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Static Crisis, Static Sky: Aleksei German Jr.'s "Under Electric Clouds"

In Aleksei German Jr.'s film in the Berlinale competition, the year is 2017, a full century from the Bolshevik revolution...
Yaron Dahan

Static winter

When the low and heavy sky weighs like a lid
On the moaning spirit, victim to lingering ennui,
And from the all-encompassing horizon
Spreads over us a black day sadder than the nights;

—Baudelaire, Spleen

The year is 2017, a full century from the Bolshevik revolution, and in a nameless Russian city the skeleton of an unfinished helix-shaped edifice rises heavenward above a frozen and desolate winter landscape. In this near- and maybe alternate-future the sky is the hazy hue of television, and the low-hanging clouds have been transformed into surfaces for the projection of advertisements. Only one hundred years since the Russian Revolution, and the event which defined Russia’s 20th century has been swallowed whole by a gargantuan and ever-hungry capitalism, leaving little behind other than the fragmentary memories of men and abandoned shards of statues.

In Aleksei German Jr.’s Under Electric Clouds Russia is a country cracking at its seams, leaving its population in a constant state of tension between doubt and hope. Without being able to glorify the communist past of their country (which is the past of their country), the characters in the film old enough to remember latch on to the grandest and most Russian of contributions to modernity their revolution and ensuing communist system— as a stubborn bulwark against a world that has entirely embraced the ideology of the victor.

In the muted neon buzz of fluorescent lighting this heliacal real-estate project yearns skyward as if to challenge the gods with a mechanical representation of life’s very architecture.  This bio-design tower of Babel stands half-built as a sign of both human recklessness and yearning. Jutting out of the flat frozen landscape like an erection, this building is the vortex around which the characters revolve, frozen souls trapped in a static winter, every individual lost, oppressed, doomed to wander through a repetitive apocalyptic landscape scarred by the follies of architecture and history. Over the image of this electric city a voice speaks and a single word echoes across space—‘crisis’—yet crisis here is no longer a historical stage in which future events are determined, but rather a constant instability offering little hope of either change or progress.

The Architect

The entire repertoire of characters, linked umbilically to this building of their dreams, wander the vastness, the Heirs to the building: its Architects, its Real Estate Lawyer, a Hostage, and one of its Foreign Workers. Although all initially strangers, single points of light in the dimness connected by the structure of the building in whose destiny they are to partake, they constellate, attached by the protein-shaped building  with a structure mimicking the source of their existence.

The condition of such a vast project’s construction is, as it always has been, the masses of foreign construction workers, the enslaved who have always built monuments, stadiums, Olympic edifices, and who still do. As if the manpower needed to scar the landscape could only be accomplished through those non-natives, who, by the very nature of their foreignness, it would not be taboo to mutilate through construction..

One of these foreign workers, Karim, a Kyrgyz laborer, wanders aimlessly about this bleak, abandoned construction site. Homeless, hounded by dogs, unable to speak a single word in Russian, he cannot communicate and certainly not participate in the place through which he passes. Drifting with a broken boom-box as his only companion seeking a place to rest, Karim finally lays himself to sleep on a frozen seashore, covering his body with a plastic tarp to keep warm. Frost forms on his face and snowflakes drift over his sleeping body. He awakes to a violent, flesh-piercing sound and witnesses an act of brutality: a savage Putin lookalike in a long KGBish leather overcoat is viciously stabbing a middle-aged woman. When the attacker sees Karim, he approaches him with menace, and although Karim is able to overpower him, he is not in time to save the woman.

From this anonymous foreign worker the film weaves its way through the lives and words of its philosopher-characters: from the Heirs of the unfinished monument, the brilliant and sensitive Sasha and her lost and mild brother, to their mafioso Uncle Borya who pressures them to sell their heritage; from the Architects who had worked for their father to the real estate lawyer who has helped sell the project; from a group of young junkies and hostage-taking henchmen, to Nikolai,  an ex-museum guide and Hussar wannabe who had worked at a museum now torn down for some amorphous real estate project, which, now that some nebulous state of “crisis” has set in, no one has any interest in finishing. And who can blame the investors for whom the building in the architectural manifestation of an idea, a temple to the modern art of real estate in which construction projects are foremost investment tools, laundering schemes or accounting devices rather than actual edifices of steel and concrete in which people are to work or live or move through?

In a neighboring ruin of an older edifice, whose space has been re-appropriated for a modern art installation, the heiress and her brother are wandering amongst a group of young artists and guests. History, like the strands of their father’s building, like the proteins of life, moves heliacally, time wrapping its tail around itself, events mirroring each other in a cosmic accounting of events. As the characters weave their way between each other, a voice declares prophetically: “everyone is waiting for a great war…” And this is the warning: that we should not be too tempted by the promise of the future as to follow the same path as those who wish for modernity so hard and quick, that it led to two world wars.

