“What kind of ‘hyper-realism’ was it? It was just an effort to tell more truth about the war.” — Aleksei Y. German
There are countless anecdotes about Russian filmmaker Aleksei German’s demands for historical accuracy. Some classics involve him suspending production until there was just the right amount of snow,1 taking a year to locate a particular model of car, and insisting that even actors who would be barely visible wear full period costume, including underwear.2
These exhaustive efforts served the director’s aim to confront the viewer with precise realities of life under fascist rule. In his later films, like Khrustalyov, my Car! (1998), he was at least partially motivated by a recognition that these conditions were recurring.
German graduated from the Leningrad State Institute of Theatre, Music, and Cinema in 1960, and he built a respectable career assisting Georgii Tovstonogov, the managing director of the renowned Bolshoi Drama Theatre. In 1964, he left to pursue cinema direction. According to Eugénie Zvonkine, this was because the medium offered more opportunity for tangible authenticity.3 Also, earlier the same year, he had suggested to Tovstonogov that a production use real guns onstage, resulting in general panic.4
Active in the cinema for more than 40 years, German directed five films on his own, and he set each during times of political upheaval: in the lead-up to the purges of the 1930s, during sieges in the winter of 1942, and in periods of ardent xenophobic and anti-intellectual persecution.
As Tony Wood reports, German described his films as running “against the current — disrupting certainties and undermining convenient truths.”5
Rather than show the key historical events, the director sought to recreate the conditions of daily life that had either been carefully excised from the official record or, more often, never included.
To do so, for example, he scanned newsreel footage of roadworks, ignoring the choreographed main events and honing in on the appearance of passersby.6 When attempting to evoke a sonic landscape of World War II, he found that the relevant radio broadcasts had been destroyed, so he interviewed people who had been blinded and who could offer finely honed aural recollections.7
To ensure that his record was as accurate as possible, he his partner, the dramaturg and screenwriter Svetlana Karmelita, spent years compiling firsthand accounts and collecting props and personal photographs. The photographs they assembled on “inspiration panels” that allowed for a type of fact-checking during production:
The director explained, “From time to time, I would run there and sit in front of them, to understand whether I was lying [in the film] or not. Am I there or not? I needed to completely immerse myself and then go back and look at my frame: Does it look alike? If not, we have to reshoot.”8
German favoured commonplace settings — gatherings in parks, breakfasts and bedtimes, mud-soaked fields and roadside ditches. He aimed, in his words, to recreate “the truth of the trench,” adding, “What’s important is the truth of the generals, the real truth.” And he pulled no punches, showing, for instance, villages beleaguered equally by Soviet and German occupation and a munitions factory staffed entirely by young boys and elderly women.
While the state-sanctioned depictions of World War II featured strapping, shaven young men with pressed uniforms, German was criticised into the 1980s for his depictions of “shabby, dirty” soldiers.
But many with firsthand experience, including writers, generals, and filmmakers, defended German’s portrayals as accurate. Script editor Aleksandr Zhuravin testified succinctly, “This director is someone for whom the truth of life, the truth of circumstances, the truth of characters – even if bare, cruel, and rude — is the highest criteria.”9
The discrepancy between the official narrative and German’s was thematic as well as aesthetic. The director refused to show the traditional epic struggles, rousing speeches, and heroic archetypes, and aimed instead, as Anton Dolin puts it, to show that under fascism “genuine action is incompatible with heroic demeanour.”10
In Trial on the Road (completed in 1971) German depicted the dehumanising effects of Stalin’s wartime policies, which made acting without moral compromise nearly impossible and attempts at redemption futile.
In Twenty Days Without War (completed in 1976), German explicitly targeted propagandised representations of war in theatre and film, and we see that these bore absurdly little relation to the struggles on the ground. For his characters, living with the discrepancy between the daily realities and the state’s false narratives created a gulf between civilians and soldiers so vast that it nearly obliterated potential to communicate and experience intimacy.
In these films and his next, My Friend Ivan Lapshin (completed in 1982), his protagonists quietly attempt to uphold a spirit of community, of solidarity and personal integrity. German treated these efforts with tender nostalgia while making clear that they would be irrevocably undermined.
Though German produced these films decades after they were set, his “antiheroic”11 representations led to controversy and prohibition. The three films German directed during the Soviet era were blocked from release for between 1 and 15 years, while the State Committee for Cinematography demanded extensive reshoots, cuts, or a replacement director.
German only dug in his heels, cultivating an approach that was even less traditional and more immersive. He explained, “We wanted to show the interior, the spirit, of these times, of these people.”12
A key feature of the director’s style involved his unwillingness to generalise. What we see is not a single, typical story, but a dizzying collage of subjective narratives.
Particularly in My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Khrustalyov, my Car! nearly every scene is infused with poetry, period slang or songs, overlapping anecdotes, and reconstructed memories. In these films and in Hard to Be a God (2013), objects and bodies tumble and thrust immediately in front of the lens, crowding out spontaneous, unexplained bursts of obscenity, suspicion, lamenting outrage, and humour.
“I want to be in history, not above it,”13 German said. To the viewer, his approach can feel frighteningly anarchic, as though he has shaken a test tube and stood back. Determined to be neither sentimental nor propagandistic, German was unwilling to guide our sympathies by relying on such traditional devices as exposition, a clear plot, or a hierarchy of characters. Instead, we are thrust into a restless slurry of individual incidences and left to fend for ourselves.
His depictions grew more outsized and alienating as his career went on. They featured an increasing number of sensory cues, particularly references to smells, often from foods or bodily fluids.
The ubiquitous sniffing in Khrustalyov, my Car! and Hard to Be a God support the bestial devolution that extends throughout German’s filmography. Also, Timothy Harte makes the convincing point that because scent is the sense tied closest to memory, German has inserted these cues to trigger the viewers’ own recollections, prompting a kind of unwilling participation.14
So, why recreate the past in such overwhelming, obtuse detail that the viewer is at once lost and provoked, struggling to find the plot while being buffeted by the senses?
By plunging us into these vortices of collective memories, German tried to give us first-hand experiences of packed communal apartments, hospital corridors, makeshift barracks, and train cars. By drowning out our traditional means of navigating cinema, he hoped to keep us awake and critical.
The goal was initially to generate empathy and, later, to provoke uncomfortable recognition.
In German’s earlier films he claimed to “challenge” the viewer to “have pity on the Russian man.”15 He began Lapshin by acknowledging, “This is my confession of love to the people next to whom I spent my childhood.”
German was not one to tug at heartstrings, but in his first three solo efforts, he lingers tenderly on faces of departing soldiers and on impromptu gestures of joy, intimacy, self-sacrifice, and stoic humour.
His challenge to the viewer of Hard to Be a God was completely different — few will be able to forget the film’s relentlessly upsetting tour through a degraded Middle Ages that has spat on any vestige of a renaissance. German insisted that the film was “relevant and up-to-date,” explaining, “This film is about us and our not very bright prospects […] how we tried to build democracy in a country that staunchly resists any such efforts.”16
In another interview, the director elaborated, “The theme is the onset of fascism, which is, in my opinion, threatening my country.”17
German’s previous film, Khrustalyov, my Car! also seems to have stemmed, at least in part, from fears that past horrors would return. In an interview from December 1988, the director expressed concerns about anti-Semitic upsurges and a nationalist “call for hate” among increasingly independent Soviet Socialist Republics.
In advance of the film’s Russian premiere, the critic J. Hoberman asked German whether Khrustalyov was about contemporary Russia. “Of course,” the director responded, explaining, “The artist is a canary in a mine shaft. […] We didn’t really want to depict 1953, we wanted to show what Russians are like.”18
Khrustalyov, my Car! shows a society ravaged in the grips of the Doctors’ Plot, Stalin’s final plan to eradicate dissent and foreign influence. Jews, foreigners, physicians, and intellectuals were among those charged with eliminating Soviet leaders on behalf of Western powers, particularly the newly formed State of Israel and its American ally.
Between October 1952 and February 1953, when our story begins, the security services had become engulfed in purges and prominent government leaders denounced as spies. The minister of state security and the head of the Kremlin Hospital had been imprisoned,19 and hundreds of doctors were under arrest.20
A survivor of the plot, Dr. Yakov Rapoport, wrote in his memoir, “Every physician was regarded as a potential murderer [and those among the top ranks who were] still at large expected arrest each night.”21
On December 1, 1952, Stalin announced that “every Jew-nationalist is an agent of American intelligence,”22 and he continued to demand “vigilance” in every citizen. This required surveillance and informing, but also inferring and performing the will of the government at all times.23
Amid press fervour, impromptu citizens’ commissions answered this call. They went from block to block, conducting checks to determine who was a true Russian and to expose individuals under suspicion.24 In the early spring of 1953, four enormous concentration camps were under construction,25 the total deportation of Jews was rumoured to be imminent.26
Historical elements stud Khrustalyov, my Car! We see midnight arrests, incitements to inform, and forced reallocation of living quarters. The many instances of casual anti-Semitism range from the absurd to the obscene, and we hear about Jews having been deported and imprisoned. We witness Stalin’s death, which in reality had followed the application of leeches and vaseline enemas.27 We encounter the stunned reaction to this loss and the sudden, wide-scale release of prisoners.
Khrustalyov, my Car! unfolds through the memories and imagination of a son trying to piece together the circumstances of his father’s disappearance. The father is General Yuri Klenski, unflinchingly characterised by Yuri Tsurilo, a master of deadpan comic timing. Klenski is a famous brain surgeon who recognises that his own arrest is imminent. He attempts to escape, is sent to a gulag, and is released to tend to a dying Stalin. Ultimately, he has been so degraded by his experiences that he cannot return home.
A contemporary report stated that the prisoners lost “their human aspect.” Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, authors of an extensive investigation into the Doctors’ Plot, argue that this loss extended throughout the Soviet Union. They describe an “inverted world, where most previous norms of political, religious, and social life had been discredited,” and in which “rational thought itself was subject to the dictates of the state.”28
In German’s film, nervous breakdowns are ubiquitous, language is encoded, and the continual glances at the camera are alternately suspicious, anxious, and entreating. Surveillance pervades and spaces whirr claustrophobically, reflecting the 9-metre “minimum living space per person” cited in one of German’s source texts, In a Room and a Half by Joseph Brodsky.
The historical elements are often eclipsed by this atmosphere, and German withholds explicit references until the film’s end. A person with prior knowledge will pick up on historical references from the opening minutes, but others will miss out on little. The film immediately and emphatically evokes a world in which xenophobic oppression, false news, and fear have almost entirely eroded trust, individual agency, and communication.
In the West, Khrustalyov, my Car! was largely received as “impenetrable,”29 “disturbing,”30 or “rubbish.”31 This did not seem to surprise German, who believed that a person who had never been to Russia could never fully understand his films.32
When Ronald Holloway asked about the reception of My Friend Ivan Lapshin abroad, German replied that many American directors had “liked some of the pictures […] But they were not interested in what was said there. Which words were used. What kind of problems were being discussed.”33
But the West is pricking its ears. Arrow Academy released Hard to Be a God in 2015, and as recently as March 2018, a screening at the Close-Up Film Centre in London sold out. A representative of the cinema told me that the film could likely have sold out a second time, and that it was having similar success at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
As Travis Crawford has observed,34 enduring Hard to Be a God at the cinema has become a test of mettle, a way for cinephiles to show their stripes. It would be wrong to suggest that audiences in the United States and the United Kingdom have been roused by German’s astute political analogy.
But, particularly in these countries, the headlines are flooded with mass deportations, exposed surveillance, and prosecutions of high-profile government officials. The neo-fascists have risen, and xenophobia is explicit in and outside of Western governments. With fake news spurring real violence, there is, unfortunately, ample room for Khrustalyov, my Car! to resonate. And with Arrow Academy’s new restoration, there will be plenty of opportunity to draw a comparison.
Those of us who admired the way that German seemed to achieve time travel in Hard to Be a God will find Khrustalyov as impressive but exponentially more enjoyable.
It is an unabashed art film, a tour de force through gleaming, gargantuan sets, orchestrated by a soundtrack of effects that skip drunkenly in and out of context, teasing interpretation.
Among German’s films, Khrustalyov, my Car! is undeniably the most visually inviting, the most surreal, and the most charismatic, thanks in large part to the outstanding performances of Tsurilo, Nina Ruslanova, Mikhail Dementyev, and Olga Samoshina. It is sickly funny and relentlessly performative, decked with slapstick and references to the circus, and particularly to Fellini.
On repeated viewing, the relationships come into focus, and the film’s underlying pathos shines through. Gaining a better grasp of plot allows us to sit back and marvel at German’s symphonic arrangement of recurring images, gestures, characters, and sounds.
What is particularly impressive is that many prominent symbols in Khrustalyov — the threatening crows, the champagne truck, the focus on an odd number of boots, the first thrust into the fire, the fluttering bird gesture, and the wooden phallus — surface in previous films and are further developed in Hard to Be a God. German’s filmography has veins of evolving symbology, and these are rich in ways that Western cinephiles, critics, and scholars have only begun to explore.
Whether or not a person chooses to see political prescience in Khrustalyov, my Car! anyone interested in the expanded potential of cinema should experience, at least once, German’s cacophonous, elastic, interactive poems about the past.
Arrow Academy’s restoration of Khrustalyov, my Car! premieres in cinemas on December 14, 2018.
15. Arrow Academy, Hard to be a God booklet interview with German, conducted by Anton Dolin, pg. 28
17. Hard to be a God booklet interview, pg. 28
19. Jonathan Brent, Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948–1953, 252
20. Brent and Naumov, 4
21. Brent and Naumov, 284, 293
22. Brent and Naumov, 270
23. Brent and Naumov, 270
24. Brent and Naumov, 284
25. Brent and Naumov, 9
26. Brent and Naumov, 284
27. Brent and Naumov, 318–319
28. Brent and Naumov, 5