Filming for Berlinale competition offering Under Electric Clouds (2015) began in 2011 before director Aleksei German Jr. put the production on hiatus so he could finish his late father’s final film, Hard to Be a God (2012). Having never experienced enlightenment, the alien planet of Hard to Be a God was caught in an interminable medieval state of rampant disease and squelching bodily discharges. This idea of a society suffering from a sense of cultural inertia forms the thematic backbone of German Jr.’s latest, a densely layered and somewhat over-egged opprobrium of contemporary Russia and the spiritual despondency of an entire generation in effective stasis.
Introduced by a quote from French artist Paul Cézanne about the relationship between art and nature, it’s clear that German Jr. intends to lead us down a similar line of enquiry, using his film as a conduit to imitate the generational malaise of contemporary Russia by giving solid form to society’s cultural disenfranchisement. Set in a barren vision of 2017 (the centenary of the Russian Revolution), the past meets a not unimaginable future amongst the faded memory of an old film studio. It would appear that the world is on the brink of a third world war, with globalisation having merely aligned the entire world for a mutual collapse into the abyss. Told across seven interwoven chapters, each lain delicately on top of the other, the focus is less on the state of things but rather the relationships between them.
While these chapters fail to clearly articulate the spiritual trauma of the subjects they present – including a misanthropic architect, a jaded heir to a corrupt businessman’s empire and a nostalgic real estate lawyer – they do contain an essence of truth that once bonded by the circular narrative form a composite tale about modern Russia’s fears and anxieties. The film’s seven chapters each focus on an individual character, uniting those that grew up during glasnost with today’s generation of omnivorous consumers of pop culture. Amidst the faded parasols of a snow-bleached beach and the distant skeleton of an unfinished skyscraper rich meet poor, whilst philistines and aesthetes connect over a shared sense of despondency. Each character openly discusses their apprehensions regarding society, many are tinged with sadness. Others are more jovial, yet each posits probing questions about the state of the country, all the while looking to the lessons subtly incorporated within art for answers.
Similar in style – although certainly not tone – to the fruitless search for love and happiness in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), German condenses his vast sprawl of ideas into a fluid stream of consciousness that’s likely to enthral and infuriate audiences in equal measure. For many, German’s approach will come across as too garrulous, philosophical and in some cases pretentious. At one point a man approaches a young girl to criticise her decision to exhibit the statues that litter the barren landscape of this fog veiled vista. He asserts himself by proclaiming, “Statues are just pure emotion…” expanding his critique by exclaiming “…if an artist has something to say about the world he needs some intellectual context”. This brief passage goes a long way to explaining the dense, prosaic approach of Under Electric Clouds, a film far more concerned with larger thematic issues of life to give anything but lip service to the more intimate details from which art naturally flourishes.
The 65th Berlin Film Festival takes place from 5-15 February 2015. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble