Transcript of the beginning of the meeting:
Vladimir Putin: Mr Sokurov, I’d like to congratulate you and your team on the success of your film, “Faust,” at this year’s Venice Film Festival. This is foremost a huge success for you, a great personal victory, as well as a victory for the people with whom you collaborated.
Alexander Sokurov: For my team, that's right.
Vladimir Putin: Moreover, this is an indication that the Russian school of filmmaking is alive, that it is continuing to evolve and to open up new horizons. You took a very complex story, one that belongs to the literary heritage of the world as well as to German classical literature...
Alexander Sokurov: Yes.
Vladimir Putin: ...and which is a part of our modern global civilisation. Your rendition of the story, as told by Goethe, is an outstanding achievement in itself. When did you first come up with this idea?
Alexander Sokurov: It all began in 1980.
Vladimir Putin: No, I mean when did the two of us get together?
Alexander Sokurov: Oh, this was a couple of years ago, when you and I discussed sketches and acting auditions. We looked at set designs as well.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, I remember.
Alexander Sokurov: We also discussed problems related to the German language.
Vladimir Putin: So it took you two years to make the film?
Alexander Sokurov: Yes, two years.
Vladimir Putin: And how did you go about casting?
Alexander Sokurov: We began with auditions in Germany, starting with all actors in the relevant age group. We saw thousands of actors there. And then we continued in Austria, Scandinavia, Iceland and the Czech Republic. There were some people from Russia as well.
They have a superb school of acting in Germany, I must say. Simply superb. It’s a pleasure to work with them and very straightforward as well, thanks to the influence of Russian acting traditions, which you can feel quite strongly there.
The artistic milieus of Europe and Russia have never been at odds with each other – not ever. And we had absolutely no issues while working on the film. All us understood that we had a common mission. You said it rightly, Mr Putin… It was, indeed, quite frightening at the start.
Vladimir Putin: Of course.
Alexander Sokurov: It was frightening when first embarking on the project.
It's hard to imagine that anyone else could have undertaken this. I wasn’t the only Russian person in the crew, by the way. We had a remarkable Russian set designer, Yelena Zhukova, the costume designer, Lidia Kryukova, the composer, Andrei Sigle and a group of excellent makeup stylists.
It was the Russian professionals, the Russian school of filmmaking, and the Lenfilm Studios that defined all of the picture’s key artistic points, in form and in content. And some of the things that we achieved may serve as a model to others, I think.
The technical work was done partly in Finland and partly in London.
We engaged qualified professionals of the highest technical level, because our idea was to create a picture that would be technically on par with “The Lord of the Rings” and other blockbusters. We had one of the world’s best camera men on the crew, Bruno Delbonnel. Our energy and perseverance enabled us to form a team from some of the best professionals…
Vladimir Putin: You said that you auditioned hundreds of actors?
Alexander Sokurov: Thousands, I’d say.
Vladimir Putin: Really?
Alexander Sokurov: Yes, thousands of actors. We searched all across Germany, as well as in Austria, Scandinavia, Iceland and the Czech Republic. We spent a few months in Berlin, working day and night to find the right actor [for the title role]. But I believe that this was the only way to go about it – the role is so serious, and the material itself is so concentrated and so well known.
Vladimir Putin: Indeed.
Alexander Sokurov: So we had to get it just right.
Vladimir Putin: People who have an interest in the arts, particularly in literature, are all experts on Faust, I imagine. Just as all sports fans know a thing or two about football and ice hockey.
Alexander Sokurov: Still, far from everyone has read the story.
Vladimir Putin: You are quite right.
Alexander Sokurov: There may be lots of connoisseurs out there, but few of them have actually read the story. This makes things easy, on the one hand, and simple, on the other, because everyone has at least some idea of the story. But more often than not, we imagine Faust as a mythological character, rather than a real-life one.
Vladimir Putin: I’ve read some critiques on your film, by the way. They argue you have a very idiosyncratic reading of Faust. And that your interpretation deviates quite a lot from Goethe’s original.
Alexander Sokurov: True, but people do make mistakes. When Mr Arabov (Yury Arabov, scriptwriter) and I were working on the script, we were aware of the imposing figure [of Goethe] standing behind us throughout, and we tried to treat him and his text with the utmost respect.
Vladimir Putin: The text?
Alexander Sokurov: Yes. We restored much of Goethe’s text after the [German] voice-over in Berlin, trying to fit them into the track that we edited earlier. Because nothing has changed since the poem was written. All the questions that were raised back then remain relevant to this day. It's incredible. It must be a quality of great literary masterpieces.
Vladimir Putin: They say the same about Tolstoy. He depicted human characters and scenes from life, creating psychological profiles of his time. And they are as true today as they must have been then.
Alexander Sokurov: Classical literature is, indeed, incredibly powerful, I suppose because it deals with eternal things. It's amazing that there are people out there who can see these things in everyday life.
