ponedjeljak, 17. veljače 2014.

Aleksej German - Trudno byt bogom (2014), Khrustalyov, mashinu! (1998)

HARDtoBEaGOD-actorLeonidYarmolnik-Photo7m copy

Dok iščekujemo čini se genijalan Teško je biti bog (svojevrsni SF-Rubljov, prema romanu braće Strugacki) lani preminulog Germana, [update: stigao je:]


evo njegova Hrustaljova (prema priči Josifa Brodskog).


 



Khrustalyov, My Car!

by

One of the most disturbing Russian films of all time, Khrustalyov, mashuni (Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998) provides the audience with a firsthand experience of the madness, paranoia and absurdity that pervaded Moscow during the final days of Stalin’s regime. Seven years in the making, Alexei German’s angry masterpiece is an extraordinary example of cinematic modernism and a visceral interrogation of the calamity of the Stalinist era.
The film is set over a few days in February 1953, during a notorious anti-Semitic campaign, the so called “Doctor’s Plot” – Stalin’s paranoid concoction that accused a group of prominent Jewish doctors of conspiring to murder the Soviet leadership. Yuri Klenski (Yuriy Tsurilo) plays an impressive, burly, shiny-headed high-ranking Red Army officer and a leading Moscow brain surgeon. He rules over his raucous extended family in their cramped apartment as he reigns over his staff at the hospital. With his shiny buttons, big moustache, broad smile and powerful hands he is dictator of his domain with an enormous sexual appetite that is tended to in his office by a nurse. But in those times, even big men could fall. When Klenski sees a “double of himself” at the hospital being prepared in the enema ward, he becomes instantly aware that he is being followed by Stalin’s secret police in their latest roundup of Jewish doctors. He escapes to the countryside, but a day later he is arrested for being a participant in the “Doctor’s Plot”. The secret police interrogate him. He is tortured and then on the way to jail he is brutally raped in a “Soviet Champagne” van before being sent off to Siberia. As soon as he arrives, he is ordered to return to Moscow by Beria, the head of the Secret Police, to save the Great Leader. When he arrives at Stalin’s country estate, Klenski finds the Generalissimo lying shrivelled on soiled sheets with no medical attention, dying and in pain. He is clearly there to provide a semblance of medical expertise when nothing more can be done. Klenski massages Stalin’s bloated gut, trying to relieve the pressure. Beria is keen to complete the proceedings and is quick to close Stalin’s eyes and pronounces him dead. Beria then kisses Klenski, opens the door and calls out triumphantly to his chauffeur, “Khrustalyov, my car!” These are the first words uttered of the post-Stalinist period. Klenski is, surprisingly, free…
Loosely adapted by Alexei German and his wife Svetlana Karmalita from the dissident poet Joseph Brodsky’s story “In a Room and a Half”, Khrustalyov, My Car! is partly founded in history but largely based on the filmmaker’s memory of growing up. The plot is not difficult to follow, but the meaning and significance is overwhelming and elusive due to the film’s fragmentary visual logic and maddening detail, incongruous connections and hysterical tone. The viewer is purposefully disorientated while following fragments and dead-ends at a dizzying speed and through mumbled snatches of dialogue. As if in a nightmare, there is no clear sense of what is going on; whose perspective we are viewing the action from and how it all fits together. The viewer is often placed in the cramped interiors of communal spaces where bits of private lives shrilly spill out, with no explanation given as to what is actually occurring. The language is vulgar and human relations are brutal. It is a searing interrogation of the impact of Stalinism on the people that gives a taste for the paranoia and psychosis of the time. The film reconstructs the savagery of the era that the director claims as a metaphor “for the terrible psychological trauma of national anal rape by the state, by tsars and by Bolsheviks” (1).
Khrustalyov, My Car! is a film about the vagaries of power. One minute Klenski is given fellatio by a nurse, the next he is being raped by prisoners, and then moments later he is rehabilitated and summoned to tend to the Great Leader. Stalin’s almighty power is omnipotent but his body is crumpled and his gut extended. He is not granted a final breath but an extended fart as Klenski massages his stomach. The symbolism is fecal, as the once great leader is reduced to dying in his own shit as a hysterical nurse tries to claim that she had just changed him. This is a vicious denunciation of Stalinism and the violence that it propagated throughout society, where one man bashes another before himself being brutalised by a third in an endless, fetid cycle.
Deliciously filmed in a high contrast deep black-and-white the film ranges from the beautiful snow filled streets of Moscow to the inky-black night, shiny black leather and the cruising “Black Maria” KGB cars. It is full of long takes and a roving, unpredictable camera capturing crowded interiors, coughing and spluttering, and the stench of excrement and foul food. The experience is disconcerting and is fuelled by a cacophonous soundtrack and a subjective camera that crafts the stuff of paranoid nightmares. German’s filmmaking is a search for new forms, experimental strategies of non-narrative-based cinema. The film has been variously described as Felliniesque and certainly the madcap quarrelsomeness of Amarcord (1973) is an influence. Yet to me it appears more like a dark version of Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995), with its macabre re-visioning of major historical events, absurd connections and frantic energy.
It is interesting to note that a number of the cast and crew who worked on Khrustalyov, My Car! are German’s long-term collaborators on his often drawn-out projects. German started work on the film in 1992, but with the financial crisis that dominated post-Soviet Russia ran into financing difficulties soon after. Miraculously he finished his film, completing it for 1998 Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or but met with mass audience walkouts. It did win the 1999 Russian Guild of Film Critics Awards as the Best Film and German won Best Director before becoming an elusive cult classic.
German is an enigmatic figure of Russian cinema. In a career spanning more than 40 years, he is celebrated for his Stagnation era films: two war dramas, the remarkable Proverka na dorogakh (Trial on the Road, 1971) and Dvadtsat dney bez voyny (Twenty Days Without War, 1977), and the popular Moy drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1986). His style is personal, neo-realist and anti-establishment. All of his films are about a meticulously recreated past but filtered through fantasy and personal recollections (some based on the stories written by his father, Yuri German). Like his contemporary, actor and director Nikita Mikhalkov, German comes from Soviet royalty. His father attended Stalin’s banquets and was a celebrated novelist and screenwriter. Unlike Mikhalkov, Alexei German did not make nationalistic or commercial films preferring to remain a director who swam against the tide. Both directors made a film about Stalin’s terror. Mikhalkov’s Utomlennye solntsem (Burnt by the Sun, 1995) is a sultry Chekhovian tale of the melodramatic downfall of a Soviet hero that upholds the idea of the essential beauty of the land and the people, pointing only to the excesses of the Leader. In contrast, German’s film demonstrates that no matter how big and burly, a Soviet hero could be easily destroyed by the broader society of debased, hungry and terrified wolves. Whereas Mikhalkov has made numerous films and occupied a leading position in the film industry, German’s status is one that can be compared favourably to Andrei Tarkovsky and Kira Muratova. Writing in Film Comment, Anton Dolin stated that for “many Russian critics, cinephiles, and viewers German is their national cinema’s foremost figure after Tarkovsky. Others insist that, in fact, he is more important and more original” (2).
On the 21 February 2013, German passed away in St Petersburg. His final project was the long awaited adaptation of the Strugatskii Brothers’ 1964 science fiction novel, Hard to be a God, titled Trudno byt bogom (History of the Arkanar Massacre). He began the project in 1968 in a veiled response to the Prague Spring. Like much of his work it was an allegory of Stalinism, but set on another planet. Without government funding, he had been working on it sporadically over the past decade with recent rumours that it had become an allegory of the Putin era. The film tells the story of a historian who is sent to a planet that bears a strong resemblance to Earth during the Middle Ages. There he must monitor the brutal events but without getting too involved and changing the fate of history. It is reputedly in the final stages of the audio-mix and set to be released soon. It appears that his filmmaker son, Alexei German Jr, will complete his father’s film.
German’ final completed film, Khrustalyov, My Car! is a difficult masterpiece but one that provides a sense of the psychology of the Stalinist era like no other, by a director who dedicated his life to struggling against the effects of totalitarianism.

Endnotes

  1. “German o Khrustalyovye: Interview with the Alexei German”, youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-WUiwJiF9A.
  2. Anton Dolin, “The Strange Case of Russian Maverick Aleksei German”, Film Comment 2012: http://www.filmcomment.com/article/the-strange-case-of-russian-maverick-aleksei-german
- sensesofcinema.com/






Hard to be a god: will Alexei German’s long-awaited final film secure his place among the greats?
Andrei Kartashov

Hard to be a god: will Alexei German’s long-awaited final film secure his place among the greats?



