Alexander Sokurov’s fairy tale imagines a serious and surreal purgatorial journey

Along the Fairy tale (also know as Skazka), the characters recite the beginning of 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 stranded feels closer to a kind of purgatory. A liminal wasteland of abandoned buildings, rubble, and skeletal trees, it’s a nightmare ripped from a Gustav Doré print, and it’s no surprise that one of its inhabitants, none other than Winston Churchill himself, wonders from the start if it’s all a ( very bad) dream. Churchill shares the hallucination with other iconic figures of the 20th century, a sleazy cast that includes the likes of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin (add to the mix Jesus Christ, the only bedridden, caught briefly lying in the same room as the Soviet generalissimo). But Fairy tale has no cast, strictly speaking: the four play themselvesyes The film’s sleight of hand, and the source of his haunting charm, lies in his technical wizardry. Brought to life by Sokurov and his team of visual effects experts, who brought them together by combining archival footage and deepfake technology, the foursome glide through the film in their real-life looks, engaging one another on a journey through foot from another world that is somewhere between Dante and Monty Python.

There is something subversive in the election. For all his funeral scenes, Fairy tale it marches on like a grand farce, stripping its heroes of their mythical greatness and mocking them as they grapple with their spiritual impasse. God has trapped them all in what is essentially one big waiting room, and they must wait, taking turns knocking on the gates of heaven only to have them slam shut before them, the almighty taunting the pestilential gang with vague promises. that the gates will soon open—but not now (interestingly, Sokurov already places Napoleon in the sky, much to the dismay of dictators lining up for their own place in the sun).

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As surreal and deranged as the premise may seem, what follows on this journey through limbo is pretty straightforward. Dubbed in their mother tongues, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Churchill tour Fairy tale in an endless loop, ridiculing each other and wondering how much longer they’ll 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 these monochrome views; the rare times that other souls appear, Fairy tale it portrays them as a tidal wave of ghosts (are these the millions of innocents the quartet led to their deaths?), flowing through canyons and quarries, their faces and bodies unrecognizable, blurred in a grim clash of shadows. These scenes have a sinister beauty and, in fact, Fairy tale it is brimming with all sorts of details both fascinating and disturbing. The entire film is bathed in a silvery mist, with specks of dust swirling and glowing everywhere like radioactive fallout. Stalin and company trudge into the apocalyptic landscape in a relentless quest with no destination or purpose, and it’s not long before they spawn their own doppelgängers: each of the four spawns three identical twins, crowding Sokurov’s meager compositions.

But more characters doesn’t mean more action, and more conversations don’t necessarily mean more insightful exchanges. Like the walks, the conversations go in circles, the four talk and make fun of each other, to succumb to all kinds of more or less ridiculous regrets. Stalin spends much of Fairy tale rubbing his nose, prompting Mussolini to ask if he “has a snot”; Hitler complains about Wagner’s kindness (“I should have married her!”) and regrets that he did not light London properly; Mussolini mutters that religion “is a psychic illness”; while Churchill worries that he has lost his wife. That Fairy tale it lacks narrative drive is part of its very design, and to lament its lack of purpose would be playing into Sokurov’s hands. This is, after all, a journey that has no true beginning or end; the stagnation to which the characters succumb is that of the film itself. What is more worrying is that, for all its intellectual and sensory intrigue, Fairy tale seems to run out of things to say or show quickly.

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Gradually, the constant repetitions—of similar exchanges, similar actions—stopped giving me new things to think about, and for a time I let myself be mesmerized by it. Fairy taleThe dilapidated backdrops and fantastically disturbing CGI work, bringing to life the four drifters and the newsreel that immortalized and buried them. (In a movie so concerned with the fate of the soul, that’s perhaps the only resurrection Fairy tale captures, and it’s courtesy of Sokurov and his team, rescuing Hitler and others from their audiovisual sarcophagi and turning them into sentient holograms). But even that wears thin, and the movie starts to get a bit tedious, as if it can’t keep up with the force and scope of its nightmarish design. What remains is a curious oddity, a fable that functions as a kind of marriage between Sokurov’s interest in digital technology and the figures who shaped, for better or worse, the course of modern history. Its lack of narrative structure and lopsidedness is part of the point. But lysergic and creatively fertile as its setup may sound, Fairy tale It’s a pretty serious dream.

Fairy tale premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.

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