Aleksei German's cinema

Ilya Repin, Tugboats of the Volga, 1894. (St Petersburg State Russian Museum)
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By JOÃO LANARI BO*

Considerations on the work of the Russian filmmaker

The mere possibility of Donald Trump's victory in the US elections next November suggests a celebratory atmosphere in Moscow – and with every provocation about Ukraine and NATO, champagne corks can be heard hitting the Kremlin ceiling. This unusual correlation is nothing new. But, what were the paths that led to this paroxysm, in the clinical sense of the word, a state or phase of a disease in which the symptoms become stronger and more acute?

Donald Trump's introspective view of international relations can be seen as a disjunctive vector of unpredictable proportions. If the North American empire is falling, the landing could have the additional effect of straining the fragile balance that sustains stability between nations. Multilateral efforts of the UN type and the like will be affected, Earth civilization will enter into supposedly multipolarity: whoever has nuclear power comes out ahead, whoever doesn't have it will have to be content with the good old talk of conversations in the ear.

Vladimir Putin's Russia is one of those that takes the lead, configuring a war economy that will probably require new expansions to survive. China, India and Europe (France and England) will be on the lookout: the United States, grappling with political dysfunction, too. Pakistan and Israel prowl the area. Not to mention the newcomers, Iran and North Korea.

Facing a scenario like this, dystopian and terrifying, is not easy. Cinema, a discourse that oscillates between transparency and opacity, is a window that offers itself. Aleksei German (1938-2013), a notable Russian director, was one of those who accepted the challenge and dove deep – his It's hard to be a God, completed in 2013, is an eschatological and non-aseptic science fiction, the gateway to – or exit from – a post-apocalyptic world.

Fantasy fabric

Aleksei German proudly refers to how, in his entrance exam for the Leningrad State Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinema, he declared that the only true Soviet film was Cinderella (1947), by Nadezhda Kosheverova – pure fantasy in the midst of Stalinism. Fantasy, in those times, was a ploy to escape censorship – Aesopian fables, as they said in the USSR.

Aleksei's father, Yuri German, was a writer and journalist, as well as a screenwriter, along the lines of socialist realism and infallible communist messages – but punctuated with intrigue and adventure, which made him a popular author. He was not especially active among the intellectual elite: invited to a writers' dinner with Stalin, he allowed himself to be seduced by the leader's “charming” figure. Over time, he put this impression into perspective. Aleksei German tells of the secret police officer who visited the family after the war and told them about the horrors of the purges, much to Yuri's embarrassment and fear. "Why are you telling me this?" asked: “You are a writer”, replied the interlocutor.

The next day, the officer killed himself and the police went to Yuri's house to question him. Unlike Nikita Mikhálkov, also the son of a famous writer, Aleksei German built his career with critical films that were difficult to understand – despite occasionally using his father's scripts, some unfinished, as a starting point. His genealogy worked dialectically – a close relationship with the paternal figure, tempered by circumstantial embarrassments.

He worked hard, but only completed six films – in one of them, The Seventh Companion, shared the direction with a veteran colleague (Aleksei German, in an excess of self-criticism, considers the result “weak”). In the others, he created a nostalgic language, marked by a personal tone of memories and moral assertions. His films are about a meticulously recreated past, filtered through fantasy and memories.

And always in tune with the time of production – the ideological superstructure that prevailed in the USSR, the abrupt transition after the fall of the wall and the Putin era. Negotiations with the establishment censorship in the Soviet period, and also long intervals between productions in the capitalist period.

German was one of the filmmakers who benefited most from perestroika of Gorbachev. My friend Ivan Lapshin – based on his father’s text about a “devoted communist detective” – takes place in 1935, a time of great projects and muffled crises, the eve of the terror of the purges. Lapshin chases criminals, lives in a communal apartment and fraternizes with a theater troupe. Released in 1985, it captured the prevailing climate of disillusionment – ​​communism was essentially good, but something led it to decline and corruption.