Every year for the last 15 years the most anticipated Russian film has been the same: Hard to Be a God, a grandiose fresco depicting a fictional medieval kingdom in outer space, directed by Alexei German. German (the g is hard, as in good), who is considered by many to be the most important Russian filmmaker of the last thirty years, did not live to see today's premiere at Rome Film Festival. Although pre-production started in 1998, it took ten years to wrap on shooting and a further five years to edit and dub the already legendary picture. One reason for this extraordinarily slow process is, perhaps, that German had to develop his own method of filmmaking: he had charged himself with the task of making a film unlike any other.
And he succeeded: Hard to Be a God is brutal and visceral, visually and aurally dense, with a loose narrative thread and unheroic protagonist. It is, essentially, cinema reinvented: if you try and play the good old film critic game of “compare this to another director” the only filmmaker that springs to mind is German himself.
Maybe this is why German is so little known outside his home country. While he was developing his own style, Russian cinema came to be associated with a certain kind of storytelling: thanks to Andrei Tarkovsky, Russian films are expected to be slow, rigorous and abstract. German was never a part of this — or any other – trend. Neither did a movement ever form around him, perhaps due to the extreme complexity of his style and method. His influence is, however, traceable in the work of his son, darling of Venice Film Festival Alexei German Jr, chernukha king Alexei Balabanov, or Ilya Khrzhanovsky, who is now working on Germanesque period piece Dau. The media crowd is inclined to classifications and hierarchies, but German was too big and awkward to fit in any category, and hierarchies were something he fought against throughout his work.
The son of a celebrated author, German belonged to the Soviet aristocracy. He launched his career in cinema as an assistant director before quickly making his own debut, The Seventh Companion (1967). The Lenfilm studio assigned experienced director Grigory Aronov to supervise the young German — this collaboration resulted in a perfectly ordinary Soviet film that the mature German would never consider truly his own. At the time the important thing was that German had passed his exam and could work on his own.
hard to be a god
That’s when the problems started. Adapted by German from his father’s novella, Trial on the Road (1971) was a war film set in 1942 in Nazi-occupied western Russia. The topic was sensitive and any deviation from the official canon was very unwelcome; German deviated. The protagonist Alexander Lazarev is too ambivalent – a former POW and collaborator who joins a partisan unit to live down his treason. The ingenuous partisans’ leader is too unsophisticated, the political commissar (played by Tarkovsky favourite Anatoly Solonitsyn) too unlikeable. The highly conventionalised genre demanded a hero, not these imperfect humans who deliver their lines in a stammer, not the usual elevated eloquence. Eschewing cliches, German tried to build the big picture from details, not story – after a while you might forget the ending, but you won’t forget that famous shot of a jammed gun thrown on the ground continuing to fire as the snow around it sizzles, melts and boils. Or the opening sequence showing prisoners wading through a cart road – black figures against white snow, an early example of German’s distinctive contrastive monochrome. However, Soviet censors weren’t impressed by German’s experimentation: accused of “de-glorification” and “the distortion of history”, Trial on the Road was banned from release.
hard to be a god
German was given another chance and in 1976 he completed Twenty Days without War. Once again set in the wartime, the new film was adapted from a book by Stalin Prize-winning writer Konstantin Simonov. Yuri Nikulin, a famous funnyman from Leonid Gaidai’s screwball comedies, stars as an untypically serious character, a military journalist – round glasses on his nose, sadness in his eyes – who goes to Central Asia on leave. Again, he’s no hero, but this time German goes even further than in Trial on the Road: not only is there no hero in this war film, but, as the title suggests, the war itself is gone too. Nikulin’s character is an observer of a series of otherwise disjointed episodes. Along the way he listens to a fierce ten-minute monologue from a strange travelling companion; in Tashkent, he visits an evacuated theatre, witnesses the shooting of a naive war film, a rally and the routines of the home front. Even in his short romantic relationship with a local actress he remains passive.
Still, Twenty Days at least had a central story, which wasn’t the case with My Friend Ivan Lapshin (completed in 1982, released in 1984 after several cuts enforced by the censors). In Russian, there is only one word for “story” and “history”; German is now concerned with the latter, not the former. The very idea of history is questioned. What is history: a chronicle of Party conventions, Stalin speeches and new power plants? Or the lives of simple people in a Russian Anytown? Lapshin is designed as a remembrance of the 1930s, and like any reminiscence it mingles the significant and the insignificant. Even if we have a central character – a police officer played by non-star Ivan Boltnev – and lots of incident, including a crime investigation and a love triangle, none of these count as big events or plot twists in this scattershot narrative. The story is dominated by the meticulous recreation of the past, constructed from occasional details, characters, and casual conversations off-screen. The period itself is brought back to life.
hard to be a god
With the advent of perestroika and glasnost, Trial on the Road was finally released, and all three of German’s solo films were showcased in western Europe. The end of censorship also made it possible for German to proceed with a long-planned project, a picture about Stalin’s purges. Khrustalyov, My Car, released in 1998 after seven years of production hell, follows a highly ranked military surgeon – a moustachioed bon vivant of gargantuan proportions – who is taken by the secret police, then suddenly released and brought to Stalin’s deathbed. Here again, the story is blurred with dozens of people and myriad objects that fill long, deep focus wide shots (German abandons close-ups altogether); the frame and the dialogue track are so dense that neither eye nor ear can take it in whole. If Lapshin was a life recreated, then Khrustalyov is bigger than life: its hyperrealism turns it into a grotesque, revealing the feel of the epoch’s nightmarish chaos. For German, it was a way to take revenge on grim Soviet history by turning it into an absurdist dance macabre – Stalin here is a repulsive, bedridden old man who appears on a screen for five minutes, lying in his own excrement. Ironically, it is not the generalissimo but his faceless driver (whom we never see) who gets a credit in the film’s title. A casual phrase snapped out by Interior Minister Lavrenty Beria as he leaves the dead tyrant becomes a symbol of the end of an era.
hard to be a god 2
Met with booing, walkouts and very few favourable reviews, Khrustalyov’s premiere in Cannes was a disaster. Perhaps the festival press weren’t prepared for German’s bizarre filmmaking; after some reflection the French were more supportive and even offered the director an official apology a year later. Maybe now is the time for another, wider re-evaluation of German’s work, even though his latest film will be shown at the second-tier Rome festival, not Cannes or Venice.
Nevertheless, Hard to Be a God is sufficiently extraordinary to prompt such a rethinking wherever it is shown. It is set in the fictional kingdom of Arkanar, on a distant planet that resembles medieval Europe. An anthropologist from future Earth lives on the planet under the cover identity of noble Don Rumata – he, from his thirty colleagues, was assigned for this expedition to witness and examine the Renaissance that they presume is imminent. However, things don’t go as envisioned by the armchair theorists. Instead Arkanaran intellectuals and innovators, scarce as they are, become the victims of a campaign of persecution aimed at completely wiping out the literate; subsequently, after an order of totalitarian monks invade the country and seize power, Arkanar lapses into outright bloodshed. Rumata just wanders around; he is an observer and mustn’t get involved.
hard to be a god 2
It would seem impossible to exceed Khrustalyov’s visual and aural complexity, but Hard to Be a God does just that, proving that 15 years in production weren’t spent in vain (the inordinate length of production time stems partly from financial difficulties, but the director’s perfectionism also played a role). Having achieved ultimate sophistication in resurrecting a world of memory, German took on the task of creating his own universe from scratch. True, the script for Hard to Be a God was adapted by German and his wife Svetlana Karmalita from the novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – whose work had also served as a source material for Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker) and Alexander Sokurov (Days of Eclipse) – but the plot, as usual, takes second billing to the elaborate visualisation of this world. “Every shot is, essentially, an artwork, a painting,” Alexei German Jr told me (the younger director handled post-production after his father’s death). “If you see a character in background, you can be sure that their costume is worked out to the tiniest detail.”
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In Thomas Sherred‘s short story E for Effort a movie director uses a time machine to shoot historical films and win praise for his realistic style. Hard to Be a God might raise suspicions that just such machine came into possession of German: the feel is almost documentary — sometimes extras even look into the camera, breaking the fourth wall. The credibility is achieved not only through costumes, sets and props, but also through the extremely graphic and unglamorous imagery: the streets are filled with knee-high mud, vultures circle around gallows, corpses rot in ditches. All this is almost palpable, and when characters sniff at the stench of a medieval city or dip their hands into the sloppy mud — which they do a lot — you can almost smell it. “My father wanted his film to be wider than the frame, to go beyond the screen with odours and tactile sense,” German Jr told me. “Generally speaking, he tried to create a sort of 3D film: meaning not the actual technology as such, but rather the effect of immersion into the world he depicted.” At times it goes past realism: the grotesque, disfigured faces, the emphatic ugliness and the sense of claustrophobia (the camera, though in a constant movement, always operates in a small area) evoke the eerie paintings of Hieronymous Bosch.
hard to be a god 2
“This film has been made without any compromises or conventions,” German Jr continues. “Our idea of what the Middle Ages were like is to great extent formed by movies, by that Ridley Scott crusader film and the like. There are dozens and hundreds of movies that offer a retouched, Hollywood version of the Dark Ages, with all those white garments, clean faces and even teeth.” One might argue that Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood aren’t the most blatant examples of varnishing the history, but indeed, after Hard to Be a God they look like glossy photoshoots. Not to mention the fact that Scott presented the titular hero of Robin Hood not only as a noble-hearted outlaw, but also as some sort of anachronistic political activist advocating for democracy. Unlike him, German’s Rumata (portrayed by grizzly-bearded Leonid Yarmolnik, an actor mostly known for his TV appearances – another unusual casting decision) remains passive for the bulk of the film’s three hours. Being a future Terran, in Arkanar Rumata is almost omnipotent; he knows everything and can do anything. Except he can’t: he’s a powerless god in shiny armour, allowed, at most, to punch someone in the face to prevent a killing, or to teach hygiene to his nobleman friends. Both to no avail.
After abandoning a heroic figure (Trial on the Road), and big history (Twenty Days without War), then desacralising Stalin (Khrustalyov, My Car), in his last film German challenged the ultimate level of the universal hierarchy – God. Maybe it was meant to be his last film? In fact, quite the contrary is true – it was to have been first. German completed a script based on the Strugatskys’ book as early as 1968 and was ready to commence pre-production when Soviet troops entered Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague uprising, making the plot, which features a military invasion, unworkable. The events in Prague abolished the last hopes of the generation of the Sixties – the young liberal post-Stalin Soviet intelligentsia that the Strugatsky brothers, like German, belonged to. The novel Hard to Be a God, published in 1964, had anticipated this disappointment – like any sci-fi, it was in a way a metaphor for the current situation.
“Like any Russian intellectual, my father was in a permanent inner dialogue with power, the time, the country,” says German Jr “For him, Hard to Be a God was a film about Russia. And about the search for a meaning, sense, without knowing if there is any.” In the universe of the Strugatskys’ work there was sense and meaning – in the novel Rumata came from a utopian Earth where a communist society had been created, and his aim was to push Arkanar to the bright future; in the film, in contrast, Rumata is a desperate man who doesn’t really know his purpose. German and Karmalita also changed the ending: in the novel, Rumata goes back to Earth. The final shots of the film reprise the opening scene of Trial on the Road – a caravan drags through a snowy landscape. It is Rumata, leaving Arkanar, going nowhere. -
calvertjournal.com/



Now it’s been delivered, the last work of the late Aleksei German. On Wednesday, November 13th, 10:30 a.m., during the Festival internazionale del film di Roma, his 14-years-in-the-making Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt’ bogom)—for some time called History of the Arkanar Massacre (Istorija Arkanarskoj rezni)—got its first public screening. It is 170 minutes long, black and white, beautiful, brilliant, and like a message from a different time—past or future, who knows, especially with this project.
Therewith, a long wait ended. Whenever a possible line-up of an upcoming Cannes or Venice (never Berlin…) was discussed over the last three or four years, someone was sure to mention Hard to Be a God, if always in a tone that implied “Does anybody know what’s going on with that production?” Begun in 2000, the shooting was only finished in 2006; different edits were screened semi-secretly for trusted friends and opinion-makers since circa 2008 or ’09; around 2010, one heard that it was by now only a matter of finishing the sound, with German working on minuscule clings and clangs. Of course, for each of these stories there was at least one that suggested otherwise—which is to say that rumours abounded, as becomes an endeavour hors les normes by just about any standard. Hard to Be a God would be nothing less than an auteur super-production: a monumentally sprawling science-fiction film that sure as hell wouldn’t give a flying fuck about audience expectations.
Given the previous culmination point of German’s career, Khrustalyov, My Car! (Chrustaljov, mašina!, 1998)—which, as per legend, moved Martin Scorsese to exclaim in front of his fellow Cannes jurors, “This film is so extraordinary even I don’t understand it!” (please, please, please God, let this anecdote be true!)—it was understood by everyone with even a remote interest in the master and his vision that this new one would be…well, more, in every sense possible. And as if that wasn’t enough, talk about German’s health soon started to make the rounds, which led to even more rumours—one of which claimed that the prolonged post-production process had nothing to do with the necessities of the film and all with its creator’s fear of unveiling what he knew would be his terminal work. German, so the story went, knew that expectations, therewith pressures, were so enormous that nothing less than a redefinition of film art would do; and not wanting to experience again the muted puzzlement, if not outright hostility, which had greeted Khrustalyov in Cannes, he deliberately tried to turn Hard to Be a God into a posthumous work. (Of other pressures, like a subsidizing Russian government ever more pissed off by the distended production—even to the point of sending German an ultimatum—we don’t want to talk; obviously, German couldn’t have cared less whether Putin was grumpy or not.) Looking at the way things went, with German dying during the very last stages of sound work (post-synchronization, to be exact) and his wife and son seeing to the film’s finalization, this story sounds somewhat less like a cinephile’s wet dream. Only in Russia…
What lends these tales even more credibility is the fact that Hard to Be a God occupied German’s entire filmmaking life—literally, as he had actually contemplated adapting the eponymous 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky for his debut feature. Although German’s first draft screenplay for Hard to Be a God is dated 1968—by which point he had already done one film, The Seventh Companion (Sedmoj sputnik, 1967), in tandem with the slightly more experienced Grigorij Aronov (who had a long career at Lenfilm as a hack for all seasons)—some suggest that German started thinking about adapting the novel immediately after its publication. If that sounds a tad far-fetched, consider that German seemed to have been able to carry around choice images, sounds, scenes, stories with him for decades: just take a look at Vladimir Vengerov’s 1965 masterpiece Workers’ Settlement (Rabočij poselok), on which German worked as considerably more than Vengerov’s assistant, and check out how strongly several of the scenes therein foreshadow the feel and rhythm of German’s later My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Moj drug Ivan Lapšin, 1982/84).
Still, Hard to Be a God would likely have been a very different film had German made it in 1968. Staying with the novel for a moment: Hard to Be a God was part of a whole cycle of works by the Strugatskys in which past, present, and future intersect in various ways. The cycle had begun with their seminal 1962 short novel Escape Attempt (Popytka k begstvu), in which (to tell the story from the end) a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp, in his death throes, makes a leap into the future, where he accompanies two cosmonauts on a voyage to a planet ruled by a clique of medieval fascists that has enslaved portions of the planet’s citizenry and condemned them to a very particular kind of penal servitude: they have to figure out how to activate the vehicles left behind by yet another, more highly developed civilization. Compared to this, the set-up of Hard to Be a God is almost simple: here, a future civilization discovers another Earth-like planet whose inhabitants are essentially the same as they themselves were centuries ago. The terrestrials secretly send some of their own amongst the alien barbarians, officially to collect data about this newly discovered people, but in reality to see whether they themselves might regress to an earlier stage of development. Further, these observers are strictly forbidden to make any use of their advanced knowledge, no matter the horrors and miseries they witness and however easy it might be for them to help.
It’s quite possible that, had the film been made in 1964 or ’68, it might have underlined the novel’s political allegory more forcefully than it does now, if only because it would have felt more immediate, even urgent in the ’60s, what with all those recently decolonized (or still decolonizing) peoples importing communism, socialism, or some such in order to give their underdeveloped nations a socio-evolutionary leap of several decades, even centuries. (Not to mention all the nations, starting with the USSR, that had by then already embarked upon that experiment, with decidedly different if always mixed results.) No wonder, also, that the USSR-led invasion of Czechoslovakia nixed any possibility of doing this story for a very long time: it wasn’t until the later stages of Perestroika that Peter Fleischmann, one of Young German Cinema’s more interesting auteurs, was able to mount the first screen adaptation of the novel, the massive West German-Soviet-Swiss co-production Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein (1990).
A most intriguing moment that was, as 1) two years earlier, Aleksandr Sokurov had made Days of Eclipse (Dni zatmenija, 1988), based very, very loosely on another Strugatsky work, the 1976 Definitely Maybe (Za milliard let do konca sveta; literally, “A Billion Years Before the End of the World”); 2) one year later, Ardak Armirkulov’s epochal debut, The Fall of Otrar (Gibel’ Otrara, 1991), whose screenplay was co-written by German, went by almost unnoticed (it’s striking now to note the similarities between that film and Hard to Be a God—looks as if Otrar had provided German with an opportunity to try out some ideas and images for his own grand project); 3) FRG cinema witnessed a veritable science-fiction boom: alongside the Fleischmann film, Niklaus Schilling’s The Spirit (Der Atem, 1988), Volker Schlöndorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1989), and Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991) were also released, all to rather chilly receptions. (Fleischmann and Schilling, actually, faced ferocious, kind-of career-killing shit-storms, while Wenders at least got his behemoth maudit rehabilitated through the release of a five-hour director’s cut that is indeed much better than the original three-hour version, and maybe his best feature film since the 1969 Summer in the City (Dedicated to the Kinks)). At some point, a curious cinefille unimpressed by received wisdom or cultural orthodoxy will look at this corpus of half-forgotten films and see the brightness of Young German Cinema’s twilight; and as we’re talking clusters, Hard to Be a God gleaned an unexpected film-cultural hipness during its post-production with the release of two more Strugatsky adaptations, Konstantin Lopušanskij’s stupidly overlooked gem The Ugly Swans (Gadkie Iebedi, 2006) and Fedor Bondarčuk’s over-ambitious two-part demi-disaster Dark Planet (Obitaemyy ostrov, 2009), along with a restoration of Grigorij Kromanov and Jüri Sillart’s Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (“Hukkunud Alpinisti” hotel, 1979).
Getting back to Fleischmann, Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein met with similar criticism as now faces Hard to Be a God: too nasty, wallowing in mud, dirt, scum, gunk, shit, suffering, and horror—which is like saying that Fleischmann and German shouldn’t have taken their source so seriously. Actually, the Strugatskys were quite concerned with this aspect when they wrote the novel. From their earliest existing treatments for the book, when it was supposed to be a rambunctiously rustic Dumas-esque adventure yarn targeted partly at children, they wanted to imbue their Dark Age world with an historically appropriate kind of physical unpleasantness: lice, stinking hair, flaky skin, noisy farting, feces, and puddles of urine wherever one stepped, relentlessly unconcerned couplings in broad daylight, and, of course, public executions of the most gruesome kind. The political urgency came later, (almost) against at least Arkady’s stated intentions, as a result of the brutal cultural political changes of 1962 and ’63, when Khrushchev kicked off a campaign against modern(ist) art, painting and music in particular, but also cinema, with Marlen Chuciev’s Lenin’s Guard (Zastava Il’iča, 1963/’65/’89) as its most famous victim. (Even so, the political critique did not come across with the force the Strugatskys originally intended: Don Reba, the sinister ruler holding the reins of terror, was originally called Don Rebija, which is an anagram of Berija.) In the beginning, however, there was derring-do and doo-doo—and German took the latter so seriously that quite a few walked out of Hard to Be a God because they simply couldn’t take it any longer.
By so doing, the walkers-out were actively affirming the film’s purpose. Hard to Be a God is very much a work of suffering and endurance, a still life in motion; in contrast to Fleischmann, German ignores more or less every opportunity for super-production grandstanding. There are almost no “big” moments in the commonly understood sense: few and far apart are the shots of masses of extras, and story-wise essentially zilch in the way of spectacle, carnage, and (melo)drama, which also includes a love story that is quite central for Fleischmann but little more than sadly sentimental humanist decorum for German. Instead, scene after scene, plan-séquence after plan-séquence, shows Don Rumata, the observer from the culturally advanced world, stumbling through cramped, barely lit spaces, with strangers, allies or foes, passing by and blocking the view, often chancing a glance towards the audience if not staring directly into the camera.
Those who remember Khrustalyov will feel immediately at home, even though Hard to Be a God doesn’t (seem to) get as lost in swooning movement and motions as did its predecessor, and with good reason. While Khrustalyov has a clearly defined historical setting (the early 1950s of the “Doctors’ Plot” and the death of Stalin) yet plays in a borderland between reality and remembrance/dream, with strange sights and sounds, impossible-to-explain presences, and will-o’-the-wisp-like images from back-then intruding into the film’s here and now, Hard to Be a God—where a man from a highly possible future walks through a cultural past that is also a physical present—is about being caught in a clearly circumscribed place and time, without the chance of escape offered by memories and reveries. Don Rumata is a prisoner of the past—not of history, as the doctor in Khrustalyov was, but quite literally that which is already behind him, those obstacles to human development his civilization has already overcome. He is walking through an all-too-real that-which-was, prohibited from using his knowledge and powers to help bring about a change that will happen eventually, so theory says, but only after certain developments have taken place. Thus impotent, he is doomed to fall back to a more atavistic stage, or rather worse: doomed to realize that any action he makes to alleviate suffering will be useless until change comes nigh, and in fact will only make matters worse. Hard to Be a God is a monstrous and strikingly Russian Orthodox huis clos, convinced that change will come but miserably resigned to the fact that nothing can be done to speed that escape from suffering. Which is to say that German not only still believes, but knows that above all we are frail and weak, even in our bravery. Neither God nor nature really wonders, let alone cares, about our hopes and desires—they simply, irrespectively deliver what will come. Fuck you, mankind, and be happy for what you’ve been given. Quite a final statement. -  Olaf Möller

