How does one go about capturing a sense of Russia onscreen? In his previous two feature films, director and screenwriter Aleksei German Jr has answered this question by turning to formative moments in his country’s past. Gaspartum (2005) unfolded in 1914 in a St Petersburg on the verge of war and revolution, whilst Paper Soldier (2008), set in 1961, portrayed a nation growing cold again after Khrushchev’s brief Thaw and ready to launch itself into the space race. In recent years, he has also worked on completing the final work by his late father, art-house luminary Aleksei German Sr. Hard to be a God (2014) was a brutal medieval/sci-fi hallucination of mud-drenched huts and feudal violence.
Now with Under Electric Clouds German Jr is peering into the near future. Set in 2017, the centenary year of the Russian revolution, the film is his uncompromising meditation on a nation “crucified between an equally great past and future”.
“I’m not interested in shooting a beautiful art-house film,” he tells me. “Look, if you go to Moscow now there are contemporary art shows, artist’s quarters, it’s all in a pretty good condition. But people rarely go and film in areas that are tough, where many of Russia’s problems actually manifest themselves. We tried to find some sense of those places.” For German Jr this meant a painstakingly slow shoot in the biting winter conditions of St Petersburg’s suburbs. The resulting film presents a world of permanent sleet and twilight, where every second house is in ruins and comfort is scarce.
“He loves that, putting people in hard conditions,” actor Louis Franck tells me when I meet him in his London studio. “Physically and mentally it’s very hard. I’d be on the set at 6am and we wouldn’t start shooting until 5pm. And then only for twenty minutes a day, with everyone screaming their head off, panicking.” Yet at the eye of this storm, Franck says, German Jr maintains “total control”. “There’s not one thing in any shot that existed before we began filming. They would spend hours and hours on the details, him and his wife [production designer Elena Okopnaya]. I’ve never seen anyone work like that. They worked like painters with the film as the canvas.”
In his cinematic debut, starring alongside German Jr regulars such as Chulpan Khamatova and Merab Ninidze, Franck plays the architect of an unfinished skyscraper whose setting ties together the seven disparate “chapters” of the film. His character is one of a roster of outcasts and rejects: a Kyrgyz construction worker, a gang of drug addicts, the dispossessed heirs of a disgraced oligarch, the workers of a crumbling museum complex. Together, they combine to convey the “sensation” (the word is a favourite of German Jr’s) of a society left rudderless after a century’s worth of social cataclysms.
Is German Jr a pessimist at heart? Does he think Russia can learn from its past? His response is abrupt. “Frankly I find those sorts of question completely uninteresting. I don’t really understand how one could be saved from oneself. Russia is heading where it’s always been heading.” In this sense, his seeming dedication to period pieces is a misapprehension. “For me, capturing the image of an era isn’t the priority. What is important is to capture people who live through difficulties and try to stand up for themselves. Russia is a mix of wealth and poverty, incredible culture and a remarkable lack of culture. It has to be looked at from a multitude of angles.” Hence the episodic structure of Under Electric Clouds and its revolving door of characters.
Franck, a Swiss citizen who has lived part-time in Moscow and Kiev, fronting the successful Ukrainian rock group Esthetic Education, agrees fervently with German Jr about Russia and its misapprehension by outsiders. “They don’t advertise themselves very well,” he notes. “But you can’t put Russia in a box. It’s a mess.” He continues, “In Russia there’s a deep feeling of, ‘Whatever. I’ve lost everything, yes, but who cares?’ There are no losers in Russia. People will love you no matter how screwed up you are. That’s why superfluous people are important. Because it’s not only about success, progress. That’s the American vision. You cannot be a superfluous man in America. You’ll die. But you can in Russia, easy. There are millions of them.”
“Superfluous people”: the phrase is introduced in the film’s opening voiceover and certainly suits its cast of nobodies. It also harks back to a tradition in 19th century Russian literature that highlighted the moral cost of tsarism’s social strictures and all-pervasive bureaucracy. I ask German Jr why such characters have always been needed in Russian culture. “Because their existence proves that people act in illogical ways,” he responds. “For Russia these people are absolutely vital because they add a kind of impossible dimension to the world. They say things that they probably shouldn’t. Not for ideological reasons, but because they can.”
Franck’s architect stands out from the crowd. A fatalistic and thoughtful man, we see him consoling a suicidal companion and scolding a young woman for her revisionist take on the Stalinist purges. In the twilight world of Under Electric Clouds, he is the closest thing we have to a moral compass. “For me, the character was Peter Pan. A grown-up guy who refuses to play by the rules, a guy who doesn’t like the world he is a part of and isn’t going to make any effort to be a part of it. But at the same time he doesn’t want to live in the past either. For me the question was this: we had the Soviet era. We threw it in the garbage. Now we have this ‘golden capitalism’. So what? Look at us. We’re completely lost.”
Not that German Jr himself is worried about lacking direction. In his own words: “I’m a romantic idiot. I work without a format. I don’t belong anywhere. I’m not very well understood, especially by the English, the Germans, the French. Look, I’m a utopian. Culturally, Russia and the west will never be unified. Never. I regret lots of things about Russia: the government, the bureaucracy. But we’re different. It’s not about Putin, we’re just different. So one aim of the film was to make a Russian picture, to some extent; then if anyone wants to try and understand us by watching it, they can.”
It is clear that German Jr is intent on carving his own place in Russian cinema following the death of his father. “One of the reasons I really respect German Jr is that he’s continuing the legacy of his father,” says Franck. “He’s not repudiating that, he’s not ignoring it, but he’s doing his own thing.” This is his strength in an industry caught between domestic impulses and international influence, even if it means butchering a few sacred cows of the cinema circuit — a pursuit in which his new leading man is happy to help.
“A lot of contemporary Russian artists are really lost,” Franck continues, warming to his theme. “When you had the Soviet Union you had a clear frame to rebel against or to be subservient to. You knew the parameters. Now, there are a lot of talented people but they end up just reflecting upon themselves. They don’t seem to have the balls to do their own thing. To say, ‘This is what I am and I don’t care’. For example, [Leviathan director Andrei] Zvyagintsev. He wants to be the Coen brothers. That’s it. Leviathan from a Russian point of view is bullshit. It’s pandering to the west, it doesn’t represent Russia at all. For me, German Jr’s film is the ‘real’ Leviathan.”
For Franck, Russian cinema’s fixation on its own outward appearance to the West is nothing new. “It was the same even in the golden period of Russian cinema, the 1950s and 70s, when you had really mind-blowing films being made,” he continues. Back then, of course, there were other directors who were guilty of this stylistic superficiality. “Tarkovsky was the pretentious one; the one who would have the Marlboro packet sticking out of his breast pocket, but with Russian cigarettes inside. Says a lot about the guy.”
So this is where Under Electric Clouds leaves its audience, Russian or otherwise: cut adrift from past and future, inhabitants of an unfinished building. But Aleksei German Jr is nonetheless sure of his role: to find beauty in the bleakness, to allow history’s outcasts to “speak in their own language”. He describes himself as a descendant of the poets of a bygone age — Mandelstam, Pasternak — a contemporary artist giving voice to old concerns. “We’ve returned to the 19th century. Nowadays, as then, we have democratic and undemocratic writers. And there are good and bad on both sides, but the roles and discussions are the same. Nothing changes.” Perhaps not, but German Jr himself is on the move, going from strength to strength.