks, the conversations go around in circles, the four talk to each other and laugh, only to succumb to all sorts of more or less ridiculous regrets. Stalin spent much of Fairy tale dabbing his nose, prompting Mussolini to ask if he “has snot”; Hitler complains about Wagner’s kindness (“I should have married him!”) and regrets not having set London on fire properly; Mussolini mutters that religion “is a mental illness”; while Churchill worries about having lost his wife. This Fairy tale lack of narrative momentum is part of its own design, and lamenting its lack of purpose would be playing into Sokurov’s hands. It is, after all, a journey that has no real beginning or end; the stasis to which the characters succumb is that of the film. What’s more disturbing is that, for all its intellectual and sensory intrigue, Fairy tale seems to quickly run out of things to say or show.

Gradually, the constant repetitions – of similar exchanges, of similar actions – ceased to make me think of new things, and for a while I let myself be hypnotized by Fairy talethe ruinous backgrounds and terrific, disturbing CGI work that breathes life into the four wanderers and the news that immortalized and buried them. (In a film so preoccupied with the fate of the soul, this may be the only resurrection Fairy tale captures, and this is courtesy of Sokurov and his team, who rescued Hitler et al from their AV sarcophagi and turned them into sentient holograms). But even that wears thin, and the movie starts to get a little tedious, like it’s unable to keep up with the strength and scope of its nightmarish design. What remains is a curious oddity, a fable that doubles as a kind of marriage between Sokurov’s interest in the digital and the characters who have shaped, for better or for worse, the course of modern history. Its lack of narrative and unbalanced structure is part of the problem. But as lysergic and fertile in creativity as its configuration may seem, Fairy tale is a rather calm dream.

Fairy tale premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.

About Norma Wade

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