There’s no getting around it: “Hard To Be A God” is one of the most consistently disgusting films ever made. On completion of some explanatory opening titles, the movie depicts a dank, grim, perpetually chilly and humid medieval world. A couple of extras are seen, splattered in mud, but on consideration, the viewer can’t be sure it’s mud. What came to mind for me was the immortal exchange from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” as two characters watch a spotless Arthur pass: “Must be a king.” “Why?” “Because he hasn’t got s**t all over him.”
In this movie, neither king-dom nor dukedom nor God-dom confers any such sort of privilege. Also, everyone in this movie has a horrible cold, because everyone has liquid or snot or some combination thereof dripping from his or her nose and/or is hocking up and spitting softball-sized wads of phlegm. It just never ends. I’m not even getting into the misshapen naked bodies, the mutilating mortal wounds suffered by characters throughout, the hung corpses festered with I can’t even tell you what, and, oh, the spilling intestines. You think maybe because it’s in black-and-white that it’s not gonna churn your stomach, but no: the integrity of the special effects is such that it’s likely that you’ll stop thinking they’re special effects after a while, and the unrelenting nature of the grotesque atmosphere is just too effective.
Sounds great, right? You can see why I gave it four stars. And yet I will insist: “Hard To Be A God,” the final film by the inspired Russian director Alexei German—a film he spent four decades planning and a dozen years making, a film he did not actually live to complete (post-production was handled by his widow and his son, both close longtime collaborators of the filmmaker)—is not only an unforgettable individual masterpiece but probably one of the capital-G Great Films. You’ll need a strong stomach and another kind of endurance to sit through it, as it’s nearly three hours long and is more than a little oblique in its approach to narrative (I know, it just keeps getting better!), but once it is over you know you’ve really had an experience. An experience very different from watching an average or even a very good conventional film.
Some background: Like his contemporary Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexei German was only able to make a handful of features in his career, which began in the ‘60s. His first solo directorial effort, 1971’s “A Trial On The Road,” is both one of his most accessible films and a persuasive piece of evidence that nobody does the war movie better than the Russians. Snow, stale and scarce cigarettes, random acts of violence and interludes of terror; “Road” has them all, and in spite of its “victory is ours” coda, this WWII chronicle got banned for 15 years. “Hard To Be A God” is more in the mode of German’s delirious 1998 “Khrustalyov, My Car,” in which a gregarious, hard-living doctor is subject to unspeakable humiliations during the last days of the Stalin regime. Stalin hangs over “Hard To Be A God” like a mordantly chortling specter.
The movie is adapted from a novel by Russian sci-fi masters Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (whose “Roadside Picnic” inspired Tarkovsky’s visionary, disagreeable “Stalker”). “Sci-fi? But didn’t you mention a ‘medieval’ setting?” is maybe what you’re asking. Indeed I did. The conceit of “God” is a rather pointedly allegorical one: Earth scientists have been secreted on a planet much like our own, one that is going through its own Middle Ages, and the movie tells the story of one such scientist who is powerless to stop the ruling class wipeout of what’s called the intelligentsia—that is, anyone among the population who can read or write. The focus of German’s movie is one such scientist, Don Rumata, played with admirable diligence and droll irony by Leonid Yarmolnik. He’s “disguised” as a nobleman who some inhabitants believe to be descended from a god. And in his real-life capacity as something close to a god, he’s appalled by the power plays going on around him, but helpless to stop it. 
D.R. is an unusual hero; he has a sybaritic insouciance that makes him a soulmate of the lead character of “Khrutalyov.” He’s a good man but not a particularly righteous or self-righteous one. As the casually vicious forces of darkness wreak havoc on the learned, he’s at first bemused, and also ill-advisedly confident; things can’t be that bad, he seems to be thinking quite often. The action is a little hard to follow at times because of the way German throws the viewer into it; more often than not the camera seems to function as an unseen observing character, and a lot of the actors will look directly into the lens, make some facial indications, or even speak to the camera. One finds oneself in a problematic relationship to the screen—am I supposed to talk back? And then there are the things in the frame getting in the way of what one is supposed to be looking at: hanging sausages, hanging bodies, all sorts of obstacles.
Behind them, though, is production design that is utterly convincing. The signal achievement of “Hard To Be A God” is its utterly, nightmarishly convincing simulation of a whole new world. The movie is in a sense a trip to hell, but the torture we witness is not doled out gratuitously. German cannot exorcise the torment of Stalinism from his consciousness; instead he uses art to communicate the reasons it existed and the way it felt for those victimized by it. “Hard To Be A God” is a fantastical examination of man’s inhumanity to man, and as replete as it is with persistent visceral disgust, it also pulses with intelligence, a mordant compassion, and yes, incredible wit. Its vision is so monstrously realized that even as it repulses, it makes almost any other film you would care to put next to it seem puny, silly, unnecessary. It is a demanding work, in every sense of the word. But it also gives back as much as it wants from you. -

The fact that this film took over a decade to make in itself doesn’t make it great, but it does go a long way in explaining how it managed to so fully realize such an elaborate and dauntingly grotesque mise-en-scène. Russian director Aleksei German began principal photography on this intricate, violent, disconcerting movie toward the end of 2000, and kept working on it until his death in February of 2013, ultimately leaving the final touches in the editing room to his his widow, Svetlana Karmelita and their son, Aleksei Jr. It’s a tough thing to watch at times, being a nearly constant barrage of human brutality and visceral filth shot in excruciatingly beautiful and haunting black and white by accomplished cinematographers Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko.
Loosely based on the Strugatsky Brothers’ (of Stalker fame) 1973 novel of the same name, Hard to Be a God leaves behind all but the bare essentials of the book, explaining via narration in its first couple of minutes that a group of scientists in the future have been sent to a planet much like Earth, that’s still in the middle of a protracted Dark Ages. These scientists have been sent to monitor the progress of that planet’s humanoid civilization, with strict orders not to interfere or help out in any way. After that curt introduction we’re launched into a virtually non-stop parade of different iterations of human cruelty, debasement, and despair as scientist Don Rumata (who the natives are convinced is the son of a God) travels from gross castle to gross castle.
Hard to Be a God is a challenging film insofar as it barely sustains a plot, latching onto what German felt to be the centrally interesting part of the Strugatsky Brothers’ story, namely, that it’s entirely possible that Earth’s renaissance was a fluke, and that given a slightly different set of circumstances, humanity on earth would be just as mired in an unknowing brutality that confounded any rational attempt to explain it. It’s a stark, unsettling and heartbreaking thing to watch, made all the more enthralling by the way German chose to construct his shots, with mud-covered people and objects bumping into the camera lens seemingly at random throughout, heightening its already firmly established sense of immersion. When we first meet Rumata, he’s wearing a curious-looking crystal pendant around his forehead, which we soon deduce to be a camera of sorts, indicating that all of the crazy stuff we’re seeing in front of us is being recorded by a silent accomplice of Rumata’s. It’s exceedingly difficult to describe just how relentless and quick-moving this movie and its scenes are. It’s also very hard not to find yourself wondering just how bad the gross stuff happening on screen probably would have smelled to the characters who had to live with it.
What strikes such a deafening note about this film is the absence of sentiment from its characters, whose lives are unquestionably terrible. The poor who are so used to being surrounded by shit that they’ll smear it over their faces for a laugh (which, oddly enough, happens to comprise one of the very first scenes in the film) have no idea that they could be anything more than what they are, which is profoundly disheartening. The parallels to post-soviet Eastern Europe are as subtle as they are devastating, and no one but German would understand so fully how ridding his film of coherent narrative only served to further drive his point home. Rumata’s sense of meaninglessness is pretty much the only thing you could rightly say is developed throughout the movie, as he’s faced with countless examples where he could greatly help, if only he made the choice to utilize the power of his cosmic position and knowledge.
In the end, our hero is just as mired in the incomprehensibly terrible circumstance that surrounds him as those denizens to whom he’s ostensibly so superior. Even though he has the wherewithal to leave the planet and its atrocious situation behind, he seems to entirely lack the drive to do it, being so thoroughly demoralized by what he’s experienced for years on end as the civilization he’s grown to care about completely negates any trace of humanity which he’d like to ascribe to it. The family German chose to end Aleksei’s film without much sense of resolution, which is fitting, since the central point running throughout Hard to Be a God is that resolution is impossible (at least for the inhabitants of the broken planet on which its set). German’s final opus is a terrifying and gorgeously realized thing, and worth watching every minute of. -

The future is mired in the muddy, muddy past in “Hard to Be a God,” Aleksei German’s full-contact, madly outré adaptation of the 1964 science-fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The film’s helter-skelter action takes place on another planet, but not some gleamingly advanced version of our own. On the parallel world of Arkanar, it’s still the Middle Ages, and the rabble spend their lives tramping through muck, surviving warring factions (or not), and apparently delighting in the total lack of sanitation.
Our guide is a prankish earthling, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik, a Russian television personality), although “guide” might be a strong word in the context of Mr. German’s nearly documentarylike brand of in-the-fray filmmaking. Rumata is one of several visiting scientists blending in as aristocrats, as the vital (and sparse) voice-over explains. His god’s-eye mission of benevolent oversight doesn’t shield him from the crackdowns being instigated by a mighty order of monks.
Yet this isn’t a lucid story of moves and countermoves among political forces, and the stranger in a strange land isn’t so much Rumata as it is the viewer. “Hard to Be a God” is a cinematic plunge into the warp, weft and squelch of another time, thrusting us along with Rumata’s wanderings: between his squalid chambers and various manor grounds, among soldiers and peasants and prisoners, amid puddles and flames, half-heard asides and yelps of pain.
The roiling setting alone enforces a medieval mind-set that feels genuine: brutal yet often jovially rambunctious and crude, pre-psychological in its sense of the cheapness of life and yet rich with local custom and detail. Our chaotic journey makes Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, Wrath of God” look like “Downton Abbey.” But historical power structures are being laid bare too. Mr. German’s work evokes the horrors of post-Communist disarray, and purges in any era, while underplaying the Strugatskys’ more liberating ruminations (and changing the ending).
This isn’t the first time the maverick Mr. German (who died in 2013, leaving his wife and son, a director, to finish this film’s postproduction) has delved into the daily ravages of war and oppression. Nor is the richly layered black-and-white film a stylistic departure, for it is the apotheosis of techniques in his films “Khrustalyov, My Car!” (1998) (perhaps its closest rival in seething intensity), “My Friend Ivan Lapshin” (1984) and even his hard-nosed 1971 war drama, “Trial on the Road.”
Always an insightfully dynamic framer of images, Mr. German choreographs both important and trivial events in the foreground and background in one big danse macabre. Here he pushes into something like Fellini vérité, with faces and swords and buttocks wheeled into and out of view, and people gawking into the camera. He enjoys coming up with effectively discomforting surprises; at one point, chicken legs dangle bafflingly before us.
But Mr. German also creates deep panoramas of finely etched beauty, which is part of what has earned the film justifiable comparisons to works by the painters Bruegel and Bosch, not to mention Dante (according to Umberto Eco). Mr. German drops a name or two himself, as when Don Rumata mischievously passes off Boris Pasternak’s poem, “Hamlet,” as his own. In the film, the poem refers to past Soviet censorship, which the filmmaker himself faced, as well as underscoring Rumata’s complex status as a performer with a duty.
All the planet’s his stage, but at the same time, you might wish for an intermission. Mr. German’s serpentine takes and dense sound design are relentless, and the tunnel vision of his close-up, cutless prowls can be exhilarating and exasperating over nearly three hours. There’s a fine line between immersing and drowning the viewer.
If Mr. German isn’t keen on explaining his source material, he does look at it with the glint of cynical experience. One crucial bit of dialogue — on the problems of paternalism — is restaged from a dinner scene in the novel, turned into a conversation with a scholar straining to urinate against a wall. Mr. German was just as stubborn in sticking to his personal vision (and revisions) as he was innovative in his storytelling, and he’s left behind a final opus that is hard to shake. -

