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Exorcism: Aleksei German Among the Long Shadows

By J. Hoberman

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From the January/February 1999 issue

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

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