Andrei Tarkovsky and a reasonable critical consensus considered Aleksei German to be one of the three most important directors in Russian cinema. After Tarkovsky's exile and death in 1986, he and Kira Murátova undoubtedly stood out. After Lapshin, waited fourteen years before shooting his next production, Khrustalyov, My Car!, released in 1998.

The plot of the Jewish doctors

One of the phenomena associated with cinema, since the beginning, is the transport capacity that it offers to the spectator, mental and psychic transport – in contemporary terminology, the infamous immersion, that dive that drags our senses into another atmosphere, beyond the immediate that we experience. surrounds us. How this happens, how films are capable of constructing a phenomenology of perception – was and is the subject of long and heated debates.

What is important here is to highlight the particular immersion that emerges from Khrustalyov, My Car!, the feature film that Aleksei German completed in Boris Yeltsin's post-communist Russia. During the almost two and a half hours of action, we enter another Russia, that of the long Stalinist dictatorship, exactly at the short and dramatic moment of transition – the death of Stalin, at the beginning of March 1953.

Outlined in a script that German wrote with his wife, Svetlana Karmalita – in turn inspired by a text by poet Joseph Brodsky about communal life in a Soviet apartment – Khrustalyov, My Car! has as its time frame the last days of the great Leader, when, under the Moscow cold, Stalin exhaled his final paranoid delusions, the “doctors’ plot” – a conspiracy of Jewish doctors, supported by the CIA, about to assassinate the main cadres of the Communist Party, including himself.

Our protagonist is Yuri Klenski – a corpulent mustachioed man without a single hair, general and neurosurgeon, extroverted and mischievous – who manages his family and household in the chaos of the home, at the same time as he heads a hospital full of equally mischievous doctors and patients on the brink. of hysteria. The description refers to a type of performance typical of a farcical theater, many people on stage, passing through the camera's eye – eyewitness accounts of the prevailing paranoia.

After all, how can we reproduce Soviet life in Stalin's last days? Black-and-white photography in high contrast, handheld camera following the frenzy, claustrophobic scenarios and dissonant layers of soundtrack – it can be an alternative. Of course, it is not immediate evidence to decode all of this, and it is up to the viewer to let themselves be immersed in order to, in some shining place, capture the historical vibration of the proposed images and sounds.

At a time when control over any type of public information was strictly exercised, Stalin suffers a devastating stroke and someone has to take care of it – left to Yuri Klenski, who in addition to being a doctor is a Jew with an insatiable sexual appetite. If he was persecuted, arrested, tortured and sodomized during the “plot”, it doesn’t matter – he is the one who will check on the Great Leader’s health.

Paradoxically, the plot of Khrustalyov, My Car! It is linear: events follow one another in a timeline, a few cold days in February and March. Yuri, whether well or badly, leads the narrative. But we are in a nightmare: fragments pass by at dizzying speed, we are led to orient our reading on pieces of vitality that present themselves, full of farce and sarcasm, vulgar and brutal. All this corrosive aesthetic is, in short, a metaphor for Stalin's dark and wild times.

Psychotic times, to use a worn-out psychology term. The director, Aleksei German, said in an interview that it is a metaphor for the terrible psychological trauma resulting from anal rape perpetrated by the State, the tsars and the Bolsheviks. Russia, after all, is a country of extremes.

Nikita Khrushchev is credited with a unique description of the day Stalin had the stroke that killed him: Lavrenti Beria, excited, leaned over the leader's immobilized body, accusing him of tyranny and cruelty – a brief opening and closing of eyes was enough to make him repent and fall on his knees asking for forgiveness.

The scene may have been imaginary, but it suggests the terrifying power that Stalin concentrated, founded on Marxist-Leninist rationality and wrapped in an absolutist layer analogous to that of the tsars – even the bloodthirsty Beria feared him (according to historians, however, Beria was not present at the deathbed of the Supreme Commander).

