"Cenotaph": on the way to the depths

Elena Jasiūnaitė
2013 November 10 d.

In his films, director, author of sixteen documentaries, winner of a "Felix", the European Academy Award for the best European documentary film, recipient of the National Culture and Art Prize, Audrius Stonys loves to travel. He travels along the foggy roads ahead through the woods, up - to the sky, deep - under the water. Through the worlds, often invisible, but always – one even becomes amazed – existing right here, nearby.  And he always travels with a human being and into the human being. No exceptions are also with this, the seventeenth full feature documentary film by Audrius Stonys, "Cenotaph".

Those who have at least some interest in A. Stonys' work, probably have already heard or read about the twists of the film plot, so, there is nothing to hide. Origins of the peculiar story, in which lies the beauty of the paradox of the initial concept of this film, date back to the Second World War, when occupations pass one after the other. One farmer who became immersed into the whirl of the historical absurdity, in Utena district buried bodies of three soldiers - two Russians and one German - in a single grave. Next to the grave, he planted an oak, in order not to forget the burial place. And then kept silence for a long time.  The secret that had been kept for several decades was pulled into the light by the farmer's son, because, he says, those dead - still are the same people, and they should be buried as befits.  And so, in the summer of 2011, armed with the right ammunition, the entire crew of the film started digging under the roots of an old oak tree.  They search, they dig, they find.  It remains only to bury.  That's, it would seem, the whole "documentation".  However, it is obvious that for the director not the dramaturgic intrigue and the viewer's amusement (well, it's so popular to complain about the "predictable plot") are important in the film.  The film plot is just an excuse to "dig" towards the roots (they do not have to belong to a tree necessarily). The film by A. Stonys is a look back at a human being, at his values, worldview, bond with the nature, contemplation about the simple, "grounded" things that are inseparable from the everyday life.  After all - it is a means to talk about the history that is still existing close to us (because remembering would still hurt), its continuation and its links with the present.

Journey of the "Cenotaph" begins with the shots of an archaeologist, who is assembling from individual pieces the excavated skull of a warrior. Soon, however, they are replaced by the images of a long tunnel with an oak visible in the distance.  Unreal, sacred, mythical images.  And like this - throughout the entire film: realistic everyday life is regularly replaced by existential being, monotonous waving of spades - by the harmony of images captured by the cinematographer Audrius Kemežys and music by the composer Giedrius Puskunigis. From the roots of the oak, the camera moves towards the underground, runs along the dense forest paths and catches the sun. It is meditative and it involves - so the purified cinematic language of A. Stonys is born, for which the verbal intervention in some cases is not even necessary.  The film narrative pace is slow and even. Even the scene of the discovery of the bones does not make any larger "waves" - again showing that self-discovery is definitely not the cornerstone. However, the contents of the film does not sink in the nebulae of the poetic cinema.  Director raises questions and does not offer unambiguous answers. Even if the task would be the simplest (and directly related to the contents of the film) - to calculate how much of the "enemy" is left in those bones laid under the oak roots.

Nature which has sheltered bodies of the unknown soldiers, to the images of which the camera controlled by A. Kemežys keeps coming back – is Tarkovsky-like – live and spontaneous. Here are ants sorting out a dead dragonfly, and a grass snake wriggling under the oak roots.  Greenery – is growing, and altering the landscape so that it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine the location of the bodies.  And the plant roots are already firmly sunk into the excavated bones, as if taking to themselves for eternity what is not supposed to be in the land of the living.

Like the soldiers buried under the oak, participants appearing in the A. Stonys' film are unnamed (those few formal introductions in the background are just incidental).  The farmer and his son's story thus as if acquire pure abstracted form - it raises beyond the "one family" story, it becomes infinitive - how many of such stories passed into silence, how many bones of unknown soldiers still lie somewhere forgotten?  And the hero of the film, son of the farmer, the "culprit" of the idea – is just a man. Simple, observing the traditions, appreciating others, having the same human goal - to find and to bury. Those lying under the oak roots are not enemies to him, but the dead people who fell behind and were unable to return home.

About the weight of history reminds also one of the scenes that concluded the search for identity of the soldiers – a few minutes in the Berlin archives trying to find out about the possibilities to identify the German soldier.  However, here also the dialogue is "killed" by the image - the cameraman is running after the speaking scholars through the narrow corridors of the archives.  And on the sides - cards, cards, cards.  Each of them – a dead soldier. Successfully returned, found, and those not yet. In this case, the film itself became a Cenotaph. For those who did not come back.