Hard to Be a God

Alexei German and the chaos of history
by Michael Atkinson  posted May 29, 2012
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

The world is smaller, so they say, and cultural intercourse has grown more globally promiscuous, rampant, even satyric, and so filmmakers that have thrived or struggled secretly in their homelands for decades are now emerging into international daylight, one by one, coming to seem seminal when not long ago the story we thought we knew about cinema trundled on confidently without them. Among this tribe of reborn auteurs non grata, a special tent is reserved for Alexei German, son of author Yuri German, and a recalcitrant St. Petersburg badass who has so far made only five movies in a 44-year career that traded enraged spittle with every manner of Soviet and post-Soviet authority entity.

Roiling discontent and seething anti-Stalinist critique were just what's for breakfast in the typical German film, but this distinctive bellicosity defined him. Reportedly, German (with a hard "g") was fired by Lenfilm after every film, and was either hired back or continued working there regardless. Though he has not been a stranger to certain American retro venues, not one of German's films has ever been theatrically released in an English-speaking country, or ever issued on video outside of Russia. In his mid-70s now, German is supposedly finishing his sixth film (a full dozen years in production so far), and only this year is a hard-won Stateside retrospective (and DVD boxed set to follow?) finally staking the man's unique flag and claiming his irreducible greatness. The series, which has traveled from New York to San Francisco and Vancouver and hits the Harvard Film Archive in June, accessorizes German's five features with The Fall of Otrar, Ardak Amirkulov's crude and crazy 1991 epic about the warring Kazakhs and Mongols in the 13th century, co-written and produced by German.

German's films, though they span 30 years of production so far, from 1968 to 1998, are remarkably of a piece. Each focuses on the chaotic, cramped, and bankrupt fringes of Soviet (particularly Stalinist) life; each hones in on a single semi-powerful male figure weathering the maelstrom in his own way; each conjures a Russian universe in black-and-white imagery so densely layered and richly composed that every shot has the immersive, graphic resonance of a fully three-dimensional dream, frantic with ambivalence, character cross-purposes, Russian Plain permafrost, war scars, uneasy communal hives, poisonous moral compromise, and the paradigmatic absurdity inherent in all texts truthfully examining the Kafka-ness of 20th-century totalitarianism. German's films are typically overrun with details, fraught with half-completed substories, and littered with background effluvia; the rules of a well-ordered movie-narrative universe do not apply. Only five films, but if you were to distill out and break them down into story threads, perspectival flux, and ounces of visual energy, you'd have the moviemaking equivalent of a busy Soderbergh-sized oeuvre.

Arguably, no other filmmaker has embraced so passionately the boggling chaos of history, to the extent that the films themselves often seem on the verge of explosion, like a bloodshot crowd of furious protestors waiting for the single ill-advised gesture to start their riot for real. Still, perhaps due to the accretion of time between the films and the cumulative sanity-shredding effort expended battling authority, German's oeuvre has grown steadily more harried and combustible. By now he seems to be best known for his last finished film, 1998's Khrustalyov, My Car!, by any measure a monster, a Tyrannosaur in your head. Absurdist to the point of derangement and inhabited like an overcrowded madhouse, the film manifests, like all of German's, as a semi-muddled Soviet memory, of a bustling snow-packed village in 1953, where the anti-Jewish purges are ongoing, and where a rapacious bulldozer of a drunken Red Army general (Yuri Tsurilo) becomes somehow marked for a purge and destined for torture and gulag exile but eventually ends up at Stalin's deathbed, making the expiring dictator fart. You have to see Khrustalyov twice to glean this simple plot thrust; the film seems so intent on including everything within reach that any interest German had in telling a story feels wickedly subsumed by the pandemonium. (John Barth's infamous essay "The Literature of Exhaustion," which defined the all-in, kitchen-sink breed of postmodern fiction practiced by Pynchon, Coover, Gaddis, Berger, Grass, etc., suggests a way to look at Khrustalyov, stumping as it famously did for virtuosic, exhaustive profusion over the fashionable trends of minimalism and simplistic Pop Art.) Indeed, Khrustalyov feels like a movie that has a dozen other movies living inside of it, German's frame allowing us a limited corridor of access to what is, after all, an unquantifiable superabundance of human goings-on.

Khrustalyov, My Car!

Yuri Tsurilo in Khrustalyov, My Car!

This is not a film where merely two or three things are ever happening at once; the dozens of characters, whirling around Tsurilo's giant bald bravado, all rock to their own inner barynyas: secret police, psychotic functionaries, dancing soldiers, doppelgangers, asylum castoffs, skiing tourists, village grovelers, ad infinitum, always packed into cluttered apartments and seen through humid windows, as German's camera plummets after them down halls, from room to room to room, and into darkness. The dialogue is not all meant to be understood, or even fully heard. (The irrelevant eponymous character is never even glimpsed, only commanded to off-screen.) Think of the aggregate assault as a Kusturica film reimagined by Cassavetes and undergone metamorphic compression, but unsurprisingly almost any description of German's film fails—it's a vision that captures the entire psycho ward of Stalin's USSR in its very form and voice.

