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LOCARNO 2022 Competition

Review: Fairytale


- Alexandr Sokurov returns with another set of historical musings dressed as an accomplished experimental film

Review: Fairytale

One might argue that World War II had a fairytale ending: two of the villains ended up killed, the third one repented and got pardoned, and the good guys won and lived happily ever after. But was it really that simple? According to the newest feature written and directed by Alexandr Sokurov, Fairytale [+see also:
film profile
, it wasn't. The film premiered in the main competition at the Locarno Film Festival, which also bears some symbolic weight given that the Russian auteur’s breakthrough also happened at the same place, 35 years ago with The Lonely Voice of Men.

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Fairytale is actually a re-imagined situation in which four men, historical figures on the opposite sides in the Second World War, try to get through God’s Gate guarded by their imperial predecessor. Two of the four men were on the winning and two on the losing side during the war. Three were dictators that either embraced socialism totally, or had at least flirted with it in their younger years, while the fourth one is nominally a democrat, but actually an imperialist and traditionalist. These people are Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Yosef Vissarionovich Jugashvili – better known as Stalin – and Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, while the “gatekeeper” is none other than Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

God overhears them all, the shadow of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin looms over at least two of them who went the furthest in their connections with the ideas of socialism (the banter between Stalin and Mussolini is simply precious), Churchill wants to get instructions from the Queen, while Hitler shares and develops his paranoid ideas. Neither of the four can open the gate due to their various sins, from the desire for absolute power to open antisemitism, rampant self-love, imperialism or simply bowing to a higher authority other than God, but that won't not stop them from trying. Maybe the key is given in the Biblical quote at the very opening of the film: “You strangled Satan, passion bearer, with the godly strings of your suffering.” But has either of them who brought on suffering really suffered? And would it prevent them from competing with one another over various causes?

The concept of speculative fiction that brings different figures together in the same context is not that new, and Sokurov's fairytale on the textual level slightly resembles Maurice Joly’s political satire The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, but with the key difference that Machiavelli and Montesquieu were able to conduct a dialogue, despite their different centuries of origin and the different philosophies they defend, while the 20th century strongmen in Sokurov's film are not able to communicate, which often results in an Altman-esque sound design of overlapping monologues.

There is no news on the coherency level either, since Fairytale resembles a lot of Sokurov’s works in its essayistic approach consisting of the auteur’s thoughts and musings, but the good news is that the film is visually stunning and innovative due to the filmmaker’s unique idea to cut the political figures, each of them in a few different versions (different age, posture, clothing etc.), out from existing documentaries, newsreels and archival footage and set them against animated backgrounds resembling very dark paintings. With a boxy 4:3 ratio, in black and white and with added granulation, the look resembles the films from the expressionist period, with voice actors providing their deliveries in native languages, while the musical choices from the droning score to the classical and army music accompany the mood of the “plot” closely. As the title suggests, Fairytale is an odd one, and as is typical for Sokurov, quite innovative.

Fairytale is a Russian-Belgian co-production by Sokurov’s company Intonations.

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