Today’s Russia, in the unenviable position of being obliged to concede the most important aspect of its modern history as a defeat, is also caught in this spiral of history, caught between pride and shame, between the sovietness which defined their lives, and the oppressions of their authoritarian government. New generations are born, and the lessons of history are forgotten. (The relevance of this film becomes only stronger as, at the moment of the film’s first screening, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Vladimir Putin were on their ways towards a conference in Minsk to negotiate a cease fire which failed so quickly as to make one wonder if it was not designed to do so. And as we watch the old oppositions of the Cold War being resuscitated only too willingly once again by politicians on both sides of the table. The warning in the film is against those politicians who too willingly reignite these slumbering enmities, reminding us that those who too easily forget history can begin to wish for a future that they will later most certainly regret.)

The Architect, a man old enough to have lived in Soviet times, hears from his twenty-something lover a neo-futurist credo: “The past is gone. We need to build a new world. But first we need to get rid of the ballast.” Having lived long enough to have reached the age of tears, the Architect can only softly and skeptically ask: “Are you sure your future will be better?”

Yet, the faith of this futurism is not, as the museum guide, Nikolai Mikhalovitch (possibly named after the rebellious and erudite Romaov liberal) points out, entirely without its creative force, birthing new artistic forms; new ideas, like those of the avant-garde painters Malevich or Petrov-Vodkin. For these figures, however, living in this near-future without the faith in either progress towards the future or faith in the glory of their past, their destiny remains in a state of crisis, in which the very crisis which should bring about change becomes permanent.

Bathing of a Red Horse (Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1912)

The ironies laid bare in exposing the various strata of Russia’s history become evident in Marat, the young real estate lawyer who loses himself in a dream of his childhood in 1991, on the day of Gorbachev’s resignation. Marat walks through this dream-city of nostalgia, with its streetcars and its well-ordered ranks of troops, to speak with the ghost of a now-dead childhood friend, who no one else remembers but him. This Soviet memory, this last wisp of a true friendship is the one he holds on to most dearly, and the irony of his unfulfilling adult life and his career as a real estate lawyer are results of the collapse of the very thing to which he holds on most intimately.

These époques of near-future and near-past, superimposed upon each other, entrap Marat and the other forlorn adults in the structure of their histories, like a labyrinth builder who bricks himself in with his own masonry. Caught in the workings of their own hands it is not just Russian history from which these men and women cannot escape, but the entirety of the modern condition. They are all still caught in the same modern (and artistic) malaise that was born in the era of Baudelaire, the sicknesses seem to have piled up on each other, and the only change is the wishful and propagandist image of a positivist tomorrow (of which the advertisement is the most representative). More than anything, this smiling, smoothly perfected image of female perfection generates an illusion that the modern époque has ended and history has moved into some sort of yet-unnamed post-era, in contrast to the realities of the streets.

Even the conditions and the problems and the structures remain essentially the same today as they were at the start of the modernist era, still defined by the mechanical, the rational, the industrial, the capital, the urban which ushered in the 20th century. No solution has been found, and people have not even changed. Not only that, but their dreams, always aspiring future-wards, have lost a goal to yearn towards. The present in which the characters live is the future—the apocalyptic époque of promise—a world of elves and orcs, of DNA and Quarks, of bidets and parking lots. The imagined future is their everyday present, still heaving and retching from the same modernity they are all stuck in, like ants in molasses, unable to move beyond this future-present, much less glorify it.

Rife with tractors, steamrollers, cement mixers, borers, neon lights, and projected images, the city has become so vast and complicated that it goes beyond the limits of the character’s capacities to understand. In this imagined 2017, so near to us, a maddeningly complex electronic society has been built, yet the light bulbs, the most simple of electronic devices, confoundingly and constantly flicker and fail. Without them having noticed, the citizens have all turned into cyborgs. “I read that scientists discovered that our feelings are just chemicals. Is that true?” asks the innocent young heir, doubting his own febrile sensitivity.

The futurist believes that history is something crafted through human effort, but in Aleksei German Jr.’s film, through their failed architectural endeavor at grandeur and permanence, the architects and heirs have understood that humanity does not so much create history, as submit to it. The grandeur and complexity of these events is indicated in narrative forms of their lives, coalescing around this steel structure under dim pink skies, which are not hermetically sealed narratives with Aristotelian aesthetics and closed story-arcs, but weave in and out of space and time like lonely strands of protein seeking points for attachment.

