Many people, when confronted with the age-old question of who they would invite to their dream dinner party, dutifully reel off a list of historical titans that tends to raise more questions not normally asked: Would these undoubtedly interesting and momentous individuals become great be? companies together? Do they have much to say to each other? And would it be a better night out than, say, a get-together with your regular, low-key drinking buddies? The ever-experimental Russian formalist Alexander Sokurov hilariously hints at the answer, if not exactly in the context of a dinner party, in his eccentric new film Fairytale: Most of us have no appetite for a night out with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin , after all. Yet this brief, dreamlike reflection gathers them—along with history’s other discouraging dead, from Churchill to Mussolini to Jesus himself—in a kind of misty purgatory where they can converse freely.
That they talk and talk and talk and talk while ultimately saying very little is perhaps the driving joke of Fairytale, a film of considerable technical expertise and artistry that uses razor-thin deepfake technology to revive these raging ghosts of the past — only to present them as vain, booming fools, all clinging to petty personal fixations that torment them far more than their larger political actions. Sokurov’s Hitler, for example, never talks about the Holocaust but expresses regret that he failed to burn Paris; he is even more consumed by his failure to ever score with Richard Wagner’s niece. (Churchill assures him that Eva Braun was a better catch.) Just because you make history, Fairytale says you learn nothing from it.
This is an amusing but rather flimsy thesis to hang an entire movie on, and even at just under 80 minutes Fairytale seems to stay in place (or rather drift) too often. The main competition in Locarno is an odd place to unveil this incongruous oddity, less naturally suited to a cinema than a gallery, perhaps spanning multiple screens, where viewers can find their own path and pace through its bewildering, multilingual layers of nonsense could determine conversation. Still, after a seven-year hiatus from feature filmmaking – he was last on the festival circuit with his inventive, Louvre-focused quasi-documentary Francofonia – it’s a pleasure to see Sokurov back in such a mischievous form. Its name alone should secure the film-limited play, although specialized streaming platforms may be more accommodating.
The tone is set right outside the gate as we are introduced to Stalin lying in state grumbling loudly that he didn’t die and never will. Opposite him, nobly wounded on a plainer slab of stone, stands Jesus Christ: “Rise, you idler,” admonishes Stalin, before embarking on a tour of this gray, charcoal-smeared underworld where ancient classical ruins give way to stark apocalyptic wastelands and hordes of groaning civilian souls sometimes blur and coalesce into surging tidal waves of spiritual unrest. Jesus wisely doesn’t follow: Stalin (voiced by Vakhtang Kuchava), Hitler (Lothar Deeg and Tim Ettelt), Mussolini (Fabio Mastrangelo) and an anxious, vacillating Churchill (Alexander Sagabashi and Michael Gibson) are the primary quartet who face this afterlife being built – Napoleon makes only a passing appearance – and if their circular, unenlightened sniper is any indication, no one will find atonement anytime soon.
Together they take turns exchanging youthful insults (Stalin “smells like sheep,” Hitler complains), congratulating each other on jobs well done, and planning for a future that has passed them by. “Everything will return, I just have to cross the Rubicon,” insists Mussolini. There’s more than a hint of dementia in their murmurs: Churchill, who gets away with a softer but sadder portrait than the dictators surrounding him, gets the occasional thump (“I offer nothing but tears, sweat, and death,” he says, in one dejected rewrite of his most famous speech), but obsessively resents his need to call the Queen. Sokurov offers little direct comment on the lives and legacies he singles out, other than making them absurd without power, leveled and disarmed by death.
If much of Fairytale is in defiantly bad taste, its irreverence is offset by the austere, artful monochrome beauty of its imagery and montage. Intricate CGI work lends lithe life and movement to the archival photos and footage of these endlessly represented men, all of whom are given a distinctive physical aura and gait. Their bodies blend seamlessly into a typically Sokurovian mise-en-scène of simultaneous serenity and chaos: a silvered, milky in-between realm where the composite tracing-paper quality of the visuals is accompanied by a feverish soundtrack of layered dialogue and clashing languages and shards of Orchestral music heard from another world. Purgatory is eerily beautiful to look at – not that its residents here could take their minds off themselves for a minute to contemplate the view.
https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/fairytale-review-1235335214/ ‘Fairytale’ Review: Alexander Sokurov’s Deepfaked Historical Reunion