On the fringes of movieland, there have always been filmmakers who identify (in Günter Eich's phrase) as being sand, not oil, in the gears of the world. Aleksei German, dead in 2013 at 74, could be thought of as this tribe's most extreme rock star, in his work-life and in the movies themselves. He only completed six films in a career that stretched over half a century of bureaucratic battles, Soviet recalcitrance, and production tumult, being ejected from Lenfilm after each project and seeing his work get censored. Just look at these movies — they are unique, maddened explosions of eccentric auteurist will, designed to drive the mezzobrows nuts.
It seemed for years that his final work, Hard to Be a God, was a movie the gods didn't want to see finished. Six years in production, eight in post-, still being tweaked when German died, the film might be the most defiant final kiss-off a filmmaker ever offered to the world. It's also, incredibly, the first of his films to get an actual release in American theaters.
Based on a sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (adaptees of Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexander Sokurov), Hard is set entirely in the rainy muck of another planet's Dark Ages, following closely behind (and sometimes through the eyes of) Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), an Earth-born scientist who'd come to the planet years earlier, and been taken as a god. (His legend revolves around how many enemies' ears he'd cut off, without killing a soul.) Stories are floated about translucent mine-workers and birds that steal silver, but we stay in the dark wallows with Rumata, who's alpha like a human rooster, raining coins on the rabble and dressing singularly in immaculate white.
Bulldozing around a Boschian maze of reeking ruins, animal parts, unruly fires, and deformed minions, Rumata is elliptically beset by intrigues, betrayals, and doubts about his godhood, most of which are only hinted at in the film's babbling shit-stream of post-dubbed dialogue. Eventually he's stalked by assassins. When his wild-child inamorata (Laura Pitskhelauri) is haphazardly taken out instead, Rumata finally arms up in an ungodlike manner ("God, if you exist," he mutters to himself, "stop me") and embarks on a climactic, but entirely unseen, massacre.
German's working title was The History of the Arkanar Massacre, but in three hours of spitting, fuming, up-your-nose mise-en-scène, such narrative clarity is not the priority. To evoke the movie's experience is to bust the ceiling on metaphors for mud, phlegm, and nausea; let's call it an epic lurch through the circle of the Inferno Dante left out, where we are buried chin-deep in wet manure. (You could think of it as Andrzej Zulawski doing John Cassavetes doing Terry Gilliam, but with a vengeance.) Characters constantly gab right into German's camera, as if it's Rumata, or someone else. There are so many ill-managed fires, swung swords, and thrown heaps of sludge that you worry for the health of the cast — who do not look as though they bathed during the entire six years of filming.
 German had always made movies as if a single scene or frame must be forced to contain three or four times as much raw stuff as it could handle; the evocation of life's massive chaos, in layers of action and in long roving takes, only allows story threads to weave in and out, briefly glimpsed and often boiling off-screen. His topical territory had until now been life under Stalin in all of its deranged tensions, and with the passage of decades each new film was twice as harried and combustible as that which preceded it. His last, Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), was by any measure a monster, a tyrannosaur in your head.
But Hard to Be a God goes further — it's a gob in your eye the size of a blimp.
Textually, the setting's brutalist conflation between the far future and the distant past makes the film timeless, an elusive fable told with the viscous immediacy of a life on the diseased edge of civilization. German may have even gone too far, and passed right over the edge of coherence. Without the progression of story or the thorny context of Stalinism, this ultimate Germanic assault may have been made for the sake of its exhausting textures alone. But what textures: No one wreaked mayhem like German, and the cataract of imagery (a walking scaffold carried on the shoulders of 50 noosed men, a killing field scavenged by children and dwarves) already threatens to make the rest of 2015 look like child's play. - Michael Atkinson
 
Exacting in its design and disorienting in its method, Hard to Be a God is a vision of civilization as a mud- and shit-streaked purgatory. Set on an alien planet in the thick of an unyielding pre-Renaissance squalor, the late Russian director Aleksei German's final masterpiece is a grueling three hours of roving depravity. Its protagonist (Leonid Yarmolnik) is a citizen of Earth sent to observe the progress of a planet called Arkanar, where he takes on the guise of an esteemed god called Don Rumata. His anthropological sojourn prevents him from interfering with the planet's progress, so Don Rumata takes the role of a largely passive observer, watching as this society destroys its university and murders its writers and intellectuals, while children peddle their eyeballs in the street.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this material comes from a work of speculative science fiction written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. The premise represents an utterly appropriate final film for German, whose works are almost always set just before decisive moments in his country's history. The director made just five other films in his career, which was beset with delays imposed by government authorities and production difficulties. His two most recent, 1985's My Friend Ivan Lapshin and 1998's Khrustalyov, My Car!, are, respectively, set on the eve of the Stalinist purges and in the days leading to the dictator's death. German's cinema, though, is only tangentially engaged with political machinations. They remain elusive to his characters, who are the functionaries, soldiers, artists, and communal dwellers reckoning with the rules and customs of a present that is always conditional.
In Hard to Be a God, the rules seem to be dwindling and the customs are long gone. The film collapses past and present, taking place 800 years in the future on a planet that subsists in a Hobbesian state of being. The intelligentsia hang from nooses in public squares, drenched in lard and bedecked with spangles. Indoors, there are mutterings of insurrection and squads of "Blacks" and "Greys"—the former guided by religion, the latter a band of foreign invaders—looking to take control of Arkanar. Both German's camera and Don Rumata have a fitful interest in wartime maneuverings, though, and are more inclined to roam around open halls teeming with filthy slaves and a clutter that results in a sort of makeshift shantytown. Hard to Be a God is willfully and easily distracted by petty arguments, tables of rotten food, and a seemingly endless cascade of bodily fluids.
The film's lucid images are surreal in their dimensionality. German's black-and-white compositions all seem to contain a dozen planes of action and intrigue, as passersby dangle meat, swords, and entrails in front of the camera without revealing their bodies. As the eye struggles to absorb these pictures, which are always in motion, their heavy contrasting has a curious leveling effect. It's as hard to distinguish blood, mud, and excrement as it is to identify many of Hard to Be a God's supporting characters, who may be armored in one scene and nude in the next. Simultaneously, the camera is engaged in an exercise with POV that's both alienating and democratizing: We become familiar with the perspective from Don Rumata's glistening, elaborate armor, but are just as often surprised to find the camera pull back from a minor character, or engaged in its own investigations. Actors stop to smirk at or talk to it, but the soundtrack might not include their voice.
Most of these techniques will be familiar to viewers familiar with German's work, which is choreographed with a Felliniesque social grandeur, but tethered to a neorealist's eye for detail and quotidian matters of social justice. There, communal apartments have rotating casts of characters joking and singing and drinking, but their grousing is about sugar rations and their pranks have fun with bureaucratic ineptitude. In Hard to Be a God, servants get their yuks from prodding exposed asses, and most of the grousing is about whether certain bodily odors should be equated with filth or impending death. Like Don Rumata, the viewer is a bystander to history repeating itself, willfully refusing to evolve. Late in the film, Don Rumata brings some art to Arkanar, but barely anyone hears it and no one appreciates it. That the most complex undertaking of German's career amounts to the ne plus ultra of gallows humor is a sad bit of commentary, but it ought to cement his reputation as a quintessential Russian filmmaker. -










ONE'S sympathies are all with Aleksei German. The Soviet director has had his troubles with his country's authorities; movies that he made 10 and 20 years ago have only recently been released in the West. His fourth and latest effort, ''My Friend Ivan Lapshin,'' which will be shown at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the New Directors/New Films series tonight at 8:30 and tomorrow at 6 P.M., is one of the first proscribed films to benefit from glasnost. Scheduled to open next month at the Cinema Studio, it is evidence that not every movie that has displeased the cultural commissars is a masterpiece.
The story, based on the tales of Mr. German's father, Yuri, is told by a barely glimpsed present-day narrator recalling what life was like in a small Russian village in 1937 when he was 9 years old. Sharing his family's apartment are three young policemen, led by Ivan Lapshin. Ivan, blankly played by Andrei Boltnev, is smitten with a touring actress and is out to smite a local murderer.
Mr. German's knack for visual authenticity provides the movie's main interest. Scene after scene, shot for the most part in the sepia of old photographs, catches the poverty and confusion of a hard time - the crowded apartment, the beat-up cars, the dreary town and its shabbily dressed people, the outbursts of desperation and nuttiness. In his treatment of a troupe of actors and some musicians jangling along on a flag-festooned little trolley, the director seems to have picked up some tricks from Fellini, but the spirit is very different. It's mostly complaint and bickering; only the policemen seem in good humor. People quarrel constantly about food and living space; a woman goes into hysterics over the loss of some gasoline.
Why was ''Ivan'' held back? Perhaps the leading character's rote response to every symptom of distress - ''We'll clear the land of scum and build an orchard'' - was taken by the Kremlin as a dangerous piece of irony. Perhaps Soviet officialdom would prefer a prettier version of life before the war. Perhaps they feared the confusion shown here might be taken as a comment on Stalin's rule. But the authorities are not pictured as particularly incompetent or unkind, just uninterested; if any sharper political criticism is implied, it is lost in the chaos the movie seeks to capture.
The scattered reminiscences, unrelated to the boy from whom they ostensibly originate and about whom we learn nothing, keep getting in the way of the rather casual plot, which has Ivan's best friend, a journalist, becoming involved with the actress and the murderer. Mr. German shows more consideration for his father's anecdotes (much is made of little practical jokes, youthful byplay, awkward accidents that add up to nothing) than for his audience's comprehension. You can hardly tell one policeman from another and often can't be sure where they are or what they are doing there.
The scenes between Ivan and the actress would be soap opera if there were not a shortage of soap, and his final shoot-out with the murderer, whom we scarcely meet, is pulp detective fiction in any language. Beneath the camouflage of the look of time past, ''Ivan'' is makeshift melodrama. - WALTER GOODMAN


