The joke about Aleksei German was always that he was great but only Russians liked him. Several years ago, I invited a non-Russian-speaker to a screening of Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998) at Brooklyn's BAM cinema. Ten minutes into the screening, an odd thing happened. I felt the urge to tell my companion to stop reading the subtitles.
The following scene prompted me: A middle-aged housekeeper opens the curtains and spikes her morning tea with cognac; someone polishes a shoe and talks about a veterinarian prone to lethargic sleep; a woman with a yoghurt facial scolds a senile lady for using a walker and, moments later, for taking a large kielbasa into bed with her. The old woman claims to be defenseless against sexual fantasies. Some words are misheard; a grocery receipt is scrutinized; a winter coat is sniffed in search of mothballs, two doll-like Jewish sisters skip across the frame chanting and singing. The grandma asks the chauffeur if the motor is running and then demands to be taken to an infirmary. A door is slammed, scraps of voice-over come in; a man moves towards the camera and says, "I didn't expect this from you, Aliosha." All of this takes place in a medium-sized kitchen, in 90 seconds time, and is filmed in one masterly tracking shot.
The result is mesmerizing and dizzying all at once. This is very much German's M.O. Voices overlap and drop-off mid-sentence, the camera flits about the room, characters grab the story by the reigns only to disappear moments later. Speech blends with setting; the words themselves becoming no different than the clothesline above the kitchen table or the silver teakettle. Put into subtitles, these same words become weighted down and somehow burdensome.
There is always loss in translation but German's films are particularly vulnerable. His words—beautiful and chaotic—are decoys. They immerse us in the past through the sheer excess of everyday life. The details are often so rich as to distract from the main story. To his many admirers, this is a big part of German's genius. But in his forty plus year career, it has primarily been the director's Achilles' heel.
Starting with his first solo directed feature, Trial on the Road (1971), studio heads and their like have all told German, "these brilliant moments do not add up to a film." The implicit point being, as German himself has said in interviews, that the officials never saw him as a dissident but more as a great assistant director, someone excellent with backdrops, B-roll, and secondary characters.
Soviet cinema's New Wave began with Marlen Khutsiev's I Was 20 Years Old (1961) and dissipated around Brezhnev's death in 1982. The era launched the careers of three major filmmakers: Andrei Tarkovsky, Kira Muratova, and Aleksei German. Of the troika, Muratova has been the most productive, Tarkovsky, the most emblematic, and German, Teutonic last name aside, has been the most Russian.
In Russia, films like Trial on the Road, My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), and Twenty Days without War (1976) are known beyond cinema circles, in ways that the films of Muratova and even Tarkovsky are not. Part of this, is a fact of casting—German's leads are often beloved popular actors, many of them comedic and breaking character. Nikulin, Mironov, Gurchenko: these were the darlings of the Soviet public in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. Their images remain tokens of nostalgia.
Equally important has been German's persistence and meticulousness in recreating the past. His five films are a constellation of turning points in Soviet history. The Seventh Companion (1971) begins in 1918 with Lenin declaring a campaign of Red Terror, a period of mass executions. My Friend Ivan Lapshin—part crime story, part love triangle—is primarily a slice from the life of a small-town criminal investigator, working in the winter of 1935, at the peak of Stalin's Great Purge.
Lapshin is an understated and eerily quiet take on Stalinism. Khrustalyov revisits the theme in the winter of 1953, as the Leader lay dying, and is a hypnotic mix of nostalgia and nightmare. The film's protagonist, General Klenski, is a medical doctor who is arrested halfway into the film and put through several layers of hell, one of which includes gang rape inside a champagne delivery truck. The General is plucked from that ordeal and placed at Stalin's deathbed as the medical expert in charge. He applies pressure to the leader's bloated stomach, trying to relieve Stalin by making him fart.
In public, German has always claimed to be apolitical. Given how deliberate his choices of historical backdrop have been, there is something off about the claim. Still, a stubborn humanist streak has kept him, as writer and director both, from turning an individual's heroics or sacrifice into national monuments. Reluctance to do so has led to much studio obstructionism, particularly with German's World War II films, Trial on the Road and Twenty Days Without War.
Both take place in December of 1942, a time when the tide turns against the German invasion. The battle of Stalingrad, dealing Nazis their first major defeat and leaving nearly two million dead, continued until February 1943 but was effectively won by November 1942, when Hitler's 6th army was left surrounded, with supply lines cut.
The arrival of 1943 was met across the Soviet Union with war-ravaged optimism. In Twenty Days without War, December 31st, 1942 is one of the days that Captain Lopatin (Yuri Nikulin) spends in the mild climate of Tashkent, a city in Central Asia, untouched by war. The film is a love story, albeit a love story circumscribed by Lopatin's allotted leave time and by the atmosphere of war in absentia. That New Year's Eve, Lopatin mingles and dances from one crowded kitchen party to another but, after midnight, finds himself in a barely lit room, listening to a soldier describe crawling out from beneath a pile of rubble and flesh.