...and the meek shall not inherit the earth

The figures in Under Electric Clouds amble about in a space that is not locked down to a single character or narrative, and so they exist beyond the space of the camera and the film.  Bodies and objects are placed in time (it is a temptation to write ‘choreographed,’ but the placement here is more astrological, like models of celestial bodies positioned in an animated 3-D simulation). Characters and machines drift in and out of the frame, emerging from its sides, materialize from behind objects, become visible through focus pulls. Many of these figures are unknown to us. They are simply there, granting the feeling of a continuous existence that lies beyond the edge of the frame, one we can neither see nor feel nor predict. This plenitude of existence allows for a different form than the hermetically-sealed perfected moving image, with revisable story arcs, that most of Western dramaturgy has become, at least in cinema. The roving camera, erring through the city, accepts characters and machines and buildings within its space with equal magnanimity flâneur in an imagined time and space that asserts the independent existence of the universe. There is a life which lies beyond the visible limits of the rectangular screen, and the world exists whether it is shown or not.

The only figures not seemingly caught in a cloud of doubt or melancholy are the detached aloof figures of the wealthy, the criminal and the aristocratic, who emerge from the fog to speak a phrase or two in their sports cars, SUVS, on their horses, with their designer suits, with their servants and hangers-on. They are the ones who, sure enough of their destiny and righteousness, live entirely in the present. It is these men with their bullet-proofed SUVs and business suits who although having everything, kidnap the young sister of a junkie refugee in order to extort whatever is remaining.

In the penultimate chapter of the film the Architect speaks: “I had a dream about the world. A scary one. About the end of the world.” And one can’t help wonder if this apocalyptic landscape through which he wanders is his own dream: a vast abandoned wasteland in which humanity does not so much build architecture or make history as serve them like deities. In this half-imagined city, the characters are stuck in both past and future like holographic images phasing out between two simultaneous and alternative worlds, and this split deprives them of the surety needed to pass to action.  Everyone except one person: a young junkie living in a community of addicts near the construction site, who in a moment of frustration and rage pulls himself out from the lethargy to take action and fight the impossible forces to free the young hostage, even if his action end in a pointless and predictable death. Yet at least his passage to action makes him, as the young girl later calls him,  the “only good man.”

The Architects’ dour-faced colleague who collaborated on the monumental skyscraper but who has been reduced to designing parking lots, speaks for all Russia when he nostalgically says about past times, “We had great art. People aspired.” The poverty and oppression of Soviet era notwithstanding, he nonetheless yearns for a time when at least he could be proud to be a Russian, where he could yearn for the future, where he could believe in progress. “I don’t want to feel like a dwarf. I am a Titan!” shouts the desperate man before throwing himself under the wheels of a tractor, crushed by this architectural drone, the machine which had served him so well in his vocation build and create.

In this sci-fi city, the Apocalypse has arrived, but in a condition of static endlessness rather than the cleansing in preparation for the ushering in of a new and perfect era. Yet what is the alternative in a time when those naïve or young enough to believe in political salvation are willing to pretend the past does not exist? The Architect talks with his young futurist lover who, without a notion of history, following some vague intellectual trend, is willing to relativize history and rehabilitate Stalin and recuperate Hitler, to once again embrace positivist dreams of purity and death. As the couple walks on the beach, they pass a group of wealthy, well-dressed, good-looking black-clad minimalists reveling insouciantly on the shores of the frozen beach, dancing in the wasted light of the endless apocalypse in full knowledge of their sovereignty. They paint a perspective of a future in constant crisis in which those who are the opposite of hope—the neo-nationalists, the neo-fascists, neo-capitalists, the neo-criminals—are those most likely to inherit the earth, and the only heritage they could leave behind is darkness and brutality.

But there is still a wisp of hope traced through the entire film. A promise maybe not of salvation, than at least of life, through the forging of a true solidarity. Not the grand utopian solidarity of ideological movements, but the smaller solidarity sparked between single beings thanks to an affinity, a philosophical kinship, a physical intimacy which might be the only hope left in the bleak electronic near-future. After Karim the Kyrgyz worker wrestles the leather-clad Putin lookalike to the ground, he crawls over to the bleeding woman, and in her death spasms takes her hand in his, granting her at least the comfort of human touch in her final moments of suffering. As she expires Karim lays his body down next to her on a bed of ice, with a gesture of empathy and generosity as a true companion in her voyage towards death.

Under Electric Clouds ends with the repertoire of figures finding themselves on a still-frozen beach for an exhibition held by the heiress Sasha, who has decided not to sell the remnant of her father’s dream, but rather to keep the twisted unfinished edifice in her possession, perhaps as a monument to her father’s dream. The coming of spring, although imperceptible to the human eye, is heralded in a traditional promise of hope of better times. Two lonely figures, the Heiress and the Hostage, meet for the first time under a looming metallic statue of a horse. A silent complicity and unspoken understanding between them is born, and Sasha holds out her hand to the now escaped young hostage. Standing in front of this colossal iron horse sculpture, they reach down together, lifting a previously unseen cord. Together, small and frail as they may be, they effortlessly pull the seemingly immovable beast down the still-frozen shore out into might be a thawing sun.

 City of the near future


Aleksei German Jr.BerlinaleBerlinale 2015Festival CoverageLong Reads
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