The Strange Case of Russian Maverick Aleksei German
By Anton Dolin                                                 

Twent Days Wihtout War
Twenty Days Without War
Aleksei German is 73 years old. He dreamed of becoming a doctor, but ended up a lifelong filmmaker—but one who’s made only six films. The first of these, The Seventh Companion (68), was co-directed with the loyal Soviet director Grigori Aronov, and therefore German (pronounced with a hard “G”) doesn’t consider it truly his. He conceived his latest film, The Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre, over 40 years ago, began shooting at the end of the last century, but as of writing, still hasn’t completed it. This leaves us with four titles, of which only one, Twenty Days Without War (77), was released in the Soviet Union. Two of the remaining three films, Trial on the Road (71) and My Friend Ivan Lapshin (86)—both based on stories by the director’s father, Yuri German—were shelved, i.e., censored, and released only years later. The third, Khrustalyov, My Car! (98) was made after the Soviet Union’s collapse but before Russian film distribution and exhibition was fully revived. Yet another overlooked masterpiece, it was barely shown in Russian theaters and its Cannes premiere was panned (although many reviewers publicly apologized subsequently, explaining that they hadn’t understood the film on the first viewing).
Despite this, to many Russian critics, cinephiles, and viewers German is their national cinema’s foremost figure after Tarkovsky. Others insist that, in fact, he is more important and more original. Still others have never heard of him or confuse him with his namesake and son Alexei German Jr. (who’s been considerably luckier: at age 35 he’s already made three films and received three awards in Venice). But if German Sr. is a living legend who is both beloved and appreciated, he says bluntly: “I regard myself as an unrealized, and, on the whole, failed, unhappy man.” And you believe him. Not just because it was so hard and took so long for every one of his films to be released, but also because the artistic problems he has sought to solve are insurmountable. And yet he keeps trying. There’s a saying: “To solve a difficult problem, you need a Chinese. To solve an impossible one, a Russian.” They must have been thinking of German.
Besides, how many other geniuses have managed to displease the Soviet censors, the post-Soviet commercial system, and the connoisseurs of Cannes? Perhaps under more favorable conditions German simply wouldn’t have been able to exist. Does the essence of his talent lie in his embodiment of the contrarian spirit? As a matter of fact, he was never a dissident and his films have never glorified those who resisted the Soviet regime. He has always known better than anyone that such a struggle is doomed from the start.
The hero of German’s debut film  is a collaborator. Just as mankind began with Adam, so German’s cinema began with Adamov. In 1968 the powers that be greenlit this young director, son of a distinguished author, to adapt a thorny tale for the screen. Boris Lavrenev’s 1927 novella The Seventh Satellite recounts the story of a professor of law at the Imperial Russian Army’s military academy who switches over to the Bolsheviks during the Civil War (members of the Russian Empire’s military forces who changed sides, willingly or not, to serve the Red Army were known as voenspets, or “war specialists”). As a precaution, German was paired with Aronov, an experienced director who knew the unspoken rules of Soviet filmmaking by heart. They argued about everything, with German conceding more often than not: specifically, he agreed to cast the handsome Andrei Popov instead of comic actor Igor Ilyinsky in the role of Professor Adamov. Upon seeing the result, he regretted that decision. It was probably then that German learned obstinacy, a trait for which he would become famous in later years.
The Seventh Companion
The Seventh Companion
The Seventh Companion barely stands out from any number of other Soviet Thaw–era films on the Russian Revolution, but it contains many of the main characteristics of German’s future work: uprooted protagonists who, rejected by both sides, act according to conscience but increasingly doubt its rationality (the only way to verify it is to die), as in the case of Adamov, a nearsighted intelligent with a goatee who clutches a ridiculous mantelpiece clock, all that remains from his former life and expropriated apartment; moments of historical transition (the collapse of Imperial Russia, the consolidation of Stalin’s power in the Thirties, the end of the Stalin era) that create a “chronotope” of boundaries and no-man’s-lands in the fusion of time and space, and shift the criteria for defining good and evil; the black-and-white photographic haze of the past (according to German, memory is never in color, although in My Friend Ivan Lapshin begins with and occasionally returns to a color akin to that in old faded photographs, as though by mistake); and finally, the switching of primary and secondary characters, foreground and background, main action and subplot—in German’s films, these hierarchies are abolished once and for all and the revolutionary maxim “He who was nothing will become everything” takes on new meaning. Trivial details are at the very core of German’s films, where nameless extras are sometimes more important than the films’ ostensible stars.
The first thing German became notorious for, and which rankles people even today, is this scrapping of the character hierarchy deemed necessary to Soviet cinema and anti-Soviet cinema alike. You can’t call his protagonists antiheroes; rather, they’re non-heroes. In his father’s story “Operation Happy New Year!,” the basis for Trial on the Road, defector Lazarev, having collaborated with the Nazis, joins the Soviet partisans to face certain death. While the story’s protagonist is a handsome jester, German makes his Lazarev (played by Vladimir Zamanskiy) a weak and deeply unhappy figure with piercing eyes, worn out and dead on his feet, who sinks to the depths of depravity before turning around to swim against the current. Similarly, the partisan unit’s commander Lokotkov (Rolan Bykov, in his best performance) is a Tom Thumb of a man whose authority rests on selflessness and modesty rather than feats of derring-do.
The only character who remotely resembles a hero in the Soviet sense of the word is Petushkov (Tarkovsky favorite Anatoly Solonitsin)—but German gives him a Chekist cap to wear, unmistakably identifying him with the secret police. The point seems to be: genuine action is incompatible with heroic demeanor. At the moment of Lazarev’s death, the scorching-hot machine gun falls from his hands and lies hissing in the snow (German claims that after Perestroika he was repeatedly invited to work in Hollywood on the strength of this one sequence). This visual representation of death is also a tragic symbol of a man’s disappearance—melting away, leaving no trace. In the film’s final scene, as the Soviet Army enters Berlin, the humble and selfless Lokotkov is trying to fix his truck, to no avail. His humility makes him unique in the ranks of heroes who filled the Soviet war films of the Sixties and Seventies.
Perhaps this, and not the film’s sympathy for its defectors, is what outraged the Soviet authorities so much that Trial on the Road was denied release and nearly destroyed (it was finally screened in the Gorbachev era). It was ordained that for his next film German would work with the celebrated writer Konstantin Simonov, a close friend of his father and highly regarded by the Soviet establishment, who had approached him and proposed they collaborate. In tandem with his wife, screenwriter Svetlana Karmalita (his creative collaborator ever since), German adapted one of Simonov’s less popular stories, the autobiographical Twenty Days Without War, about a war correspondent named Lo-patin who travels from the battlefront to Tashkent, far from the conflict, encounters a woman, and, after a single night spent with her, is forced to return. Heroism wasn’t the only thing completely absent in this film—so was the war itself, barring a couple of dream flashbacks. In a typically unusual casting decision, Lopatin was played by Yuri Nikulin, a universally adored comedian and director of the Moscow Circus. His exhausted, depleted, tongue-tied characterization couldn’t have less resembled the dashing Simonov.
My Friend Ivan Lapshin
My Friend Ivan Lapshin
German used the same technique of casting against type in My Friend Ivan Lapshin (86) by choosing Andrei Mironov, the embodiment of variety-show charm and star of television musicals and Moscow Theater of Satire productions to play grieving journalist Khanin opposite an unknown, Andrei Boltnev, who plays Lapshin. Boltnev shines in the role—another of the many provincial actors German typically employs who successfully overshadow the films’ nominal stars.
The opening episodes of Twenty Days Without War embody this “supporting cast” manifesto. On his way from the front, Lopatin shares a train compartment with a random fellow traveler, a nameless air force captain (Aleksei Petrenko). The pilot’s 10-minute monologue, shot with sync sound and containing only one cut (due to the fact that Petrenko accidentally swore), instantly shifts the film’s emphasis away from its “protagonist,” a passive listener who all but disappears from the film for a while. Not without reason, Petrenko, who played Rasputin in Elem Klimov’s Agoniya (released in the U.S. as Rasputin), considers this role the best of his career.
Similarly, German favors Liya Akhedzhakova (whose character is identified as “woman with a watch”) and Nikolai Grinko in Twenty Days, Aleksandr Filippenko and Yuri Kuznetsov in My Friend Ivan Lapshin, dozens more in Khrustalyov, My Car! and the unfinished The Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre—professional actors all. Moreover, the director would determine whether this or that “People’s Artist” suited him by screen-testing them with Trial on the Road’s nonprofessional Gennady Dyudyaev or Yuri Pomogaev, a real-life thief who, fresh from prison, was cast as the man who stabs Khanin in My Friend Ivan Lapshin.
The baffling egalitarianism of German’s mixing together familiar and unknown or nonprofessional actors and main and secondary characters represents, in fact, an artistic analogue for a touchstone phenomenon of Soviet domestic culture that today is almost entirely a thing of the past: the kommunalka or communal apartment. Conceived as a solution to the urban housing shortage, this post–Civil War utopian construct devolved into an anti-utopia rife with resentment, rivalry, and eavesdropping. In the kommunalka, the very idea of private space was abolished by law, and as a result notions of personhood and individuality were effectively erased in the name of faceless community. No other Russian filmmaker has ever explored or rhapsodized about communal space and consciousness the way German has. (In the contemporary art world, Ilya Kabakov, who, like German, was born in the Thirties, has likewise closely examined the kommunalka phenomenon.)
Krustarylov, My Car!
Khrustalyov, My Car!
German’s non-hero principle reaches its apogee with the protagonist of Khrustalyov, My Car!. Klensky, a handsome general of aristocratic stock who heads a military hospital and is modeled on the filmmaker’s father, is toppled from his position of power and reduced to a miserable wretch in no time, eventually to be raped in the back of a freight wagon by convicts—only to rise again when taken to the deity Stalin’s dacha deathbed. Former blacksmith and regional stage actor Yuri Tsurilo delivers an effective performance as Klensky, while the Khrustalyov of the film’s title never even appears on screen—he’s History’s extra. (The words “Khrustalyov, my car!” were uttered by Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s former chief of secret police and deputy premier, to a member of the security service upon the Dear Father’s demise.) Finally, in the forthcoming Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre, Leonid Yarmolnik (another TV performer and celebrity whom few consider to be a serious actor) plays an alien visitor from distant Earth who, without much success, attempts to blend in with the locals on a medieval-era planet whose nameless inhabitants look as though they’ve stepped straight out of paintings by Bruegel and Bosch.
The next radical amputation carried out by would-be doctor German is the elimination of the plot. As early as Trial on the Road, he had broken up the narrative into brief episodes and seemingly unnecessary details. It’s in the very nature of war that life (and, therefore, the story line) can come to an abrupt end at any moment, ingloriously and unnoticed. In Twenty Days Without War, intrigue completely disappears: the action in this strange war film is grounded in the significant absence of war. Yet it’s not only war that stays out of sight, but also its alternative—love. German struggled long and hard over how to shoot a love scene between two incompatible actors and characters: the awkward Nikulin and singer/ actress Lyudmila Gurchenko, whose image was also radically rethought for the film. In the end, he made the single night that the couple spend together into an ellipsis, and shot their morning parting in such a way that the viewer can’t hear their conversation.
In My Friend Ivan Lapshin, Khanin, a journalist devastated by his wife’s sudden death, visits his old friend Lapshin in a small provincial town where he becomes romantically involved with Natasha (Nina Ruslanova), a second-rate actress from the local theater. Lapshin is the town’s chief of police, a stock type in Soviet cinema that German completely subverts, depicting him as lost, sick, and hopelessly in love with Khanin’s prima donna. The film is something akin to a tragicomedy of the absurd, in which each character winds up captive to an uncustomary role that ill suits them. Natasha, who becomes Khanin’s “field wife” (i.e., mistress), remains an elusive object of desire for Lapshin, a knight of rueful countenance who strikes fear into the hearts of all lawbreakers but is incapable of paying a woman an appropriate compliment. Hero-lover Khanin, oblivious to the passions simmering around him, tries to help in the apprehension of a criminal—and almost dies from a stab wound. The humor of the film’s situations is offset by the melancholic nostalgia for a time of extraordinary innocence, as pure as Lapshin’s favorite mineral water Borjomi. The action unfolds in Unchansk, a fictitious provincial town, on the eve of the Great Purge that will sweep across the country in 1937. German’s simple explanation for why he chose the unknown Boltnev to play Lapshin: “He had to have the face of a man from the Red List, a man who would soon be killed.” (Like Lapshin—created by German’s father before the war—Boltnev died prematurely at the age of 49, never having played another role of comparable dimension.) The central event of the tragedy, the Purge, was left off screen.
German’s philosophical and aesthetic sensibility are seen most clearly in Khrustalyov, My Car! The plot almost completely evaporates, yielding to a sequence of seemingly disjointed episodes. Instead of a story, History itself rises before the viewer’s eyes like an unstoppable, terrifying force to which all who lived in the 20th century, especially those who happened to be born in Russia, became hostage. German drew his inspiration from a childhood anecdote: his father once kicked a foreigner down the stairs for bringing him a letter from a relative living abroad, suspecting the visitor to be an agent provocateur. German’s first post-Soviet, uncensored, truly free, and irrevocably avant-garde film, Khrustalyov, My Car! is nothing less than phantasmagoric—the dreamlike construction of a paranoid mind in which a general is laid low by the will of the Soviet authorities, condemned to an inglorious death, miraculously resurrected, but finally opts to abandon his family and home, unable to return to his former life.
This dreadfully absurd story befalls a man caught in the teeth of an Event with a capital E, one so massive that it’s impossible at first to take in: the death of Stalin. Like the ravens that look down at the humiliated general from overhead, the black, inscrutable Voronok cars (slang for official state and secret police vehicles—the kind summoned in the film’s title) plowing through the snow-covered Moscow streets are harbingers of misfortune that signal the end of an era. German intertwines crudity and grandeur in the virtuosic scene of the tyrant’s death, as Stalin proves incapable of movement or speech before finally departing the world he has transformed. His final words—“Help me!”—addressed to a powerless physician, are inaudible to the viewer, just as Khrustalyov remains unseen. In the same vein, a good half of the film’s dialogue is lost in a whirlwind of inexplicable, incomprehensible events—causing Russian audiences at the time to complain about defective sound.
Khrustalyov, MyCar!
Khrustalyov, My Car!
German is the sole practitioner of a genre of his own invention: “film recollection.” Here, the vagueness of boundaries between dream and reality, between the meaningful and the meaningless, between the symbolic and the accidental becomes the basis for a dialogue between the viewer, whose knowledge of what’s happening on the screen is always limited, and the filmmaker, whose knowledge is always extensive. And so for example, in Khrustalyov, My Car!, the only hint at the foreign origin of the journalist carrying a letter for the general is an umbrella, out of place in the Russian winter and opening up by itself on the pavement, as if by magic. As far as German is concerned, everyone should know that in the Fifties an umbrella with such a mechanism could only belong to a visitor from another country. Knowledge of the past cannot and should not be exhaustive. This applies to German himself, who never recounts real memories, but fabricates them—he himself admits that he’s trying to peep through a keyhole at bygone eras that he never actually knew. Such a vantage point inevitably affords only a restricted field of vision.
The maddeningly inexhaustible possible meanings in German’s films are both the strength and the weakness of his unique aesthetic. All of his films begin with a narrator (who briefly appears as a silent boy in Khrustalyov, My Car! and My Friend Ivan Lapshin, seemingly standing for German) but this voiceover quickly falls away, turning the film over to the viewer, who from then on has to rely less on their knowledge of the film’s setting and period, and more on intuition. That’s because the dreams German depicts are those of a universal collective and not an individual’s.
That’s also why there was great surprise and curiosity when German announced that he was undertaking an adaptation of Hard to be a God, a 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, exemplary Soviet science-fiction writers much favored by the intelligentsia whose books had already received the big-screen treatment from Tarkovsky (Stalker) and Sokurov (Days of the Eclipse). Retitled The Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre, the film is set in the future on a planet bogged down in the darkness of the Middle Ages. Now, just what memory, even a collective one, can German possibly be thinking of here? In fact this film, destined to be his final, concludes the director’s long-standing inquiry, linking the grotesqueness of contemporary reality (which in the 20th century echoed with the return of some of the Dark Ages’ worst nightmares—the destruction of culture, the legal enshrinement of xenophobia, civil war) with an authentically photographed fictional universe, re-created in this case according to the paintings of the Northern Renaissance instead of newsreels and photos.
Sent on a secret mission to investigate a strange, unknown planet named Arkanar, and assuming the identity of nobleman Don Rumata, the film’s protagonist (Leonid Yarmolnik) is an invisible agent of human civilization who witnesses the triumph of barbarism as writers and intellectuals are drowned in toilets (hard not to see an echo of this in Putin’s remark about Chechen terrorists, whom he promised to “kill in their outhouses”). Presented as a parody of a hero (dressed in shining armor and a snow-white shirt in a world of mud and darkness), Rumata becomes disembodied: for much of the time The Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre adopts the form of filmed reportage, shot with a hidden camera installed in Rumata’s headgear. During production, German repeatedly fought with Yarmolnik and even considered doing without the actor altogether and making do with shots of armor and a foot in a stirrup, and an off-screen voice. So what kind of narrative and what kind of heroism is possibly here? It’s sheer existence in the depths of History that finally presents itself in its true form, as a gigantic quagmire that swallows up anyone who tries to drain it or interpret it to somebody’s advantage.
The Chronicle of Arkanar Massacre
The Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre
That said, unusually for German, The Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre is a film about an event that isn’t relegated to the background. You could even say it deals with an act of heroism, although German, true to his principles, keeps it off screen, showing only the lead up to it and the aftermath. Enraged by the futility of the events going on around him and the deaths of his friends and beloved, Rumata, whose powers seem godlike to the planet’s inhabitants, abandons the role of neutral observer and takes up arms, brandishing a sword of vengeance. The carnage he unleashes on Arkanar is comparable to the Holocaust and Hiroshima: a reign of pure terror that cannot be adequately expressed in either words or images. But what will change after this Sodom and Gomorrah? Only one thing: God will cease to be God and, having acknowledged the vile human nature within himself and accepted it as punishment, will be exiled from his comfortable paradise. In the Strugatsky Brothers’ book, after the carnage Rumata flies back to Earth; in German’s film, he decides to remain in exile on the abominable Arkanar forever.
The Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre reveals German’s secret vocation: deep down, this hyperrealist with his strong attachment to documentary authenticity is a teller of fairy tales. He has spoken with pride about how at his entrance examination for the Leningrad State Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinema, he declared that the only truthful Soviet film was Nadezhda Kosheverova’s 1947 Cinderella, a brilliant interpretation from a screenplay by Evgeny Shvarts. In later years, German was drawn to Shvarts, a virtuoso of Aesopian Language—i.e., allegorical writing employed to circumvent censorship—who wrote sharp satirical plays about Soviet reality even under Stalin. When My Friend Ivan Lapshin was banned, German dreamed of staging Shvarts’s 1944 masterpiece The Dragon, a parable in which Lancelot rids a town of a dragon only to find that the townspeople don’t want him to deliver them from the monster, and so he finally readies himself to “kill the dragon in each one of them,” refusing to accept his inevitable defeat. The hero of The Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre is that same Lancelot—and a distant relative, as is German himself, to Don Quixote. With morbid perfectionism, seeing clearly that which remains invisible to most of his peers, German refuses to surrender, and for years now has continued to refine his final and most important film, as if hoping that this time around he will be correctly understood. And what if he’s right?
This article was translated by Oleg Dubson.