Vladimir Putin: Mr Sokurov, it’s great that you made this film with an international team and in various locations, including the Czech Republic, and that you selected your cast from among thousands of actors.
Alexander Sokurov: We shot in Iceland as well.
Vladimir Putin: You made the film in the original language, in German. But it now has to be translated into Russian.
Alexander Sokurov: We made a subtitled version especially for screening in Russia. We’ve already shown this one in Ulyanovsk, in a cinema that seats 1,400 people. And the reaction of the audience was just amazing. We tend to underestimate our audiences. It's a long film, lasting 2 hours and 12 minutes, but no one in the audience left before the end. And there were quite a few young people in the audience.
I’m grateful to Ulyanovsk for this public “test drive,” and to Russian lovers of film who appreciate some serious stuff. It’s untrue that we don't have an audience for intellectual cinema these days. Interested audiences can be found all across the country, not only in Moscow and St Petersburg. We just need the proper conditions for nation-wide screening. This is highly important. Even in Ulyanovsk, we had to bring in some special technology to be able to screen the film.
Vladimir Putin: Subtitles are a good thing, but will the film be dubbed in Russian?
Alexander Sokurov: Voice-over is a better option, I think… We Russians can afford the luxury of showing our deep respect for the world’s artistic heritage. We are capable of understanding and feeling the language of any great nation and of any great culture. We are all part of the human race, after all.
And foreigners could see the Russian-language version of the film. People all over the world see my films without dubbing. We should allow spectators to hear foreign languages. They will listen carefully, and will try to grasp the meaning of words.
And if it is dubbed, the picture will lose part of its character, because German is a very expressive language, you know…
Vladimir Putin: The melody of a language matters a lot, too.
Alexander Sokurov: Yes, yes, every language has its own character, its own intonation patterns. German is a tough language for a work of art, and a very complex one.
Vladimir Putin: This is a debatable issue. But we won’t discuss it now.
You mentioned Lenfilm earlier in our conversation. I know that you, along with other members of St Petersburg’s artistic community, find the current situation at the studios to be disconcerting.
Alexander Sokurov: Alexei German and I wrote a letter to this effect…
Vladimir Putin: Yes, I’ve read it. Let’s look into the situation. I have to make it clear right from the start that the situation is more complicated that it may seem, upon first glance. A lot of proposals have been put forth, but none of them has been worked through properly
Alexander Sokurov: Are you referring to the economic aspect of things?
Vladimir Putin: The economic aspect above all, yes.
Alexander Sokurov: We do have a clear-cut vision for future evolution of the studio, and we can get our vision across. As for the economic issues, they are indeed quite tricky, because this is a state-owned enterprise, yet not a single penny in public funds has been allocated towards it in the last twenty years.
Vladimir Putin: Actually, we provided 60 million roubles this year or the last, which is a lot of money. But according to preliminary estimates, at least 500 million is needed, is that right?
Alexander Sokurov: For a start, yes. But to be able to bring the studio back to life, to turn it into a modern facility, we’ll need about 2 billion roubles. That money does not have to be provided all at once as a lump-sum investment, though.
We absolutely must save the studio. Lenfilm’s mission is to break through the monotony of the Russian film industry. It is not normal for such a vast country to have just two film studios: Mosfilm and Vsemirnyie Russkiye Studii. We are all very different. I, for one, could not have made any of my films at either Mosfilm or VRS. No one there would have let me. But Lenfilm provides the right kind of environment for me to work in. Many filmmakers are now searching for a more creative milieu, where their work can be appreciated. We are all so different…
We used to have the Sverdlovsk Studios, and we had several documentary studios in Siberia as well. We even had one such studio that operated in the Caucasus. These studios are now all gone. Our working space has shrunk dramatically, and only filmmakers based in Moscow and St Petersburg have the facilities to produce new content these days.
We are all different, and our cinema should reflect that diversity. People living in Irkutsk are not exactly the same as those living in St Petersburg.
Vladimir Putin: They don’t differ that much…
Alexander Sokurov: They do, they do – both in terms of character and in their creative ambitions. A filmmaker who lives near Lake Baikal will have other ideas for his or her films than those living elsewhere. That’s hugely important, in my view. I believe we should fill our cinema with all that diversity and ethnic colouring.
Vladimir Putin: Personalities for a film can be found anywhere. What we need is to create a solid infrastructure of our own. You had no problem shooting [your “Faust”] in Iceland, in the Czech Republic and in Germany, is that right?
Alexander Sokurov: I agree. But still, I believe it is highly important for an artist to have the right environment in which he or she can generate ideas. The Sverdlovsk Studios had such a creative environment, which was why films produced there were all so special.
Vladimir Putin: Believe me, I truly do want to help you preserve Lenfilm. We inherited this brand from our parents and we should treasure it. We'll put our heads together to think of a way to accomplish the task we've set for ourselves.
Alexander Sokurov: Fine. I wish only for the studio to stay afloat.