In Memoriam: The Cinema of Aleksei German “It has always been like this, and like this it will be.”

“The future is always beautiful,” says the law professor Adamov (Andrei Popov) in the first film (co-)directed by the late Russian director Aleksei German. 1968’s The Seventh Companion, like all of German’s films, is a period piece set during a pivot point in his nation’s history. It’s the Russian Civil War, and Adamov has swapped alliances, joining the Bolsheviks. He turns out to be the prototypical German protagonist: of seeming political indifference and ideological fungibility; relatively luckless and loveless; divorced from ambition, save to keep living.

It’s not an inspiring portrait. The will to carry on, in German’s films, seems bred more from a pigheaded complacency with existence than from any greater ideals. Sometime after Adamov is released from captivity by the Bolsheviks (after being arrested on false accusations and accused of treason along with other former members of the Tsarist bourgeoisie), he returns to his apartment in search of his wife. She is dead, and Adamov’s home has been converted into communal housing. “The fact that you’re alive is a misunderstanding,” a functionary tells him. Adamov wanders the city, uprooted, clasping a large clock he’s recovered from his former home.

The Seventh Companion sets a template for future German films: it’s a war film without much warfare, it’s concerned with ethics but doesn’t trumpet any moral essentials, and its main character is unsympathetic but fascinating in his lack of righteousness. It plays like Renoir without the punchline, observant and humanistic but only to a point. The film differs from German’s oeuvre in one notable way: the Soviet government actually saw fit to release it. The director’s first solo effort, Trial on the Road, was filmed in 1971 and went unreleased until the mid-80s. His next, Twenty Years Without War, was shot in 76 and sat unseen by the public for a few years. A third, My Friend Ivan Lapshin, was written in 1969, completed in 1982, and debuted at the Moscow Film Festival in 1985. Two additional masterpieces, Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998) and the newly-released Hard to Be a God (2014), underwent insanely lengthy production schedules, but were released without impediment under more democratic regimes. German died in early 2013 of heart failure, after 13 years of work on his final feature. On the day he died, Aleksei German Jr. composed a blog post in which he wrote that completing Hard to Be a God was the act of a great director “sacrificing his own life.”

Still from “Hard to be a God”

German Jr. may well have said the same about Ivan Lapshin and Khrustalyov, two utterly singular films that help to bring German’s work into relief. They are as plotless and exquisitely detailed as life, susceptible to jokes and group harmonies that give way to fights, episodes of awful humiliation, and blackly comic suicide attempts. To consume his oeuvre is to witness an evolution of stylistic brashness and visual sophistication, constantly rooted in a devotion to the sounds, sights, and gripes of daily life. A New York Times obituary for German describes him as an “Anti-Soviet” filmmaker. I’m no expert in the history of Russia in the first half of the twentieth century (or the second half), but German’s difficulties with Soviet censors ought not be tied to any sense that the director was a pioneering artistic dissident. Trial on the Road traffics heavily (and quite effectively) in the war-reveals-hypocrisy-and-is-miserable-for-all-involved genre, but German’s subsequent wartime settings are more sly. Twenty Years Without War and Ivan Lapshin take place off the battlefield, and are set in the delicate moments between historical epochs. Their politics are half-audible mutterings, one ingredient in a thick period stew. More stark and perhaps more dangerous are German’s allergies to ideological heroism, narrative, and fixed identification. Stripped of these essentials — which themselves can stink of wearying essentialism — German’s project strikes the viewer most directly as an act of deeply personal historical reclamation.

In Twenty Days Without War, the antihero Lopatin is a man in uniform who doesn’t engage in combat: he’s a war correspondent and a novelist, on the titular leave in Tashkent. Much of the film seems to transpire in a stupor wrought from bomb raids and food rations, and Lopatin is its listening post, a host to artists and strangers, soldiers and women. A bravura early shot finds him in a train compartment with an air force captain, who unburdens his soul as Lopatin, off-screen, listens impassively. He visits his wife and her new mate, and has a perfectly amicable conversation before signing divorce papers. “Why is this man perfectly fine?” a woman asks of Lopatin shortly after. “Because things are perfectly fine for me,” he responds.

No one seems to fit the roles assigned to them, from a grouchy housekeeper to an actress struggling to find her motivation in the role of a prostitute. German heightens that sense of disassociation in the viewer.

From its beginning, pungent with Lopatin’s chilly, perhaps lonesome self-regard, Twenty Days Without War develops a meandering interest in the artistic process, contemporaneous domestic affairs, and the possibility of love. It’s German’s most subdued film, but a few extended scenes exhibit a Felliniesque facility for choreographing sound and bodies in an alternately antic and dreamlike harmony. This talent has evolved into mastery from the full-color prologue of My Friend Ivan Lapshin. (You can watch the whole film here.) “I hear the sound of a child’s footsteps — my own,” a narrator says as the camera scans the tchotchkes and bookshelves of an apartment, wanders upstairs, and lands on a child sharpening a knife, before peering down at a patriarch drinking alone at a table, and glancing outside at the snowy present-day of the town where German’s period film takes place. The shot isn’t nearly as intricate as a dozen or so others that will transpire over the next 90 minutes, but it has a creeping and revelatory import: a narrator discussing his memories as this child — his grandson, it turns out — arrives at the age where he can form his own. With a few words and a couple of motions, German’s film collapses both personal and generational history. (What’s more, it’s based on a few stories by the director’s father.)