Exorcism: Aleksei German Among the Long Shadows

By J. Hoberman
My Friend Ivan Lapshin
“It is interesting, even funny—or weird, perhaps—to imagine people sitting in an American cinema watching my movie.” So the Russian filmmaker Aleksei German mused when he first visited New York a dozen years ago for the local premiere of his once-shelved and now-revered Soviet “nostalgia” film, My Friend Ivan Lapshin. It is even weirder, alas, to imagine an American audience watching German’s phantasmagorical Khrustalyov, My Car!—the 60-year-old director’s first feature since Lapshin, a French co-production and a world-class film maudit that, in the works for seven years, took even longer to shoot than Orson Welles’s Othello and last spring suffered a disastrous, walkout-plagued world premiere at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. German himself wasn’t there. As he told the press several months later at the New York Film Festival, he was a bit nervous because Khrustalyov was the first of his four solo features that had never been banned.
Khrustalyov, My Car! unfolds, mostly in Moscow, over three days during the exceptionally cold winter of 1953. His condition as yet unknown to the Soviet people, their Great Stalin lay dying. The leader’s final paralyzing stroke (most likely on the night of February 28, when Khrustalyov begins) had abruptly halted the five-year-old anti-Semitic campaign that only just escalated to a new level of savagery. In mid-January official sources announced that, working in league with international Zionism, a cabal of (mainly Jewish) Kremlin doctors had conspired to poison the Soviet leadership. Arrests and dismissals began amid the orchestrated press frenzy, with the mass deportation of Soviet Jews rumored to follow.
In early 1953, the Great Terror of 1937 seemed about to repeat it self something German treats, at least initially, as a subject of farce. Even before the film’s title, an innocent boiler repairman (identified in the credits as the Idiot) falls haplessly into the hands of the KGB and disappears until the end of the movie. School kids parrot anti-Zionist cant, families are evicted from their apartments, and there seems to be some sort of shake up in the Red Army’s high command.
Through this snow-shrouded and hysterical atmosphere, German’s restless camera tracks his protagonist, General Yuri Glinsky, military brain surgeon, as he reels from one enigmatic scene to the next. As the people seek to blame anyone but Stalin—whose name they superstitiously refuse to utter—for the mounting terror, the Politburo’s confusion is manifested by the convoy of black automobiles that aimlessly roll through the Moscow night. “Gathering those cars cost me a year of my life,” German told me when I interviewed him again in October 1998. “It was impossible to find them.”
Khrustalyov, My Car!, like all of German’s previous features, is a period piece set at a cusp moment of Soviet history. The Seventh Companion (67), which German made with Grigori Aronov, took place at the point during the Russian civil war at which the decision was made to unleash a “red terror.” The far more problematic World War II film Trial on the Road (71) was shelved for 14 years, having been accused of “deheroicizing” Soviet history by portraying a Russian collaborator who allows him self to be captured by partisans so that he can redeem himself by fighting the Nazis. Although the follow-up Twenty Days Without War (76) was only held back a few years, this movie about the making of a “positive” combat film in the midst of combat was even more programmatic in debunking the myths of the Great Patriotic War.
My Friend Ivan Lapshin
No one was prepared, however, for German’s masterpiece, My Friend Ivan Lapshin. Strange, unsettling, and elusive even by the standards of East European cinema, Lapshin is a movie where narrative is secondary to atmosphere—the evocation of provincial Russia on the eve of Stalin’s mid-Thirties purges. German’s painstaking reconstruction of an erased period goes beyond the use of thriftshop clothing and furniture to reconstruct attitudes, if not delusions. Bolshevik idealism is represented as a lost dream. German wrote the Lapshin screenplay in 1969. The project was delayed for over a decade and, although finally completed in 1982, withheld from release until the 1985 Moscow Film Festival. Recently, according to German, Lapshin—which has been shown 25 times on post-Soviet TV—was rated first among Soviet films in a poll of young people.
Given that all of German’s movies have been made within and (more precisely) against the conventions of Soviet socialist realism, it should not be too surprising that neither perestroika nor the end of Communism did much to stimulate his career. “People said that I had a Bobby Fischer complex and just didn’t want to play—but Bobby Fischer was the world champion,” German told me. Khrustalyov, My Car! Was conceived under Communism and made during a period of “democratic reform.” Asked how long the movie was in production, the director mournfully shook his head and replied “Forever.” The modest French contribution was wiped out by Russia’s 3,000 percent inflation—leaving German with the problem of raising additional money, having already sold the foreign rights. (He received some help from the Governor of Petersburg, but when those subsidies were removed, production again halted.)
Although German seems unlikely ever to be nominated for an Oscar, his last two movies have a dialectical relationship with Nikita Mikhalkov’s 1995 Academy Award–winning international hit Burnt by the Sun. As the latter appropriated something of Lapshin’s disconcertingly Chekhovian atmosphere as a means to represent the onset of the Great Terror, so Khrustalyov has adapted the Burnt by the Sun scenario in depicting the inexplicable fall of a powerful Soviet hero. Initially, the tall, shaven-skulled, Tartar-like General Glinsky is the master of the hospital—slugging his cognac from a tea glass while marching his obsequious subjects through the corridors or being sexually serviced by a diminutive nurse. Even as his colleagues lie to him, the General begins to suspect that something is amiss in his madhouse; this paranoia is confirmed when he stumbles across his own double being prepared (for what?) in the enema ward. (German explains this fantastic touch by explaining that doubles were often used to give the “correct” testimony in Stalin-era show trials.)
Back at his large, if crowded, flat, the general’s family has picked up the same menacing vibes even as Glinsky is driven into a further frenzy by the Swedish journalist who shows up at his door uninvited with news of his sister abroad. Glinsky denies that he has any such relative and, having noticed that the apartment’s resident state security contact was eavesdropping in the stairwell when the foreigner called and will now have to report him, he further denounces the Swede as a provocateur. “That incident was practically autobiographical,” German told me. Much of Khrustalyov’s screenplay, which the director wrote in collaboration with his wife, Svetlana Karmnalita, draws upon their childhood memories of Stalin’s final years. Karmalita’s father, a well known theater critic, was an early victim of the 1948 attack on “rootless cosmopolitans”; German’s father, Yuri, a popular novelist, had his own (temporary) problems in 1949, when he published a story whose hero had a “Jewish-sounding” last name.
Khrustalyov is some sort of exorcism. In the elegant party that the increasingly crazed and drunken Glinsky briefly attends, trying to glean some new information concerning his fate, German re-created aspects of the “palace atmosphere” he observed, as a child, at higher levels in Stalinist society. Among the members of the demented Glinsky household are a pair of little girls—Jewish cousins—who live, without permits, in the wardrobe. Their names, German explained, are those of his own nieces, and this incident, too, was part of his family history. “I don’t know if I’m a Russian or Jew,” the filmmaker added. “I always say I’m Jewish because of anti-Semitism. I don’t know anything about Jewish culture, but I know I keep expecting the worst, and that’s from my Jewish mother. She was preparing to die all her life, but she lived to the age of 91.”
Khrustalyov, My Car!
Extravagant and unrelenting, Khrustalyov, My Car! has been described by one New York–based Russian critic as a Fellini film made from a Beckett script. Unlike any of German’s previous films in tone, Khrustalyov seems populated by a cast of grotesque, grimacing puppets. (The director expressed satisfaction that a mixed New York Times review that followed Khrustalyov’s festival screening at least called the movie a “Boschean vision of hell.”)
Glinsky’s manic nocturnal tour of Moscow ends when, afraid to return home, he drops in on a heavyset admirer for one of the most convoluted unconsummated sex scenes in movie history. Khrustalyov’s second part begins with the general trying to escape from the city incognito even as his family is forcibly removed from their sumptuous flat and relocated in a dingy communal apartment overfilled with already displaced Jews. Waiting for a train, Glinsky is attacked by a group of kids who steal his boots and is then, falling into the trap he sought to avoid, unceremoniously transported toward a prison camp in a van marked “Soviet Champagne.”
The narrative is not difficult to follow but the succession of events is dizzying. The hallucinated environment supersedes all but the most grossly physical events, Khrustalyov’s extraordinarily crisp black-and-white images are married to a soundtrack as clamorous as the mise en scène is cluttered. German has said that he wanted an “inaudible” track to better focus the audience’s attention on the movie’s visuals, and—characterized by sightgags, pratfalls, ridiculous brutality, and deadpan slapstick, a viscerally absurd trove of rebellious objects—Khrustalyov surely has its animated cartoon aspect. On the other hand, much of the film’s dialogue would make sense only to Russians of a certain age—it’s an untranslatable collage of period slang, official slogans, and bits of old Party songs.
Khrustalyov, My Car!
In the West, Khrustalyov, My Car! has been most frequently described as “impenetrable.” When I interviewed German, it had yet to open in Russia, although the bootleg videos that began circulating shortly after the movie’s Cannes premiere had already fueled a passionate debate as to whether the movie was a masterpiece or a disaster. Even more oblique than My Friend Ivan Lapshin, German’s walpurgisnacht is thick with all illusions—literary as well as political—and characterized by long, convoluted takes that all but preclude reverse angle or reaction shots. German says he received the same criticism “word for word” for Ivan Lapshin. “If you only heard what they said. [Fellow directors] Elem Klimov, Andrei Smirnov, my own assistant told me, ‘This is a dead end.’”
With its emphasis on the squalor of provincial life (poverty, crime, fuel shortages, overcrowding, coughing, illness), not to mention its unprecedentedly coarse language, Lapshin was shockingly raw for a Soviet film. But Khrustalyov goes much further. The action is soaked in spittle and punctuated by curses. The sequence in which Glinsky is brutally raped and sodomized by a gang of criminal thugs in the back of a closed truck en route to the gulag is worthy of Salo (although, as German pointed out, it is derived from information published by Solzhenitsyn).
It is daylight when the traumatized general is removed from the transport and then, in one more reversal of fortune, brought to a dacha outside of Moscow where he is to treat a mysterious stroke patient. Here, German is both making and unmaking a myth. At least one of the imprisoned Kremlin doctors, Yakov Rapoport, was released from his jail cell to minister to the man who had been responsible for his arrest, and German filmed the scene at Stalin’s actual dacha in Kuntsevo. (“Some people tried to sell me Stalin’s authentic pee-stained pajamas,” he recalled. “I think there must be a factory for producing this relic.”)
But Glinsky’s meeting with the Little Father of the People—who is here quite little—is also a figment of German’s imagination. It seems unlikely that Stalin passed away lying on the floor, attended only by a gaggle of Georgian grandmothers and his security chief Beria (here an actor who looks nothing like the actual personage), but it is not inappropriate. At Beria’s command, Glinsky massages the comatose man’s stomach. Stalin bubbles up a bit of bile, briefly opens his eyes, and dies. Kissing the doctor, Beria provides the film’s enigmatic title by imperiously summoning his automobile and leaving for the power struggle in Moscow. (Khrustalyov was the name of the soldier whom Beria had recently installed as Stalin’s majordomo and personal bodyguard.)
Beria vanishes into the night and so does Glinsky. “It is a Russian fantasy,” German explained. “The general disappears into a simpler life.” A brief potscript, set a decade or so later, after most of Stalin’s prisoners had returned from Siberia, features the release of the boiler repairman arrested in the movie’s opening moments. The conductor of the train on which the still luckless repairman attempts to return to Moscow is none other than Glinsky—more clownish and disreputable than ever (“a speculator in dried fish” in German’s characterization). Glinsky is seemingly the leader of a derelict gang, living a grossly diminished version of his Moscow life. German considers this coda to conclude the movie on a note of ridiculous triumph.
I asked German if Khrustalyov was about present-day Russia. “Of course,” he replied, adding that “maybe things are simpler now—they just shoot you.” His words came back to haunt me as I wrote this piece, a few days after Duma member Galina Starovoitova, an outspoken liberal reformer, was gunned down gangster-style in the foyer of her apartment house. “The artist is a canary in a mine shaft. If Brezhnev had read Rudyard Kipling, he would never have gone into Afghanistan,” German told me. “We didn’t really want to depict 1953, we wanted to show what Russians are like.”
© 1999 by J. Hoberman


