A cinematic tome for the ages, Alexey German Jr.’s Pod elektricheskimi oblakami (Under Electric Clouds) is a visual and intellectual delight brimming with big ideas, melancholy, and cultural reference points. Told in seven chapters and exploring different moments in time, there is a circular structure to it involving a set of characters always looking to the past and future simultaneously as they examine and discuss decay, art, memory, and politics.
While it is unquestionably languid in its dead-serious musings, there are touches of unexpected humor to the whole affair which would not be too out of place in a contemporary Jean-Luc Godard film. While far more accessible than, say, the final film directed by his father, Hard to Be a God (which German Jr. helped assemble the final cut for after his father’s passing), he clearly learned a great deal from his father’s work about blocking, camera movement, and visual poetics. It is also difficult to avoid making comparisons to the work of the great Andrei Tarkovsky. One particular landscape shot portrays a collection of small dunes, taking a direct visual cue from Stalker. Yet to only compare Under Electric Clouds to existing works (and only cinematographical ones at that) would be a great disservice to this brilliantly realized anthology of a film. It stands outside the shadow of the classical Russian masterworks while engaging in discourse with them. The compositions are consistently painterly, the camera movements relentlessly fluid, and the entirety of the film is bathed in a distinctly Russian mood and mentality.
Each chapter contains its own protagonists and settings in time. The first chapter follows a Chinese man in 2017 battling the vicious Russian tundra to reach an electronics store so that he might be able to repair his stereo — a lesson in futility and backwards priorities which speaks to current political attitudes in both Russia and the world at large. The second chapter, ‘the Heirs,’ follows two young adult siblings coming to terms with their father’s passing and handling his business affairs. One cannot help but read a large amount of autobiography into this chapter on the part of German Jr, who’s own father passed away in 2012. This is then suggested more directly in a repeated line of dialogue, “in 20 years he almost became a God,” an allusion to German Sr. final film. In fact, there are a great deal of allusions throughout the film including everything from cyberpunk literature, to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, to the video game Fallout, to The Lord of the Rings, to The Beatles song “Yesterday.” Whereas such pop-culture reference points often come across as stale and outdated the moment they are uttered in most mainstream films, here they reverberate with real meaning and implications relevant to the film’s themes and the emotions evoked. Such references are also used to trace objects’ paths through time; like their owners’ experiences of time — the world radically changing around people and objects which fundamentally stay the same. As the film progresses through each subsequent chapter, characters reappear through direct appearances and indirect mentions, cleverly looping through time in multiple directions around them.
The film’s use of music is particularly inspired, as it is only ever diegetic music performed in-camera (or at least made to look so). Music is shown to belong to the proletariat, as it is performed exclusively by people on the streets as a common means of bringing humanity together. Technology and architecture are meanwhile symbols of aspirations to higher social stratas, occupied by unhappy people. What supercedes these associations of particular mediums to certain social stratas, however, is the very idea that art as a whole belongs to humanity. History and the Russian Revolution loom large beside literary masterworks in the air of the film’s “electric clouds,” but ultimately it is the essence of being human which the film points to as the catalyst for art, with revolution and time joining those ranks as implied mediums.
One line of dialogue truly sums up the film and its outlook on life; “Don’t be upset, the world’s just complicated.”Return to Our Berlinale 2015 Coverage
2 hours, 18 minutes
Drama, Foreign, Sci-fi
Alexey German Jr.
Louis Franck, Merab Ninidze, Viktoriya Korotkova, Chulpan Khamatovam, Viktor Bugakov, Karim Pakachakov, Konstantin Zeliger, Anastasiya, Melnikova, and Piotr Gasowski