Idiosyncratic Russian director Alexander Sokurov has been carving out a rep for himself among serious festgoers in recent years, culminating in what some saw as his finest work, the 1997 “Mother and Son,” a sublimely poetic mood piece about death and devotion. With “Moloch,” the austere filmmaker takes off in a slightly different direction, resulting in an interesting but disappointingly shallow film that is unlikely to win him new friends in the international film community. With its stately pacing and characteristically distinctive but audience-unfriendly diffused visuals — tinged with a green light in most scenes — this intimate study of Adolf Hitler generally fails to deliver the goods.
Pic covers 24 hours in the life of the Fuhrer during the year 1942, when he visits his mountain retreat in Bavaria to dally with his mistress, Eva Braun, and engage in small talk with his closest friends. But the setting Sokurov depicts is stylized and deliberately unreal, an ugly fortress high in the clouds with vast rooms sparsely furnished.
Here, in a lengthy opening sequence, Eva (Elena Rufanova) waits for her lover to arrive, prowling the rooms and battlements, apparently naked (though the actress is obviously wearing a body stocking in the long shots) and playfully waving to the unseen guards watching her through their binoculars.
Finally, Hitler (Leonid Mosgovoi), whom Eva affectionately refers to as Adi, arrives with his entourage, which includes the diminutive Josef Goebbels (Leonid Sokol) and the oafish Martin Bormann (Vladimir Bogdanov). After formally greeting his staff, with an especially warm welcome for the head cook, Hitler settles in for a day and night away from the cares of war.
It soon becomes clear that Eva is the only one who can talk back to the Fuhrer; the others defer to him, while an aide assiduously takes notes on everything that’s said, presumably for a future biography. Hitler shows symptoms of hypochondria and, over lunch, talks irrationally about vegetarianism and the nutritious benefits of the stinging nettle; he claims he plans to grow nettles all over the Ukraine.
He also rails against Mussolini for planting forests in Italy, which he feels will make the German climate wetter. He further asserts he went to war with Russia because Stalin, against his demands, commenced construction of a building taller than any in Germany.
The group goes for a post-lunch walk in the mountains and later settles down to watch a newsreel of German military triumphs, while Hitler strongly criticizes the filmmakers for sloppy work. When one aide suggests they could be sent to Auschwitz, the Fuhrer claims never to have heard of the place, a remark typical of the dry black humor that suffuses Yuri Arabov’s screenplay.
There are no new revelations in this portrayal of an arrogant madman and his sycophants, and though impressive at first, Sokurov’s glacial treatment, with its deliberately soft-focus look, pales after a while. Yet the director’s rigorously theatrical approach does succeed at times in creating a strange, isolated world.
Sokurov cast Russian actors in all the roles and then dubbed them into German (the well-known German actress Eva Mattes provides the voice of Braun). It’s an unwieldy procedure, but seamlessly handled. Rufanova makes Braun attractively youthful, vivacious and at times quite flirtatious, though she remarks at one point that “loving a genius is like trying to love the sun or the moon.”
In this domestic setting, Mosgovoi’s Fuhrer isn’t a very imposing character; a mother fixation is suggested by the prominence of her photograph on his bedroom wall. Pic’s title refers to an idol worshipped by ancient cultures.
“Moloch” is specialized fare, but probably too hermetic for all but the most devoted fans of this exceedingly original, yet perhaps rather self-important, auteur.