The Films of Aleksei German


Aleksei German (1938 – 2013)
Aleksei German (1938 – 2013)
A while ago, Aleksei German passed away from kidney failure in a hospital in Saint-Peterberg, for the past seven years, he was working on his unfinished masterpiece, History of the Arkanar Massacre aka Hard to Be a God, based on the Strugatsky brother’s science-fiction novel, he never finished it.The film now in the editing and post-production stage, and according to his son, Aleksei German, Jr, it is to be released within a year, or maybe more.
History of the Arkanar Massacre (Aleksei German, 2013)
History of the Arkanar Massacre (Aleksei German, 2013)
In the span of more than 40 years, Aleksei German only made six films, his first was co-directed with Grigori Aronov, and his last, unfinished. His short cinematic resume is perhaps one reason that he is unknown to many film viewers, a pity, for he is among the masters of Soviet Cinema, believe it or not, three years after making My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1984, the film was voted by Soviet critic and filmmakers as the greatest Soviet film ever to have been made, surpassing all the previous masters. Looking back to my film diary, here is my short reviews to all the films from a forgotten master; Aleksei German, and impatiently waiting to see History of the Arkanar Massacre.
Sedmoy sputnik aka The Seventh Companion (Aleksei German and Grigori Aronov, 1968)
Sedmoy sputnik aka The Seventh Companion (Aleksei German and Grigori Aronov, 1968)
Sedmoy sputnik aka The Seventh Companion (Aleksei German and Grigori Aronov, 1968) Aleksei German’s directorial debut, The Seventh Companion was co-directed with Grigori Aronov, based on a novel by Boris Lavrenev, before directing the film, Aleksei German was a student of Grigori Kozintsev, and The Seventh Companion shows the influence of Kozintsev, it is a realistic and fascinating film that seem to have been made in Soviet days of 1930s rather than in 1960s with the acting, dialogue, set designs, and the cinematography re-creating the realistic and nostalgic early days of the Union . The story take place during the early days of the Revolution, Yevegeny Adamov (Andrei Popov) is a former general of Czar’s Army, a professor at the military academy, when taken to custody, he obey and later join the new force of the Bolsheviks, although his joining is a matter of will to continue to live, for he has no home nor any family left to return to, and he is dire need of food and shelter, he is never convinced of the Bolshevik ideology, when later captured by the White and he refuse to join them, asked as to why he had joined the  Bolshevik and would not join his old army?, his answer is rather a philosophical one, “When a large body passes through space, smaller bodies are drawn into its orbit. Sometimes against their will”, it is indeed against his will that the forces of revolutions and wars drive him from fate into another; he become a prisoner of the Reds, a homeless man, then a worker, a soldier of the red army and finally a prisoner of the Whites, and not once, does he question nor condemn his fate, rather, he goes alone with it, he is a man who time and circumstances shapes his life, always for the worse, but he lives with it, he is a man whom history will never remember, for neither he is a hero nor a villain, but a simple man, a victim of his time.
Proverka na dorogakh aka Road-Checkpoint (Aleksei German, 1971
Proverka na dorogakh aka Road-Checkpoint (Aleksei German, 1971
 Proverka na dorogakh aka Road-Checkpoint (Aleksei German, 1971) Road Check-point is a timeless masterpiece from a master, Aleksei German. It is a revisionist war film in which the hero of the film is no other than a former traitor and collaborator of the German Nazi invaders, when giving a second chance, as Aleksei lets him have it, he prove himself to be a hero of the Red Army and the motherland, but he is unsung hero like many of the Partisans that he fight alongside, in Aleksei German’s war films, it is no words and tactical planning of generals and army big shots that decide the fate of winning or losing a war, but the individual actions of the foot soldiers, they are the real hero, they are the ones who change the rules of the game. It is no wonder that the film was banned and shelved for 15 years, for the hero of the film, Lazarev is anything that one may consider a war hero, but his self sacrificing action is what save the others, and in process redeem himself. Shot in gritty black and white, monochrome tone, with long takes and subtle silent acting, with explosive action sequences, Road-Checkpoint is not only one of Aleksei German’s masterpiece, but it is among one of the best war films ever to come out of the Soviet Union, it pay tribute to those that history will never mention, nor will they be remembered, the theme is best visualized at the end of the film; as the train leave dying Lazarev, crawling to make it, but fail, and the living reaming partisans has to push the machinery of war from behind, always struggling, the story of unsung hero.
Dvadtsat dney bez voyny aka Twenty Days Without War (Aleksei German, 1976)
Dvadtsat dney bez voyny aka Twenty Days Without War (Aleksei German, 1976)
Dvadtsat dney bez voyny aka Twenty Days Without War (Aleksei German, 1976) Aleksei German is famous for casting his actor against the system, and perhaps no other actor in his films has being miscast as Yuri Nikulin playing the role of a major Lopatin in Twenty Days Without War, and  Nikulin delvers, for in real life he fought many battles during WWII, only later to become a comic actor, the irony of it. In Twenty Days Without War, everything is foggy, life on the battlefield is equally as cruel as in the home front, getting 20 days leave to go back to Tashkent after the battle of Stalingrad, Lopatin only find the effect of the war on the people more devastating than on the soldier on the battle front, and he is puzzled by the naivety of the people, especially the intellectual class, artist and filmmakers as to their romantic notion of wars, heroic deeds and glory, when his 20 day leave is cut short, he is indifferent to it, as going back to the front, he know the war will be long, but more important, he knows that after the war, his life will be even a longer struggle to overcome what he had lost during the war, as always, at the end of an Aleksei German, the viewer is left with the collectivity of the emotional impact of the film, his last few images always speak for the whole film; Upon returning to the front, he walk with three other soldiers to join his outfit, only to shelled, when surviving, amid the foggy and smoky landscape, the soldiers talk about their planning after the war as they disappear from the screen into the smoke, Lopatin is silent, he has already experienced what  life after the war will be like, to him, the war and after the war is a long way from now, he is silent to others, but his voice-over speak his inner thoughts to the audience; “Though we’re plodding forward, we’re only in Kuban, and Berlin is a long way off. A long, long way.”
Moy drug Ivan Lapshin aka My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Aleksei German, 1984)
Moy drug Ivan Lapshin aka My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Aleksei German, 1984)
Moy drug Ivan Lapshin aka My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Aleksei German, 1984) Believe it or not, three years after making My Friend Ivan Lapshin, the film was voted by Soviet critic and filmmakers as the greatest Soviet film ever to have been made, with that, My Friend Ivan Lapshin was and is praised upon not only us one of the great Soviet film, and the crowning achievement of Aleksei German, who would go on to make only one other complete film. Like all of German films, the story is set in the past, in 1935s, during Stalin’s purge, the film is based on stories from Alekse’s father, Yurii German, it is told in flashback, and for once, in an Aleksei German film we have a few shot in color, very few scenes, but they are the only color footage that German ever shot. Ivan Lapshin is an investigator who share a commune flat with others, including our narrator and his father,a little kid of seven, we get a glimpse of each character in episodic turn; their relationship, struggle, hope, pessimism and desperation, but we rarely see our narrator as and adult and as a little kid, he is there only as a passive eye witness, for many incident take place without him being present, one might as well assume he had made a fictional recreation. What is significant about this film and all of the other films from Aleksei German is how raw his Mise-en-scène are; out of nowhere we see a passerby crossing the frame, or at a distance someone walk, two people talk, another one stare at the camera, his composition equally lack any priority to be given to characters or subjects, with long takes and pure black and white imagery, light bulbs overexposed, or scenes underexposed, the film is a realistic portrait of the time is choreographed to utmost details, such perfection give it a feeling of hyper realism in lyricism.
Khrustalyov, mashinu! aka Khrustalyov, My Car! (Aleksei German, 1998)
Khrustalyov, mashinu! aka Khrustalyov, My Car! (Aleksei German, 1998)
Khrustalyov, mashinu! aka Khrustalyov, My Car! (Aleksei German, 1998) I cant remember who said it, but the quote was “Khrustalyov, My Car! is a mix of Fedrico Fellini and Andrie Tarkovsky”, to some extent the quote speak best for the film, for it has a roller coaster ride with its unique characters of the likes in a Fellini film, as it also a film rich with Tarkovsky moments, but with hyper realism, saying that, one could never judge a film by comparing it to that of others. Khrustalyov, My Car! is a pure Aleksi German film, and perhaps his masterpiece. As always, expect masterful black and white cinematography,  especially the use of depth of field, it is used to highlight everything, not only the action within the frame, but characters insignificant to the action, passerby present for no reason; a man looking at a distance at the foreground where an argument is taking place, but he is light more brightly than the foreground, or suddenly, a character block the camera, we won’t see the action, or the action take place offstage, we only hear sound of the action, as always, long tracking shots and lengthy takes make the film depend very little on editing.  “The mills of the Gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine”,  said the Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus, so it is with General Yuri Glinshi, one moment he is exiled, next, he is by Stalin’s deathbed. The characters show their suffering and joy by action, not words or meditation, the General’s wife is sad, or rather, she is going mad after her husband is taken away,  she won’t sit and cry, nor would she talk to other about her misfortunes, rather, she pick a bucket full of dirty cloth and smash it on top of her head. When a character is hopeless to respond to violent, they slap themselves on the face, for they are hopeless. All the character in the film behave like children when driven to the edge, they react by use of violent to express their disapproval or by playing games and laughter to express their joy. The desperation and inability to control their life drive them to the edge, but this illusion of state of the mind as is with the General take a twist into the reality of the time, as he is falling from the grace, the film become an absurdest nightmare, as cruel fate make an animal out of him, in a demonstration of realism in violence and savagery that few films dare to get there,he is told. “Don’t tempt fate, mister”, tempt it or not, he has to live it, the life, the fall and rise of a General, his title alone determine how others view him, for his personality, deeds and character is judged by his position alone and nothing more.
- themovingsilent.wordpress.com/

TONY WOOD: TIME UNFROZEN

The Films of Aleksei German

'This is my declaration of love for the people I grew up with as a child’, says a voice at the beginning of Aleksei German’s Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin). There is a pause as the narrator struggles for the right words to express his feelings for the Soviet Union of the thirties; when they come—ob”iasnenie v liubvi—it is with a strained emphasis on ‘love’. The film, released in 1984, is set in 1935 in the fictional provincial town of Unchansk, where a young boy and his father share a communal flat with criminal police investigator Ivan Lapshin and half a dozen others. It weaves together elements from the director’s father Iurii German’s detective stories and novellas of the same period: a troupe of actors arrive to play at the town’s theatre; Lapshin tracks down a gang of criminals trading in human meat; a friend of Lapshin’s, Khanin, becomes unhinged after his wife dies of typhus; the spirited actress Adashova falls in love with Khanin, and Lapshin with Adashova. The authorities are largely absent: it is a film about people ‘building socialism’ on a bleak frozen plain, their town’s one street a long straggle of low wooden buildings beneath a huge white sky, leading from the elegant stucco square by the river’s quayside out into wilderness. There is a single tram, a military band, a plywood ‘victory arch’ of which they are all proud—‘My father’, the narrator recounts, ‘would never take a short cut across the town’: he always went the long way round, under the victory arch.
The film holds hope and suffering in the balance. Adashova proudly boasts about what the 1942 production quotas for champagne will be; Lapshin declares, ‘We shall clean up the earth and plant a garden, and we ourselves will live to walk in it’—just as the hacked-up corpses hidden by the meat-traders are loaded onto a truck. The film is full of such alarming details and ill omens: dubious meat, which retains the headline offprint of the newspaper it was wrapped in (‘WE REJOICE’) even after it’s been cooked; febrile explosions of rage over spilled paraffin; flocks of crows cawing across the sky. There is a mismatch between the optimism of the characters and what we know of subsequent events. ‘I’m going on a course’, Lapshin says towards the end of the film, and his words are left hanging in the air. These are people whose faith in the future remains intact, but whose betrayal is imminent. German has said that his main aim was to convey a sense of the period, to depict as faithfully as possible the material conditions and human preoccupations of SovietRussia on the eve of the Great Purge. It is for this world, for these people that the narrator struggles to declare his love—unconditional, knowing how flawed that world was, and how tainted the future would be. German compared the film to the work of Chekhov, and one can see in it a similar tenderness for the suffering and absurdity of its characters.
Loosely episodic, the film is remarkable in its resistance to linear narrative: dialogue is often drowned out by senseless chatter or the clanging of buckets; our view of important characters is frequently blocked by figures crossing the screen. In its cinematography, Ivan Lapshin consistently refuses to accept established priorities: as though every element of each shot must be allowed its meaning. The camera often enters the room behind characters’ backs, like a guest, or at elbow-level, like a curious child. There is no sense that the scenes are choreographed or pre-arranged, but rather a feeling that the camera, wide-eyed, is capturing what it can of a bewildering world.
All German’s films focus on moments in which history and myth have become entangled, if not dangerously indistinguishable. He has described his films as ‘antipotochnye’, ‘against the current’: disrupting certainties and undermining convenient truths. [1]. The Stalin era, his principal subject, is the period of his own childhood and youth. Born in 1938 in Leningrad—the same generation as Tarkovsky and Mikhalkov—he grew up in a milieu frequented by leading cultural figures of the time: Kozintsev dropped by regularly, the playwright and fabulist Evgenii Shvartz was his ‘uncle Zhenia’, and even Akhmatova was seen on occasion at the Germans’ flat on the Moika. German graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinematography in 1960 as a theatre director; it was not until the mid-sixties that he made the shift to scripting films, during the extraordinary rebirth of Soviet and East European cinematography—influenced in part by Italian neo-realism but also by the French New Wave—that came with the Khrushchev thaw. In career terms, German made the move just too late. By the time he had scripted Trudno byt’ bogom(It’s Hard Being God, 1968), based on the Strugatskii brothers’ science fiction novel, and Ivan Lapshin (1969), Brezhnevite conformism had set in; neither film could be made.

