'Under Electric Clouds' ('Pod Electricheskimi Oblakami'): Berlin Review

Pod Electricheskimi Oblakami
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A trudge through freezing sludge

Alexey German Jr.'s episodic epic of 21st century Russia, co-produced with Ukraine and Poland, vies for the Golden Bear at the prestigious German festival.

Illumination proves frustratingly elusive in Alexey German Jr’s Under Electric Clouds (Pod electricheskimi oblakami), an eight-part vision of near-future Russia which – as usual with this writer-director - places impressive behind-the-scenes craft at the service of a flashy but undernourished screenplay. Arriving in the wake of Andrey Zvagintsev’s controversy-stirring, Putin-baiting Leviathan - both films are partly funded by Russia's Ministry of Culture - it has topicality and ambition on its side but is too bleakly oblique to make much stir beyond the festival circuits.

World-premiering in competition at the Berlinale, the Russia-Ukraine-Poland co-production’s makes little Golden Bear appeal and the best chances for a prize lie with the widescreen digital cinematography by Evgeniy Privin and Sergey Mikhalchuk. The duo’s visuals conjure a series of inhospitable but barrenly beautiful landscapes – frozen bodies of water figure prominently – through which the characters drift, interchangeably mouthing German Jr’s trademark gnomic-philosophical-absurdist dialogue.

The prologue and seven chapters (varying in length from seven to 35 minutes) are all in some way connected with an unfinished skyscraper whose skeletal form – at once bulbous and ethereal – is frequently visible on the horizon. The oligarch who paid for the edifice has recently died, causing what may well be a permanent halt in its construction. His two twentysomething children, Sasha (Viktoria Korotkova) and Danya (Viktor Bugakov), fly in from abroad; the project’s architect Peter (Louis Franck) ponders the meaning of his work and his existence; a Kyrgyz drifter, Karim (Karim Pakachakov) wanders around clutching a defective boom-box; impoverished intellectual Nikolay (Merab Ninidze) endures humiliating employment as a liveried attendant at a country-mansion museum. 

Each of the chapters focuses on a different character or set of characters, but the mode remains the same: resigned, downbeat torpor, with much talk of the planet having lost its way (“something’s wrong all over the world”), how some catastrophic war is probably just around the corner, perhaps prelude for an even greater cataclysm (“I had a dream about the end of the world, and now I’m sad.”)

German Jr. sets his film in 2017, exactly 100 years after the Russian Revolution, but the contrast between these folks’ nihilistic inertia and the radical, questioning energy of their forebears could hardly be more stark. A damaged statue of Lenin appears from time to time, supplying a reliable dose of cheap historical irony. Everyone is content to bewail their lot - but no-one seems willing or able to analyze its causes, point fingers of blame (impossible to tell whether this is an alternative, Putin-less reality or not), or start finding a way out of this dismal spiritual-psychological swamp. It's surely no coincidence that hardly anyone here seems to do anything resembling work – not even the squat domestic robot which haltingly wheels itself around Sasha and Danya’s flat.

This amusingly useless droid provides rare flashes of humor in what’s generally a dour slog of a movie – one which, in its final couple of chapters, does at least indulge in a kind of self-mocking self-deconstruction as Peter dismisses his output as “incredibly trendy but utterly meaningless”. “If the artist wants to address the complexity of the world,” we are informed, “he needs some kind of intellectual context.” Such contexts are largely lacking here, in a picture which is content to linger on beautifully composed, sparsely populated tableaux, sprinkled with gnomic, random-sounding verbiage ("I've been promised polyglot penguins!")

German Jr.’s late father Alexey German (1938-2013) - whose magnificent, semi-posthumous final project Hard To Be A God (2013) his son helped complete - long specialized in cacophonously maximalist films that filled the frame with crazed, gabbling characters, depicting worlds gone severely and overwhelmingly out of joint. If the dad was a Brueghel or a Bosch, the son is much more of a Friedrich or de Chirico, stranding his creations in windblown space and punishingly becalmed solitude.

With his collaborators, he creates an elaborate and intricate framework – but ends up with something which too closely resembles the abortive skyscraper around which proceedings so sluggishly revolve: huge, airy, empty. "The past is gone. We can build a new world," a young woman muses. "We just need to get rid of the dead weight." On that basis, and the evidence of Under Electric Clouds, Alexey German Jr is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Production companies: Metrafilms, Linked Films
Cast: Louis Franck, Merab Ninidze, Viktoriya Korotkova, Chulpan Khamatova, Viktor Bugakov, Karim Pakachakov, Konstantin Zeliger, Anastasiya Melnikova, Piotr Gasowski
Director / Screenwriter: Alexey German Jr
Producers: Artem Vasiliev, Andrey Saveliev, Rushan Nasibulin, Sergey Antonov, Egor Olesov
Co-producers: Dariusz Jablonski, Violetta Kaminska, Izabela Wojcik, Krzysztof Zanussi
Cinematographers: Evgeniy Privin, Sergey Mikhalchuk
Production designer / Costume designer: Elena Okopnaya
Editor: Sergey Ivanov
Composer: Andrey Surotdinov
Casting: Angela Karpova, Viktoriya Nesterenko, Tatiana Murlakova, Anna Sagalovich
Sales: Films Boutique, Berlin
No Rating, 138 minutes