At moments like this, German's commitment to verisimilitude can seem cruel. The unnamed man reliving his trauma is interrupted again and again. First, by a chipper girl popping her head in, then, by a stranger shining a flashlight, and finally, when Lopatin himself is called away. The film moves on, leaving the man behind and denying him any catharsis.
German's tendency to puncture those moments that would otherwise be most heroic was a big part of his trouble with the studios. Twenty Days was initially banned and was released only after interference from the film's revered scriptwriter Konstantin Simonov. No last minute rescue occurred for Trial on the Road, shelved for fifteen years until 1986, in large part because of German's failure to find the correct tone for the film's coda: the Red Army's iconic march towards Berlin.
Trial ends in a decidedly major key: marching band music and a procession of tanks, trucks, and smiling soldiers. But at the very end, rather than widening the shot, German moves in close on Ivan Lokotkov (Rolan Bykov), the guerilla group leader and the film's heroic protagonist. The Red Army caravan passes by while Lokotkov keeps pushing to start a stalled supply truck. The film ends on his face: humble, enthusiastic, perfectly Soviet, but also private, as if reflecting on the past instead of looking ahead to Berlin. As always, German's 'problem' is that of the cog standing out too much from the wheel.
Though all of German's films are about the past, they are not about history. The distinction is important because the director's feelings about the two are so split. Russian history, as German has said, is an endless process of degradation, abuse, and humiliation. His obsessive love of the past, however, is palpable in interviews and manifest in the films. German is a dour man, to an almost comedic degree, yet his face is completely transformed whenever he speaks about the past of his grandparents and, in particular, that of his father, Yuri.
Yuri German was Soviet royalty—an officially celebrated and massively popular fiction writer. He attended Stalin's banquets and lived to tell his son about them. German the son admires his father as a parent but also as a writer of considerable talent. Still, Aleksei German is the first to regret that the father's mass popularity, coming at a relatively young age, curtailed the latter's development as an artist.
Both Trial on the Road and Lapshin are based on Yuri German's stories and were adapted for the screen by his son, working with wife and lifelong collaborator Svetlana Karmalita. In these films, the son does his utmost to push his father's talents in the direction of serious art. Transformed by the language of film, the father's stories become portals to the past, something the son has always valued more than plot. German's "problem" of balancing individual details with the big picture is thus much closer to being a deeply personal artistic project. Words resist being chained to subtitles; the past comes to life but resists history; theson revisits his father's narratives but is too distracted by the cacophony of recollection to put accents on specific story points.
Remaining stubbornly out of step with commercial Soviet filmmaking, German has made brave and often exquisite cinema. In his films one finds the temperamental flux of Cassavetes, Fellini's carnivals of daily life, Tarkovsky's poeticism, Malick's precarious voice-overs. As a representative of a national cinema, German is perhaps closest to Yasujiro Ozu. Both directors can present a bit a challenge for non-Russians and non-Japanese viewers, respectively. Part of the challenge is a conviction, on both the directors' parts, that indirect and seemingly trivial details, often requiring substantial cultural know-how, should overshadow grand gestures and big words. For natives, such details come with an all-embracing comfort that is hard to pinpoint.
In Russia specifically, German's way with details has given the films a peculiar resonance in recent years. The political rhetoric of Putin's Russia, machismo standing in for piqued pride, no longer looks back to October of 1917 for a foundational moment, but to the Second World War. Yet, the very fact of victory over Nazi Germany is less potent today than the national resilience and sacrifice that led up to it. The Soviet flag waving above Berlin's Reichstag in 1945 is less iconic than the sum of the Red Army's piecemeal advances at the start of 1943. If the lack of triumphalism at the end of Trial on the Road caused the film to be banned at the time of its release, today the shot of Lokotkov, left behind but happy to keep pushing forward, is just the right one. None of this has brought German to mass popularity or national auteur status. That position continues to be filled by the far less-talented Nikita Mikhalkov, a purveyor of nationalistic kitsch endlessly in search of a blockbuster. German, for his part, continues to be disliked and revered in equal measure. But his films feel more like classics today than ever before.
Shortly after Khrustalyov, German received a Presidential Award from Vladimir Putin himself. But when the time came to make film prints for the theatrical run in Russia, German could not find the needed finances inside the country. A Russian businessman living in France eventually paid for the copies to be struck. The situation was familiar to German. Reluctant and belated acceptance of his films has been the norm for nearly 50 years. His next film, Hard to be a God was scripted in 1967, and has been in production for the last 15 years. It is rumored to be premiering at Cannes later this year. Aleksei German will be surprised if the public loves it at first sight.
War and Remembrance: The Films of Aleksei Guerman is playing March 14 - 20 at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center.