Questioning wartime myths

German’s first feature, Proverka na dorogakh(Trial on the Road), was finally shot in 1971; in retrospect it seems almost incredible that it was filmed at all. Soviet, indeed, Russian identity since World War Two had been founded on that bitterly won victory: the march to Berlin did more than any cult of personality to legitimate Stalin’s rule. German’s film undermines the fable of unwavering heroism and loyalty that sustained the self-perception of whole generations of Soviet citizens. A former Red Army lieutenant defects to the Nazis on ideological grounds, then decides to switch sides again to defend his homeland. The partisan brig­ade who capture him are suspicious and test his loyalty in a series of operations behind enemy lines. The motivations for the main character’s actions are barely discussed: questions of treason, of ideological as opposed to patriotic commitment are left largely unaddressed, and there is an uncomfortable sense of futility lurking behind any seeming acts of heroism. Proverka na dorogakh was shelved until 1986 because, according to internal memos of the state film agency Goskino, it ‘distorts the image of a heroic time’—‘the people it depicts could only have lost the Great Patriotic War’; the subtext being that German’s film ‘makes us someone other than who we want to be’. [2].
The production of his second film Dvadsat’ dnei bez voiny (Twenty Days without War) was less problematic. Made in 1976, it was released after only six months’ delay although again, it looks aslant at a crucial Soviet story: the siege of Stalingrad. German has described it as ‘an anti-romantic melodrama’ with ‘anti-beautiful’ heroes. The middle-aged Lopatin has twenty days’ leave from the battle and spends it in Tashkent. He visits his ex-wife, signs divorce papers, meets up with friends and becomes involved with another woman; then his leave is curtailed and he is sent back to fight. We see nothing of Stalingrad itself. As is frequently the case in German’s work, plot is minimal, the emphasis instead being on the portrayal of a mood. Perhaps more importantly, neither characters nor events are typically heroic. Lopatin is part of an army that has begun to turn the tide, yet throughout the film he looks dog-tired, and smiles only briefly flit across his face.
Filming on Moi drug Ivan Lapshin finally began in 1979 and finished in 1982. Although the first screening was greeted with a standing ovation, the film was immediately attacked from within German’s own studio, Lenfil’m—an article in the studio’s newspaper called it a ‘gadkaia kartina’, a ‘disgusting film’. An official of Goskino informed him that everyone knew 37 and 38 weren’t good years, but he shouldn’t destroy all people’s illusions—‘leave 1935 alone’. German was then told to re-shoot half of the film, and when he asked which half, the head of Goskino replied: ‘Either. Leave half of your crap and do half as we want you to’. [3]. Fortunately, due to lack of finance and the director’s protestations, the re-shoot never took place. After prolonged debates within Goskino, the film was released in 1984, to critical acclaim and even a certain commercial success.
Gorbachev’s accession signalled a turning point in German’s career. The Conflict Commission established in 1986 by the Cinematographers’ Union at last sanctioned the release of Proverka, along with over seventy other ‘shelved’ films, including such masterpieces as Aleksandr Askol’dov’s Komissar (1967) and Tengiz Abuladze’s Monanieba (Repentance, 1984). In 1987, Lapshin was voted the best Soviet film of all time in a national poll of film critics, ahead of anything by Eisenstein, Pudovkin or Vertov. German’s film is in many ways a precursor to the series of films of the glasnost’ period that return obsessively to the era of Stalin—much as one of the characters in Repentance keeps exhuming a small-town tyrant. It encapsulates the issues that were to haunt the Soviet Union until its demise, and continue to resurface in contemporary Russia: how are we to retell our history without disgracing our forefathers, magnifying them out of proportion or simply deleting them from the record? Which memories should we claim as ours? German himself was now occupied with an experimental workshop at Lenfil’m, set up in 1988, which saw the emergence of a new generation of Soviet directors—among them Aleksei Balabanov, whose 1991 debut feature Schastlivye dni (Happy Days), based on motifs from Beckett, German produced. Balabanov went on to make Brat (Brother, 1997) and Pro urodov i liudei (Of Freaks and Men, 1998).
Shooting started on German’s latest film Khrustalev, mashinu! (Khrustalev, my car!, 1998) in 1992, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a new series of problems to confront: US backers pulled out when the director refused to concede to their demand that Stalin be played by an American. The film is set in early 1953, at the time of the so-called Doctors’ Plot. On January 13, as Stalin lay dying, the state news agency announced that many of the country’s leading medical authorities had been arrested as spies responsible for the deaths of prominent Soviet politicians and generals: in the pay of ‘Joint’, a CIA-funded Zionist organization, or else of MI6, they had conspired to undermine the health of the nation’s leadership. [4]. That Beria may have speeded Stalin’s death has been widely conjectured. Whether through Beria’s machinations, Stalin’s paranoia or, more likely, Beria’s manipulation of the latter, key members of Stalin’s close entourage were sacked in the months just prior to his death. Poskrebyshev, his personal secretary of twenty years, was fired in November 1952; the chief of Stalin’s bodyguards General Vlasik—also in his post for twenty years—was replaced in December 1952 by one of Beria’s men, Vasilii Khrustalev. It is from this peripheral player in the drama of history that German’s film takes its title. We see Beria at Stalin’s bedside, shouting at a nurse for not changing the Generalissimo’s sheets, urging the doctors to make Stalin break wind, and briskly closing the old man’s eyes when he has rattled out his last breath. After the sobs and murmured laments of the housekeeper, we hear Beria’s voice as he opens the door, shouting—with, according to Stalin’s daughter, ‘the ring of triumph unconcealed’ [5].—‘Khrustalev! My car!’

Strategies of disorientation

Again, the plot is elusive—events are hinted at rather than laid before us. Klenskii, a leading surgeon, goes to the hospital where he works and in one room discovers a double of himself. He realizes that his own arrest must be a part of some as yet unknown murky dealings, and he flees to the countryside. Klenskii is caught but—after undergoing horrific treatment by his captors—is then suddenly spirited back to Moscow to Stalin’s deathbed, where the leader lies prone after a cerebral haemorr­hage. He is dying an ignominious death, in soiled bed linen and with next to no medical attention. Beria’s summoning of Klenskii is clearly a token gesture, since it is already too late. German’s film has none of Beria’s reported ring of triumph; it is not a celebration of the death of Stalin, but rather a brutal, farcical exploration of the lives of a series of characters at a particular point in time. There is Klenskii, his wife and mistress, his family, their neighbours, his wife’s Jewish relatives who have to be hidden; there is a worker at a fur-coat shop who, at the beginning of the film, happens to stroll past as the NKVD are lying in wait for an unknown suspect, and is carted off to Siberia. And there is Klenskii’s son, a young boy whose grown-up voice (as in Ivan Lapshin) we hear at irregular intervals in the film. But again, the boy is not witness to everything that happens, and the film is not told exclusively from his point of view; although several scenes are shot with hand-held cameras below eye-level, suggestive perhaps of a child’s perspective, these also have the effect of denying the camera any authority over proceedings, any sense of control.
This strategy—developed in the earlier films—is carried to an extreme in Khrustalev, mashinu!: throughout the opening sequences, the viewer is left with a growing sense of unease at not knowing what is happening, whose perspective it is being viewed from, what relevance these scenes will have later in the film. This unease builds into a form of narrative panic, as the camera stumbles into dimly lit interiors without explanations or establishing shots, as we meet more and more characters whose importance is unclear, as our hopes that a plot will establish itself are continually disappointed. The film unfolds as a series of farc­ical situations, full of comical snippets of dialogue and grotesquerie, but the comedy is often lost under the weight of the viewer’s need for sense, and under the increasing atmosphere of threat, of the possibility of a descent into untrammelled brutality. The senselessness and the shadow of violence mark a daring but brilliant attempt to depict the paranoias of late Stalinism. Indeed, the film’s logic is that of a hallucinatory, delusional condition, bordering on hysteria. Plot, events, the chain of causes and consequences are all secondary to the evocation of a frenzied imaginative state.
As if in echo of this dislocated imaginary, German shifts between a variety of registers. There are moments of crude realism—the harrowing scene where Klenskii is sodomized by his captors in the back of a van—which seem to belong to the Russian genre of chernukha, literally ‘black stuff’: a realism mired in the grime, sludge, sweat and swearing of daily life. Film such as Vasilii Pichul’s Malenkaia Vera (Little Vera, 1988) and Vitalii Kanevskii’s Zamri, umri, voskresni (Freeze, Die, Be Reborn, 1990) are prime exponents of chernukha, and are clearly influenced by German. Kanevskii was, in fact, German’s protégé in the late 1980s; his aesthetic of brak—amateurish or clumsy workmanship—makes an appearance at the beginning of Ivan Lapshin, as we hear the narrator cough and the sounds of equipment being set up. Both here and in his earlier films, too, German owes a debt to Italian neo-realism, and to Russian responses to the neo-realists such as Andrei Konchalovskii’s Istoriia Asi Kliachinoi (Asya’s Happiness, 1966). [6]. The dialogue is full of contemporary slang and snatches of popular tunes, with a rough, improvised quality accentuated by the frequent overlappings and the intrusion of extraneous noise and voices. German has also made extensive use of non-professional actors, another neo-realist practice.
There are, however, moments of absurdity and burlesque in Khrustalev, mashinu! that seem to appeal to a different cinematic tradition. In this connexion, it is perhaps interesting to note that German considers Fellini ‘cinema’s only realist’. [7]. This last remark was made with reference to Roma (1952), a city which provides a coincidental link to Gogol’, whose deranged, dislocated Russia clearly influenced German’s latest film. (Indeed, its working title was Rus’-troika, a nod to the last lines of Dead Souls.) There are also moments which hint at allegory—Klenskii is attacked by a band of children who beat him with sticks, a brutalized and brutalizing new generation, Stalin’s progeny. But frequently, German’s shots have an otherworldly beauty, a composed lucidity which challenges any intricate symbolic reading. Near the beginning of Khrustalev, mashinu!, a stray dog lopes silently down a snow-covered street; a bleak, bleached white expanse stretches before Lapshin as he promises to clean up the earth and plant his garden. This is the lingering camera of a director taking pleasure in the shot as an aesthetic object in itself—shades of Tarkovsky, perhaps.

Between thaw and fall

German comes from a generation of filmmakers unable to make their reputations (as Tarkovsky did) before the liberalization of the Khrushchev years evaporated under Brezhnev; witnessing, as students, a burst of cinematic creativity that they were not allowed to carry forward. Tarkovsky’s Stalker apart, the late 1970s are more known for likeable comedies than for films of great import. The comparison with another near-contemporary is instructive: German and Nikita Mikhalkov (The Barber of Siberia, Burnt by the Sun) both come from well-connected families of the Soviet artistic elite—Mikhalkov’s father wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem, German’s breakfasted with Stalin at least twice—yet where German chose to be antipotochnyi, Mikhalkov’s films have been lush and uncontroversial: Western money has flooded in. German’s hardships and professional struggles have been one result, a career caught between the more open, experimental wave of the sixties and the harsh realism of the perestroika years. Paradoxically, German’s films properly belong to this period in which they could not be released: a bridge between two phases of Soviet filmmaking. They both refer to and prefigure a range of stylistic devices and strategies, rarely seen in the work of one director: each frame of Ivan Lapshin is loaded with potential meanings and suggested histories that emerge differently with every viewing; Khrustalev, mashinu! is now gaining a reputation as a misunderstood classic. German’s current project—the adaptation of the Strugatskiis’ Trudno byt’ bogom that he first scripted in 1968—continues his engagement with difficult areas of Russia’s past. Two observers from earth visit a planet similar to their own in mediaeval times, and find themselves constantly tempted to intervene and change the course of events. The book was a talisman of the Soviet thaw of the early sixties; it was the invasion of Czechoslovakia that put an end to its filming then. In returning to it now German has the possibility of commenting not only on the Prague Spring but perhaps also on Russia’s present ‘intervention’ in Chechnya.
But although his films abound with real details and concreta, German does not see himself as documenting or reporting events. When he portrays the past it is always as a morass of anecdotal details and forgotten objects, forcing us to recognize its complexities and confusions. There is a continual denial of certainty in German’s films: definitive explanations of the ‘real’ are undermined in a way that reveals to the viewer the impossibility of ever remembering anything totally—along with the hazards of forgetting even the smallest of incidental details. Indeed, it is often these that speak most powerfully in German’s films: champagne quotas never to be reached, empty plains that are left unplanted, the stray dog in the snow-covered street.

[1] Interview in V. Fomin, Kino i vlast’, Sovetskoe kino: 1965–85 gody, Moskva 1996, p. 200.
[2] See Julian Graffy, ‘Unshelving Stalin: after the Period of Stagnation’, in Richard Taylor and Derek Spring, eds, Stalinism and the Soviet Cinema, London 1993, p. 218.
[3] Kino i vlast’, p. 206.
[4] The arrests came after a five-year wave of the most vicious anti-Semitism, begun around 1948, at the start of the Cold War. Jews were attacked for being ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ disloyal to the achievements of the USSR, and dismissals of Jews from their jobs and the denigration of Jewish contributions to science and culture took place in much the same tenor as they had in thirties Germany. On 12 August 1952, all but one of the twenty-five members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which included leading scientists, writers and actors, were executed.
[5] Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend, London 1967, p. 15.
[6] This film was also not released until 1986, but as a well-connected employee of Lenfil’m, German would have been able to see it—even though it was ‘on the shelf’.
[7] Interview in Iskusstvo kino, 8, 2000, p. 12.
- newleftreview.org

Aleksei German interviewed


Usput, prethodna, problematična verzija filma Teško je biti bog:


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