In 2013, renowned Russian filmmaker Alexey German died before he could complete his astonishing final film Hard to Be a God which, after being completed by his wife, screenwriter Svetlana Karmalita, and his son Alexey German Jnr, screened at last year’s London Film Festival. This year, Alexey German Jnr, himself an accomplished filmmaker, arrives with his studied portmanteau film about modern Russia, Under Electric Clouds. German’s film speculates on a Russia of the not too distant future, struggling to find its identity and deal with the legacy of the Soviet era in a series of loosely connected stories. The result is a reflective, contemplative, perhaps a little sleepy, but ultimately intriguing look at Russian malaise in the 21st century.
Its 2017, one hundred years since the October Revolution and a monolithic tower stands uncompleted. A construction worker from Kyrgyzstan arrives for work but can’t get by due to the language barrier. The owner of the unfinished tower dies and his children return from overseas and are met with concerns over their father’s ambitious project. A real estate lawyer dreams of a past life and has a hard time distinguishing between them and reality. The guide at a museum is unhappy with his lot in life and when the museum is threatened by the construction of the tower he contemplates moving on. A man who lost his family to war attempts to save the life of a girl kidnapped near the construction site. The architect of the unfinished tower falls for a younger woman, but they cannot reconcile their generation gap.
This is just a summary of the different stories that comprise Under Electric Clouds, but the metaphor is clear; a giant unfinished project casting a shadow over and effecting the lives of those below represents the legacy of the revolution and the Soviet rule that followed. For the characters there is a feeling of aimlessness as they look to the past and see the idealism of a country united by a shared purpose and compare it to the present day and everything that happened in between. In the story involving the estranged children of the dead oligarch who bankrolled the tower and leaves it incomplete, a grieving family member tells the daughter not to think of her father as dead, only in a place very far away, but that he is still a part of her. This exchange is what is at the core of German’s film; the revolution was a hundred years ago but those ideals are not dead, they linger on within Russian society and as much as the new generation think it has no bearing on their existence, it will be a hard link to break.
Set against a wintry landscape drenched in neon, Under Electric Clouds explores this push and pull between the past and the future. The film looks positively Soviet with its greys, browns and earth tones covered in freezing cold snow. Yet, there is a vague science fiction element in the mix, as if the future is only slightly punching through the stubborn Russian resolve. The electric clouds of the title are represented in a moment in the film where companies advertise with projected billboards on to the dark, oppressive clouds of a Russian winter, suggesting that despite the country’s ties to the past and possible reluctance to enter the future, its very nature is conducive to that step forward, both commercially and technologically. German presents Russia as a country on the precipice of change, and the electric clouds represent that change which is unavoidable. Whether it is the change idealised by the revolutionaries one hundred years ago or something else entirely remains to be seen but perhaps any kind of change is essential for a society to thrive or at least become unstuck from its current predicament.
An aspect of the film that effectively draws out these themes and representations is the brilliantly realised art direction by Elena Okopnaia. German has commented that his aim for the film was to set it in the near future to outrun time, then stop and wait for time to catch up with him. This is manifest in the theme of the film of the relationship between the past, present and future which can be seen all throughout the mise en scène. From the broken down, almost post-apocalyptic poverty of the migrant worker, to the oligarch’s mansion outfitted with a robotic pet, to the pre-revolution dacha filled with Chinese tourists, Okopnaia expertly captures a world out of time, or perhaps more accurately a world existing within multiple timelines at once. The worlds inhabited by the characters may be separated by geography or class, but they all feel monumentally Russian and help shape the different stories into a single experience of great resonance.
It is possible to interpret Under Electric Clouds is an indictment of modern Russia, for in reality it is far richer than that. German has said that he approached the film like an epic Russian novel, that the different points of view are just different angles on the same subject. By essaying the many complex and varied walks of life in Russia, German perfectly captures the whole by focusing on the parts. This approach feels as if it comes from a deeply profound love of his home country as well as a willingness to observe and explore its faults. The American film director Samuel Fuller once said, “love your country despite the ulcers” and with this film it certainly feels like German has taken this sentiment to heart and produced a work of remarkable balance and intrigue.