Identity and empathy are fluid and fraught in the bustling, black-and-white tragicomedy that ensues. Ivan Lapshin is the main character of My Friend Ivan Lapshin, but he’s one of at least a handful that reside in communal housing in a small town on the eve of the Stalinist purges. Lapshin is the chief of police, but his position of authority belies his innocence. When he’s not hunting down murderers, Lapshin wakes up in tears and pines for a woman promised to a good friend. That friend, Khanin, is a Casanova prone to suicide attempts after the sudden death of his wife. No one seems to fit the roles assigned to them, from a grouchy housekeeper to an actress struggling to find her motivation in the role of a prostitute. German heightens that sense of disassociation in the viewer.

Some instances of aural and visual sleight of hand play like goofy magic tricks: Ivan drops a bed knob out of a window, and just as it hits the ground, a mirror breaks offscreen. Others are more surreal: a scene becomes overwhelmed by the sound of birds squawking, before they stream past a window. Episodes end abruptly, and other spring up from nowhere. Our narrator doesn’t witness much of any of it, except for some memorable chaos at home: prank calls, singing, drinking, grousing, and an impromptu comedy skit by two roommates. This is the first of three German films of a wildly lucid dimensionality: his camera is a willfully artificial frame — bodies walk past it for no narrative reason — but one that might contain a handful of planes of interest, along with any manner of offscreen sound effects. The result, in My Friend Ivan Lapshin, is a supremely nostalgic cacophony.

Still from “Khrustalyov, My Car!”

In Khrustalyov, My Car!, it’s something more like absolute chaos. The narrator that introduces the story says, “That’s me, back then,” before his avatar spits into a mirror. German’s warped and smeared reflection of the few days before Stalin’s death is a fantasia of magic and fart jokes, the most elaborately bedecked comic farce I’ve ever seen. Slapstick and surrealism are in the air from the outset, where a stoker gets electrocuted and an umbrella opens of its own volition as squadrons of black cars prowl the streets and a dog chases an offscreen whistle. Eventually, the neurosurgeon that will more or less guide us through the film is introduced. Yuri Klenski is a Red Army general and hotshot doctor, a vision of Soviet might (tall, bald, and mustached, with massive palms) strutting through the upper echelons of late-Stalinist high society while violently gulping cups of tea spiked with cognac. A scene might pause for Klenski to get a blowjob, but minutes later he’s been kidnapped by the authorities and is gang-raped in the back of a champagne truck, en route to Siberia. After numbing his ass in the snow, Klenski is turned away from the gulag and is sent back to Moscow to try and save a dictator on his deathbed. Even this scene devolves into fart jokes.

Both Klenski and the film, with its baroque long shots that prowl long hallways and peer through doors and into closets, burrow into the nasty id of the era’s ideology: freewheeling decadence and unremitting paranoia try to maintain a detente that cannot hold. Klenski stomps through his hospital, and enters a room where he happens upon a double of himself. “So, where do we do enemas now?” his new twin asks. This unwanted guest is both a harbinger of Klenski’s doom and yet another reason why it’s incredibly hard to keep a grasp on the strands of narrative dangling from Khrustalyov’s alternately ornate and dirty ceilings. Like Ivan Lapshin, the film and its fitful ambassador get away from the viewer a few times, distracted by uncanny sights and further adventures in communal living. There’s a festival in a Moscow square, complete with multiple street orchestras and a lane of caged animals. German’s camera falls for a group of children wielding sparklers, then a man holding a ram over a fire, and then the sparklers invade the front of the frame. The distant but ferocious roar of a lion interrupts the festivities for a moment, until the festivities resume. The rest of the film is as chaotic, nearly divorced from narrative but never not engaged with both the grand and mundane tragedies and indignities of life under Stalin. German’s work has been necessarily labeled avant-garde and experimental, but those monikers shouldn’t diminish the appeal of his awe-inspiring visuals. Nor should they overshadow the delight of the micro-narratives streaming through his films, like an arterial network stemming from a giant, singularly Russian heart.

The director’s last film, Hard to Be a God, plays as if all of the visual accouterments and possible meanings of Khrustalyov, My Car! went rancid or were reupholstered to fit a medieval backdrop. “The future is always beautiful,” went the line in German’s first film. It’s a statement that could have been repeated by any of German’s characters, unaware of the wolves at their doorsteps, the historic traumas to follow. A naive promise doubles as an excuse to keep living. Hard to Be a God is, in some ways, the only logical endpoint to German’s project, a bleak prognostication that civilized society remains a distant achievement. (Paul Bower reviewed the film TMT. My take on it is here.)

History repeats itself. It keeps getting in the way. The future is, at best, an ugly stalemate, and at worst an endless purgatory. In his final, crepuscular vision, an ambassador from Earth goes on an anthropological trek to the distant planet Arkanar. We are 800 years in the future, but this planet is trapped in an endless, pre-Renaissance dark age. Universities have been demolished, the intelligentsia are being purged, and evolving and warring factions battle for supremacy over the remaining servants and warlords. Our Earthling proxy, Don Rumata, is believed by son to be the son of a God, but the dictates of his sojourn prevent him from interfering in Arkanar’s progress.

He is another of German’s unheroic, uninspiring bystanders to history, more or less literally watching a world turn to shit (and mud, and blood, and a bludgeoning pageant of gallows humor). As the director insists on despair, though, his continued experiment with POV insists the viewer acknowledge their participation in history and its societies, always teeming with bodies, violence, and art. Don Rumata may liken himself an unbiased tour guide, but German gives the lie to that notion by both forcing him into action and wandering away from him when his detachment becomes a dangerous form of impudence. Like the best of German’s work, Hard to Be a God is a symphony wrought from dissonance, a hallucination of uncanny and resonant lucidity.

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