Under Electric Clouds
[Под электрическими облаками]
Russia, Poland, Ukraine, 2015
Color, 137 minutes
In Russian with English subtitles
Director and scriptwriter: Aleksei German, Jr.
Cinematography: Evgenii Privin, Sergei Mikhal’chuk
Production Design: Elena Okopnaia
Cast: Chulpan Khamatova, Viktoriia Korotkova, Merab Ninidze, Louis Franck
Producers: Artem Vasil’ev, Rushan Nasibulin, Andrei Savel’ev
Production: Linked Films, Metrafilms, Channel One, Apple Film Production, TVP Telewizja Polska
A co-production of Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, Under Electric Clouds was not an easy project—the film was made throughout a period of more than five years, from around 2010 to its European premiere in early 2015. This stretch of time witnessed a number of drastic events that alienated Russia from the West, including the Russian-Ukrainian conflict over Crimea, the war in Donbass, and the ensuing western sanctions. Since the film was first screened in Russia in June 2015, the geopolitical situation has not improved, but rather, deteriorated. Although it would be an exaggeration to say that Russia is on the brink of a hot war with the West at this point, the resurgence of Cold War rhetoric is evident. In his film, Aleksei German, Jr. alludes to the war, which seems to be in the air under electrified clouds that block the sun and let postmodern melancholia reign in Russia.
The action of the film is situated in the near future, in the year 2017, and unfolds in an unnamed post-Soviet megapolis, which is given all the traits of a dystopian city. It is a city of ruins, of unfinished projects, grim crimes, and nostalgia. Almost everything in the frame is either broken or abandoned, or both, and this includes not only the physical structures of the megapolis, but also its inhabitants, shown in a state of permanent confusion and free-floating. The nostalgic tone of the film has an obvious reflexive quality, focusing on Russian and Soviet imperial pasts as ruined projects, which need to be processed and overcome in order to cross over onto new historical territory. As a voiceover informs us early in the film, in 2017, the centennial of the Communist revolution, Russia, again, finds itself on the threshold of a new epoch and a new war. The latter can be understood both literally (the war in Ukraine) and metaphorically—the war of the old, Soviet consciousness with something yet to come.
The film is structured as a literary novel, and consists of seven “chapters,” each of which provides an extension of a master story revolving around an unfinished skyscraper whose fate needs to be determined. The ambitious project of the skyscraper was stalled after the main investor died. The investor’s children, his daughter Sasha and her brother, return from abroad to bury their father and to take over the enterprise. Although the narrative line of the investor’s heirs and inheritance more generally is important in the film, it is merely one plotline out of many focusing on several characters, whose existence comes to be intertwined with the fate of the skyscraper. Among them is a migrant worker from a former Soviet republic, who lost his job when the construction was closed; a chief architect of the project who does not know where to apply his life now; and a group of young drug addicts dwelling in the abandoned building. From time to time, these characters meet and interact with each other, asserting the unity of the narrative, which, otherwise, mimics the entropy it seeks to portray.
The notion of the abandoned skyscraper as an embodiment of the ruined forms of (imperial) consciousness in Russia, is interesting when it comes to details. Several film critics observed that the skyscraper poses as a modern-day Tower of Babel, which confuses human languages and makes universal understanding impossible. The notion of the lack of understanding is reiterated several times in the film—first, when the migrant worker fails to explain himself to Russians who don’t know his native tongue; secondly, when the deceased investor’s daughter, Sasha, is shown wearing a hearing aid device which she conveniently takes off when she does not want to hear and understand another person. In the film, universal understanding proves to be impossible in the conditions of postcolonial Russia, and also the onslaught of neoliberalism, emphasizing extreme individualism and competition.
In his interviews about the film, Aleksei German Jr. has mentioned that his main goal consisted in gauging dukh vremeni, the Zeitgeist, which informs everyday politics in the global world and post-Soviet Russia affected by its currents. He claimed that his intentions were both anti-globalist and also reflective of the current state of affairs in Russia, which is looking for a new identity after the fall of the Soviet Union. In one interview, German says: “This is a story about the country, crucified between its past, present, and future.” According to him, in Russia, time is not linear and the future easily becomes the past, while the present is unpredictable. This conviction finds its expression in German’s choice of the film’s postmodern visual aesthetics, fusing images of Soviet and Russian imperial pasts with the iconography of modern-day global capitalism—glass skyscrapers of multinational corporations decorating the megapolis’s skyline.
In several visually stunning scenes, we are presented with relics of the Communist empire, including a dilapidated monument of Vladimir Lenin. The monument is ironically displaced—it is no longer on a pedestal, but rather, in an abandoned area amongst piles of similar sculptural relics of the past. In one episode, Sasha climbs onto Lenin’s head in order to perform an acrobatic stunt. Other than that, the monument is not particularly useful. While the Soviet imperial past in the film is presented through the lens of ruination, global capitalism is rejected as an equally flawed and exploitative system. When presented with the choice of selling her skyscraper to foreign investors, Sasha decides to keep the building in the family.
Towards the end of the film, she also makes a decision to remain in Russia and develop her father’s business, which Aleksei German portrays as a possible form of new Russian patriotism.
Aleksei German, Jr., the son of the prominent Soviet and Russian filmmaker Aleksei German and grandson of the writer Iurii German, graduated from the All-Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK) in 2001. At the university, he attended Sergei Solov’ev’s courses. German’s first full-length film The Last Train (2003) received a prestigious Nika award as the best debut of the year. Prior to that, the filmmaker had directed several short films. His recent film Dovlatov (2018) won a number of domestic and international awards, including Berlinale’s Silver Bear for the production design by Elena Okopnaia (who is also German’s wife).