In German's version, Yuri Klenski arrives at the dictator's dacha – the scene was filmed at Stalin's real dacha, in Kuntsevo – takes a shower, composes himself and is welcomed by Beria. He massages Stalin's swollen belly in order to relieve the pressure: it had no effect, he was already dead. Beria kisses Klenski, opens the door and shouts to his driver: “Khrustalyov, my car!”

We don't know, and probably never will know, what really happened that day at the dacha. We know, thanks to Sergei Loznitsa's documentary, what happened shortly after – Joseph Stalin's pharaonic funeral.

God is tired

We live in a period of history that many call post-modern, where the Enlightenment ideals that were defended during the modern era appear to be in undisguised decline – the fall of the wall in Berlin, in 1989, is remembered as a landmark of this historical rupture.

The socialist project fell, and capitalist globalization imposed itself, for better and for worse. Imagine, dear reader, experiencing such a transition on the other side of the wall, in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR: how to absorb this change and create symbolic products that can, in some way, express the jump-cut – to use a cinematic metaphor – of the leap experienced.

It's hard to be a god, completed in 2013, Aleksei German's last film, establishes a surprising route to delve into this delicate subject, the (tumultuous) passage of time in the immense Russophone space. In the distant future, a traveler from Earth visits another planet similar to ours, but “800 years later”. His mission is to help the development of society towards the Renaissance / Enlightenment.

The book of the same name that served as the basis for the film, published in 1964 by the Strugatsky brothers – the same ones who inspired Andrei Tarkovsky in stalker, from 1979 – proposed to denounce that religion and faith function as instruments of oppression, inhibiting humanity’s scientific progress. The USSR, in theory, was the tangible result of this progress – the privileged place where the “new Soviet man” was born, a sign of the “new world”, a concrete result of the evolutionary historical process.

Aleksei German began adapting the book in the 1960s, during communism. He went through the setbacks experienced by his country until landing in the year 2000, when he started filming (the year Putin came to power). The location was around the Tocnik castle, in the Czech Republic, work continued until 2006 – German passed away in the final moments of post-production, in 2013: his wife and son, also a filmmaker, finished the film.

It's hard to be a god it makes no concessions: it is post-apocalyptic, post-narrative, it is a sequence of space-times without distance, it is a grotesque swamp that challenges our spectatorial reason while sinking our conventional sensibility in a sea of ​​mud, worms, intestines, excrement , waste – is a visual order that suggests, as attentive critics have noted, the pictorial settings of the formidable Hieronymus Bosch.

There are children playing with rotting corpses in the rain, smoking dumps, impassable paths, and semi-human freaks from an underworld-turned-world. Local natives laugh compulsively and don't stop looking at the camera – the celebrated fourth wall is diluted in the entropy of the images.

In this world, God is tired. Man does not seem to be the jewel of creation. It's hard to be a god has a guide in the Brownian movement of his language: Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolkin), considered the illegitimate son of a divine being. He came from distant Earth to accelerate the end of feudalism on the backward planet – just as the Bolshevik revolution did to the tsarist monarchy.

Rumata, the demigod, runs through almost every scene of the film, arrogant and impatient, in the midst of feudal conflict – when Rumata hides, the locals hide and flee.

Everywhere, wrinkled faces, malicious smiles, toothless mouths and empty eye sockets. Virtuoso scenography and camera promote immersion in this fetid, viscous, amoral environment, where boiling bodily fluids mix all the time – a sensualized, mysteriously infantilized nightmare.

Primordial Chaos reigns supreme, and there is no end to it. The noble Don Rumata, a man of the future, was conceived during the prevalence of Soviet idealism. An allegory far from the system, which German updated – and radicalized – for the contemporary 21st century, violent and all too human.

For some (good) reason, Aleksei German's work is available on YouTube.

*João Lanari Bo He is a professor of cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasília (UnB). Author, among other books, of Cinema for Russians, Cinema for Soviets (Time Bazaar). [https://amzn.to/45rHa9F]


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