Known for his glacial pacing and deliberate, opaque storytelling, Russian director Alexander Sokurov would seem to be the ideal candidate for a documentary on Russian naval officers in the bleak, icy Baltic Sea.Titled Confession, this four-hour effort was split into five parts and shown on Russian television.True to form, it’s intriguing, poetic, minimal and occasionally dull; compared to this, the director’s modest crossover success Russian Ark looks like a Hollywood musical.
Sokurov’s focus is mainly on the ship’s captain, and includes voice-over taken directly from his diary.A melancholy depressive prone to staring out his porthole for hours on end, the captain proves to be a kindred spirit to the director.Sokurov opens the film with his own voice-over, which eventually serves to turn the captain—his name is never given explicitly—into a sort of metaphysical hero.He stares down the harsh, unforgiving environment and wards off the inconsolable boredom of his life by memorizing entire stories by Chekhov.Part 3 of the film is an extended discussion between the captain and a colleague, centered on their nostalgia for the 19th century’s military way of life, its old-fashioned pedigree of nobility.As the captain puts it, back then “officers would carry around Makarov bullet, for when life gets too senseless, you must put an end to it.” Now, the army offers only tedium, providing no more than a meager chance for survival, a way to maintain order after the collapse of socialism.
To illustrate the point, Sokurov plunks his camera down in the cramped belly of the ship, where dozens of new recruits sit, patiently waiting their turn to be stripped down and examined by the ship’s medical team.They joke with each other occasionally (much of their spoken dialogue remains unsubtitled), but for the most part they reveal a daily routine of mass isolation.Peeking through the crawlspace that makes up their bunks, Sokurov’s voice-over repeatedly notes the absolute lack of privacy on board; Confession is always aware of the irony of a large group of men living in such close quarters without any real possibility for communication. They wake up, get out of their Potemkin pajamas, make the bed, stand around on the frozen deck awhile, and then go back to bed.In their position near the Arctic Circle, they rarely see daylight.
Despite the captain’s frequent admissions of foreboding, very little happens to the crew of the ship.There is a sequence involving a small powerboat dispatched to an abandoned outpost to drop off coal, but this mainly serves to illustrate the captain’s assertion that his existence is stuck in another era.Given his approach to filmmaking, it would have been unfair to expect The Life Aquatic with Alexander Sokurov, but the ice floes and swirling snowflakes—so thick they at first appear to be computer-generated—become the antagonists of the film.The environment takes on a sublime, terrifying power, prompting the captain to compare the waves to a “dark forest.”The film ends on the image of a delirious young sailor, shivering and trembling on deck, where the captain finds him composing a letter to his family out loud.In his frostbitten stupor, he gets caught on the opening address to his mother, skipping like a broken record over the phrase “my dear mother.”It’s a moving and disturbing image of a life in limbo, as good as any in the film.