Khrustalyov is something like a high-spirited nightmare compared to his other films, all of which have his distinctive communal mise-en-scène but which are far more ruminative in tone. His rarely-seen co-directed debut, Sedmoy Sputnik (1968), the title of which refers to a seventh "moon" or "companion," begins after the first assassination attempt on Lenin and the initiation of the Red Terror, in 1918, when dozens of old guard bureaucrats, aristocrats, and officers find themselves arrested and held in a palatial assembly room, watched over by young, angry Bolsheviks. In this Exterminating Angel-like scenario, crafted at the tail-end of the Khrushchev thaw, the self-important herd endure nerve-fraying days trapped in the lavish room, sleeping in huddles, rationalizing their principles, mixing with authentic criminals, and getting selected out for interrogation, a No Exit set-up captured in beautiful Kalatozov-influenced tracking shots. German's deep, Russo-Renoirian sense of community is immediately evident (ironically, for a filmmaker who caught so much Politburo shit, he might be the most accomplished and passionate creator of deindividuated social fabrics that any Communist country ever had), but eventually a protagonist emerges, a widowed Army major-general and military academy lawyer (Andrei Popov), who is almost whimsically released but finds himself adrift in the new Soviet Union without a home (his apartment has been coopted), a history (all of his family photos and papers were burned), or a purpose. No one is completely villainized—only the dynamic in toto is under fire. The film's tripartite passage concludes with Popov's weary hero being sucked into the Red vs. White civil war on the Communists' side—until he's captured and the Whites decide to take him as their own as well. All told it's a conceptually remorseless dissection of how the new totalitarian states perverted the essence of personal meaning and spread cognitive dissonance like a contagion.

Sedmoy Sputnik

Andrei Popov in Sedmoy Sputnik

His first solo project, Trial on the Road (1971), was adapted from a war story by his father, following a Russian soldier (the world-weary, Daniel Craig-ish Vladimir Zamanskiy) who'd been captured and forced to fight for the Nazis, and who has been recaptured as a traitor by Russian forces and is now subject to the competing sensibilities of Rolan Bykov's humane commander and Anatoly Solonitsin's distrustful NKGB secret police officer. But of course, as the inarticulate lost soul is conscripted into infiltrating the Nazis on the Eastern front and attempts to prove his fealty to Russia, German prioritizes the messy, organic chaos of the regiment, the Brueghelian forests filled with impromptu communities, the unforgivingly shot landscape, the diversionary welter of detailed character experience investing every turn of the narrative with ambivalence. German is a master orchestrator, from individual gestures to mass movement to frequent launches of breathtaking poetry—as when the ever-present mist, in long shot, slowly reveals a line of approaching Nazi soldiers.

Trial on the Road

Vladimir Zamanskiy in Trial on the Road

Twenty Days Without War (1976) is German in full cry, limning a cinema of insomniac twilight moments and interludes, and carving out a place in our memories for lost milieus (the corridor of that tired, crowded night train). A single moment can shift from someone changing his boots after an air raid to the man's view across the harbor, where the planes are now bombing the horizon. Then or now, we are not used to movies with this much stuff. A writer-officer hero (counter-cast Russian comic Yuri Nikulin) returns to Tashkent for "business and leave," visiting his remarried ex-wife, participating in propaganda shows, falling for a film-set seamstress, happening on a movie shoot, and so on, but here is German's philosophy writ deep, proving in every minute that for him the cinema frame is only an opportunity to evoke human history in four living dimensions. Nikulin's weathered intellectual is a mighty listening force, the receptive presence to humanity's roaring helplessness, from the 10-minute-long train-ride monologue by a frenzied air force pilot (the sequence was shot in one take, and we're not sure until the very end that it is Nikulin listening) to the scene in which an Uzbek peasant family, posing for a photograph in front of their bombed-out house, are suddenly and in slo-mo and without sound bombed all over again.

Twenty Days Without War

Yuri Nikulin in Twenty Days Without War

Probably German's masterpiece and apparently his most beloved work in Russia, My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984) is even denser, more clogged with furious human business, although it is also a resolutely gentle and rueful film, based upon Yuri German's autobiographical stories about provincial life in the mid 1930s. Another semi-passive journalist (Andrei Mironov, counter-cast romantic-comic movie icon and star of a Russian mini-series version of The Twelve Chairs), grieving his dead wife, returns to his hometown to visit the titular Lapshin (non-pro Andrei Boltnev), a laconic police chief as heroically fearsome to criminals as he is ineffectual socially. "This will be a sad tale," German's narration begins, and he's right about the sad part, but it's not a tale so much as an act of time travel. The restless, hungry camera is let loose, roaming through the community apartment where they all seem to live (German clearly has a conflicted relationship with institutionalized housing), over the frozen landscape and around the characters with less a thought toward cohesion than a passion for this life's intimate textures. Sudden deaths, mismanaged romances, memories of war, attempted suicides, drunken woes—all of it caught out of the corner of our eye, down hallways and amid exhausted bustle, where Lapshin himself is rarely singled out as the key figure. The teeming wealth of the film is its message, its raison d'être.

My Friend Ivan Lapshin

My Friend Ivan Lapshin

German's new film, begun in 2000 and still unfinished yet apparently glimpsed in some form by at least one Russian critic (Moscow News' Anton Dolin, here writing at length about German for Film Comment), threatens to be a radical departure. Adapted from the Strugatsky brothers' Hard to Be a God and retitled The Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre, the epic is set entirely on a distant planet mired in its own Dark Ages savagery. The mind boggles with the genre and setting as much as at the production history, which may beat the mini-empire built by Ilya Khrzhanovsky for his film Dau for sheer hubristic gall. In due time, we hope—as we can hope that it won't take years to reach us, or remain undistributed outside of Russia, just as the films of German fils, Alexei Jr., have been, beginning with the pungent 2003 debut The Last Train (a desperate war saga that plays rather like a narrative detour from Trial on the Road). But German may never be properly folded into The Story of Film, which, thanks to apostates like him, remains a chimerical quantity, unquantifiable and full of secrets and forever out of reach. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Lenfilm Studio
Yuri Tsurilo in Khrustalyov, My Car!, directed by Alexei German
Photo Gallery: Hard to Be a God


May 24–June 25, 2012 Alexei the Great: The Films of Alexei Gherman, Russian Master


Russian cinema  |  Alexei German  |  Retrospective  |  Cold War


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct