"Among the most important retrospectives in years, War and Remembrance: The Films of Aleksei Guerman is also a bracing, deeply satisfying cinematic experience," begins Tony Pipolo at Artforum. To follow up on Maxim Pozdorovkin's Notebook piece, I'll be gathering pointers to further reading as the series runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York through Tuesday. Pipolo: "Though the Russian director's output is small, his track record is flawless. All five of his features are being screened in this, his first retrospective in North America, along with The Fall of Otrar (1991, directed by Ardak Amirkulov), a curious, almost minimalist epic about Genghis Khan, which Guerman produced and co-wrote in the lull between My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), his first international success, and Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), an exhilarating comic masterpiece and one of the great films of the 1990s."
"Guerman's first solo picture was 1971's Trial of the Road," notes Glenn Kenny. "Among other things, it once again proves the adage that I made up just now, which is that nobody makes a World War II film like a Russian…." A "Red Army turncoat tries to make good with the partisans to whom he's surrendered. As much as the movie condemns war in a relatively conventional what-a-waste fashion, there is a certain exploitable heroism inherent in the protagonist's final sacrifice, and the up-and-at-'em, never-rest determination showed by the partisans' oft-besieged leader, played by Rolan Bykov… [A]s Anton Dolin recounts in his excellent piece on Guerman in the current issue of Film Comment (in which he wryly asks, 'how many other geniuses have managed to displease the Soviet censors, the post-Soviet commercial system, and the connoisseurs of Cannes?'), the movie was 'denied release and nearly destroyed,' and 'finally screened in the Gorbachev era.'"
Film Comment has also posted J Hoberman's piece on German for the January/February 1999 issue: "Although the follow-up [to Trial] 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…. 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 altitudes, if not delusions. Bolshevik idealism is represented as a lost dream."
Updates, 3/19: "Just six years older than the late Andrei Tarkovsky, Guerman (born in Leningrad in 1938, the son of a celebrated writer friendly with Stalin and Gorky) is a fellow visionary," writes Graham Fuller for Artinfo. "His densely allusive, frequently mordant films depict flashpoints in Soviet history — and what it is to be a victim or onlooker of savage upheavals. They have all been shot in black and white (though 1984's My Friend Ivan Lapshin has a few deliberately faded color scenes) and are characterized by serpentine tracking shots and successive set-pieces often described as hallucinatory."
For Larry Gross, writing for Film Comment, Khrustalyov, My Car! is "overlong, repetitious, often crude in language and humor, horrifically violent and at times almost incomprehensible. It is also one of the few indisputable masterpieces of world cinema completed in the last 40 years."
Nathan Rogers-Hancock on Khrustalyov in Cinespect: "In one of the most deliriously strange films ever made (really the only things that even come close are the films made at the height of Czech surrealism, like The Cremator and The Fifth Horseman Is Fear), Guerman takes an utterly simple plot line – a Jewish doctor loses his status during Stalin's last terror, is sent to the camps and gang-raped en route, but is pulled away from this fate when he is needed to save the life of the dying Stalin – and plunges it into a perversely triumphant drunken wake for the dead, as if the drunken dance sequence from Satantango gained consciousness and set off to make its own film."