Alexander Sokurov’s Confession: A Chekhovian Narrative Strangely Suited to the Small Screen

Steven Shaklan, Columbia University

The “hero” of Vladimir Sokurov’s 1998 “Confession: From the Notebooks of a Ship’s Captain,” describes naval life as follows: “We don’t live. We endure.” The same may be said of this often arresting, often confusing five-part television mini-series. That is, we don’t simply watch it, we endure it. This achingly slow portrait of naval life in the Arctic north was, by all accounts, a commercial failure. Every major television channel in Russia refused to air the finished work. The film was finally shown on Russia’s “Kultura” Channel, which draws less than one percent of the viewing population in St. Petersburg, and far less beyond the city’s bounds.

However, Sokurov remains a director’s director, and is roundly considered one of the most innovative and daring filmmakers currently at work. We find ample evidence of this in “Confession,” where Sokurov mixes the means of documentary filmmaking, art-house traditions, and even literary stylistic and structural forms. But “Confession” is above all a literary cinematographic work. Disparate images of shipboard life, naturalistically captured on video, are strung together with a lyric third- person narrative voice, filtered through the troubled mind of the ship’s captain. It is hardly accidental that the captain often quotes Chekhov, for both the individual episodes of this work, and the work as a whole, incorporate a distinctly Chekhovian narrative arc. Sokurov constructs a four-plus-hour opus based entirely on the same principles of “anti-plot” we can locate in the bulk of Chekhov’s short works. Expectation and disappointment, revelation without recourse to action, all play a part in the world of this ship where, strictly speaking, nothing “happens.” This paper explores how Sokurov mixes the means of various artistic genres to construct a distinctly literary cinematographic tale and more importantly, hazards some suggestions as to why he chose the television mini-series format to tell this tale. In so doing, questions regarding the importance of cinematographic format to the types of stories that can be told will be addressed. Crucial to this exploration is Neya Zorkaya’s notion that sheer “length” is a central aesthetic criterion of artistic production. Technical requirements: DVD player.