War is hideous, from the very first shot to the last. There is nothing but dust, the smell of burning, stones, hot shrapnel, blood, and hint of fear. No room for aesthetics.
—Alexander Sokurov, Spiritual Voices
Those accustomed to the conventions of Western documentary, replicating the structure of fiction even as they present “reality,” will be frustrated by Alexander Sokurov’s insistent lack of artifice. There is no omniscient narration to place the events of Spiritual Voices in historical context, and we never even know the names of the soldiers we meet. The film, now available on DVD, offers no “story” as such, no narrative organization or polemic thrust.
Over five hours, such ostensible fealty to the sprawling rhythms of daily life makes for a rigorous and occasionally maddening viewing experience. For the men of the 11th Frontier Post of the Russian Army’s Moscow border detachment, this life is an exercise in stoic endurance, weeks of uneventful isolation offset by desperate hours of deadly fighting. The soldiers do their own cooking and cleaning, with crude camp stoves set in dirt trenches and rusted water pipes jutting out of the ground at sharp angles. Heat-induced siestas in the rocky high desert are interrupted by brief intervals of hollow military formality.
We never see the enemy, never know the army’s mission, the unit’s history or the significance of their position. These details are left to the viewer’s imagination or prior knowledge. It does not, however, take more than a passing knowledge of recent history to see that the precarious Afghan-Tadjik border was an unpleasant place for Russian soldiers in 1994-95, with virulently anti-Communist Taliban fighters just then consolidating their advances throughout Afghanistan.
In the context of Spiritual Voices, with the enemy unknowable, the soldiers’ assignment to defend a minuscule post on the edge of civilization seems the height of absurdity. None of the soldiers evinces the slightest interest in his duties. Shorn of the overarching purpose of Soviet manifest destiny, the soldiers of a new Russia suffer a mission that is both meaningless to them and forgotten by the outside world, fulfilling national obligations long after the original rationale has dissipated into the ether.
These themes are similar to those Sokurov explored in 1998’s pseudo-documentary Confession, and the two projects share a similarly bracing realism in their exploration of a dissolute Russian national identity, in particular its relation to military conscription. Confession and Spiritual Voices almost seem to have been conceived as bookends, examining the modern Russian character in the crisis of changing times (both DVDs are released in the U.S. on 29 March). But Spiritual Voices also differs from Confession. In the latter, the conscripts sailing the Arctic seas deal only with isolation and redundancy, but in the former, soldiers face pressing dangers every day.
Long hours absorbed in domestic routine disappear in the moment when a mine is tripped on the hillside above the barracks. The sound of machine guns and artillery shells fills the air. The cameras stays back from the fighting, instead roaming the rear and espying the officers hunched over their folded maps and Soviet-era field radios. There’s nothing romantic about this war, nothing even remotely evocative. We see the afterimages, the clouds of black smoke and the wounded soldiers on stretchers, but we never see the enemy and never know why any of it has happened.
The viewer spends New Year’s Day 1995 in a border outpost dug into the rock and dirt of a high mountain pass, with wind whipping across the peaks and dark storm clouds on the horizon. Nothing grows on the high mountains, and there is nothing to do but wait. Every man at the outpost would rather be anywhere in the world than where he is at that moment, a fact that snaps into sharp focus when alcohol turns the holiday revelries dark with recrimination. One bottle of champagne cannot change the fact that these men are living in a rock hole in Tadjikistan. “NATO soldiers would have killed themselves long ago,” one of the patrolmen muses. And by film’s end, we know he’s right.