The Strange Case of Russian Maverick Aleksei German
Written by Anton Dolin
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 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
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.)
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, 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 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?
Anton Dolin is the film critic for the Russian publication Moskovskie Novosti.
This article was translated by Oleg Dubson.
© 2012 by Anton Dolin