BERLINALE 2022 (ENGLISH REPRISE): THE MOVEMENT OF THINGS
Two moments -just two-, in the combination of those minimal units of cinema that we call the shot, define the illusion that something is transforming. When it appears, that which will cease to be in an instant can be perceived as a continuity with that which appeared a second ago and that which will be immediately afterwards. In the sequence shot, on the other hand, that which is in an instant and its continuity are organized from endless spatial similarities or unseen ellipses at the service of a change. Perception and the habit of associating that which is similar and that which is different – a logical necessity erected in the adaptation in the form of cause and consequence – allow us to corroborate that everything changes into something and perhaps for some reason. A wise man who barely made it past 40 years of age and wrote like no one else about cinema stated: “In bad films, nothing moves. It is the programming of the script that makes the frame move. In good films, at least one element moves that has the pride and humility to force itself to rediscover at every moment the rest of the frame (which, in fact, does not move).”
During the 80 minutes of Alexander Zolotukhin’s Brat vo vsyom (Brother in Every Inch), everything that we see and hear is in movement. Surely, the script must have planned several strategies to achieve such a result, but it must be said that what happens on the screen would be impossible to read and transcribe; it could only be filmed to be seen and heard later. Both verbs are honored by each shot that vanishes and makes way for the one that comes. Movies like Zolotukhin’s aren’t made anymore. They are rare.
An underlying political problem about a fundamental ontological dilemma. The great theme of the film, which can be seen as a treatise on movement, is the relationship between one’s self and the other, identity and difference, with respect to twin brothers who are in the Air Force of the Russian Federation, training and studying to be pilots. Somewhere in the south of the country, that is currently spearheading concrete geopolitical debates and inciting paranoid fantasies from another century, Mytia and Andrey cannot think of one without the other, and not only because they love each other like brothers and help each other advance in their careers, but also because they are never entirely clear if they can feel and know who they are without the reflection of the other. Something differentiates them: physical resistance. Mytia is weaker, as can be seen in a hallucinated sequence in which he falls asleep mid-flight and almost loses his life, one of many sequences in the film that must be admired.
The political question alluded to is the following: Brat vo vsyom can be described as the best institutional film ever made about a military squad whose seductive quality for young Russians today, to the extent that they are sensitive, should be irresistible. Here the word “sensitive” is operative and it also encrypts a tradition. This perhaps protects them from propaganda, because after seeing this film, the potential candidates would probably no longer feel like young bucks.
What tradition are we talking about? As was already the case in A Russian Youth, Zolotukhin’s remarkable debut feature, Brat vo vsyom is aligned with – though never mimicking, but rather authentically appropriating – the films about soldiers by Alexander Sokurov, which in turn refer to other past films that were not necessarily chauvinistic from the Soviet period. There is a slight difference here from Sokurov’s films. The portrait of future members of the Air Force and their superiors does not flirt with an aestheticized repression of male eroticism. The diffuse, silenced homosexuality of the military groups that live with each other and, without realizing it, seduce each other is absent in the two films by the young filmmaker. Rather Zolotukhin desexualizes everyday chores and hints at a mysterious asceticism to which future aviators are ordained. In this sense, they are not unlike cloistered monks who place a transcendent meaning for their lives into aerial mechanics. The school in which they learn is not far from looking like a monastery, completely isolated from everything and from everyone who does not feel the destiny of rising towards the sky, the ascending movement with which they are obsessed.
In Brat vo vsyom everything is movement, but here Zolotukhin gives preference, unlike in his previous film, to montage as the ideal way to make movement felt. It looks diaphanous in the flight scenes. The decision of what points of view to present in all the flights takes up the fascination of the first aviation films. In this sense, the air passages repeat the aesthetics of vertigo that abounded in Pelechian’s Our Century to the point that they conquer a cosmic perspective. Perhaps Zolotukhin is too young to aspire to circumventing the limits of physics in order to entrust himself to the materialistic mystery of the universe, but without a doubt he films the relationship of the sky with the flying machines as if it were a fusion with space and a perceptual training in space so that the experience of wonder can be restored. Rarely in today’s cinema can the enchantment that is meticulously cast here be conveyed to the eyes of those who witness the montage of attractions. The sequence in which the professor and young Andrey ride through a fierce storm during an aerial test is a moment of optical grace. As the plane passes through the endless clouds, the rain is unaware of the gravity that determines it and seems to hang in the air as if it rains everywhere, forming a floating ocean in which the pilots navigate. The combination of points of view makes it possible to marvel at the technical feat that constitutes an airplane and the vertigo of the pilots. How can this be done it? The dialectic between the subjective and the diverse general shots entails a phenomenological understanding of the displacement of the machine in the sky. This is not the only admirable sequence around the experience of flying, but it is the aesthetic consummation of all the preceding aerial adventures.
It should be added that not everything happens in the sky, because the movement is not only that of planes disobeying gravity. Life on Earth also matters. Zolotukhin gives us several unforgettable scenes. In one, the students have a recess and then play, forming a kind of mass of bodies among all the cadets. It is quite similar to the beginning of a rugby scrum, but it expands into something else as some soldiers jump over the first row of bodies forming a physical chain the filming of which allows us to hallucinate a new playful organism. It’s a moment of beautiful fun, a break from the rigorous discipline to which future aviators are kindly subjected. No less indelible is the moment when Zolotukhin comes up with the idea of composing a sequence in a sugar cane field that ends with a fire. In this sequence, on this landscape, we can feel the whole Soviet tradition, which may have started with Dovzhenko, was immediately taken over by Kalatozov and later reinvented by Tarkovsky and forwarded until today and it was deposited in the hands-eyes of Zolotukhin by Sokurov. All those named are very different from each other, but they all film the forests and the wind over the grasslands and the movements of the human body through reeds under the same concept of extension between nature and human life. For this reason, the moment in which Mytia is lost in the cane field lavishes another formal feat of Zolotukhin, because the camera insists on becoming a participant in the desperate movement of the soldier, lost there. The sound still works upon the propagation that defines it in its existence, in such a way that the movement is proposed not only the camera, fast and at ground level, but also by the invisible sound that pushes the shot sensorially. The sequence ends with the literal transformation of the dim light of the night into gold projected onto a small river. The river looks like copper. The fire becomes an aesthetic fact. Should we add that the same thing happens with airplanes, turbines, and cockpits?
The extraordinary thing about all this is that Zolotukhin’s aesthetic mastery does not rival the emotions, much less the fluidity of the story. The final scene, in which the brothers call their mother to tell her how they are and what they are going to be doing from now on, has the force of an unforgettable scene by Terence Davies or Douglas Sirk. It is impossible not to feel involved. One of the brothers has the phone in his hand and the left earpiece is in his ear, while the other brother listens with the remaining earpiece. A cable joins them to the telephone just like in the past when the umbilical cord separated them in the very place where they grew together, when the work of differentiating themselves from each other had not yet even known day one.
The wise man who I cited at the beginning of this text was called Serge Daney, but in France there is no Zolotukhin to follow in his footsteps.
Roger Koza / Copyleft 2022