Dark Ages: The Films of Aleksei Guerman
- Dark Ages: The Films of Aleksei Guerman
“Among the most important retrospectives in years...a bracing, deeply satisfying cinematic experience.”
—Tony Pipolo, Artforum
From October 6 through 31, the Gene Siskel Film Center, in collaboration with Seagull Films, presents “Dark Ages: The Films of Aleksei Guerman,” a series of all five films directed by the Russian filmmaker, plus the cult epic THE FALL OF OTRAR, which he co-wrote and produced.
Born in 1938 in Leningrad, Aleksei Guerman (sometimes spelled “German,” but pronounced with a hard “g”) is the son of noted Soviet writer Yuri Guerman and the father of talented filmmaker Aleksei Guerman, Jr. Along with Aleksandr Sokurov, Guerman is widely considered the most important Russian director since Andrei Tarkovsky, although his work remains far less known in the West than either Tarkovsky’s or Sokurov’s. This current touring retrospective marks the first time that American audiences have had a chance to see Guerman’s entire oeuvre, none of which is available on DVD in the U.S. Although Guerman’s films (especially MY FRIEND, IVAN LAPSHIN) regularly finish at or near the top of polls for the greatest Russian film, some critics have speculated that he is “too Russian” (much as Ozu was for many years considered “too Japanese”) for easy export.
Guerman’s uncompromising artistic integrity is comparable to that of Malick and Kubrick, and it has limited his output to five films in forty years. Censorship battles have delayed completion of most of his films and/or kept them out of circulation for several years. Guerman is reportedly close to completing his sixth film, HISTORY OF THE ARKANAR MASSACRE, which has been in production for over 12 years. Based on a science fiction novel by the Strugatsky Brothers (who also provided the literary source for Tarkovsky’s STALKER), it takes place on a planet whose inhabitants live in the equivalent of Earth’s medieval dark ages.
In a sense, all of Guerman’s films are set in dark ages. They characteristically deal with peripheral figures, perilously suspended between opposing sides, at key turning points in Russian history. These are periods marked by uncertainty, menace, and violence: the 1918 initiation of the “Red Terror” in retaliation against the counterrevolutionary Whites in THE SEVENTH COMPANION; the turning of the tide against the invading Germans in late 1942 in the wartime dramas TRIAL ON THE ROAD and TWENTY DAYS WITHOUT WAR; the eve of the great Stalinist purges in MY FRIEND, IVAN LAPSHIN; the death of Stalin in KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR!
However, as Maxim Pozdorovkin has written (in an excellent essay on mubi.com), it would be more accurate to say that Guerman’s films don’t deal with Russian history, but with the Russian past. History implies a broad overview; Guerman picks an oblique, narrow perspective and immerses us in the immediacy of its moment-to-moment atmosphere, textures, and minutiae (his period films are exhaustively researched down to the smallest detail).
Guerman’s distinctive style--especially in his later, “purer” films MY FRIEND, IVAN LAPSHIN and KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR!--is difficult to capture on the page, but a rough idea might be obtained by calling it Kafka reworked by Fellini: an absurdist, excessive, phantasmagoric experience somewhere between a nightmare and a carnival. Signature elements of Guerman’s style include: lengthy handheld camera movements that pivot and swerve unpredictably; densely crowded settings (Guerman has a special affinity for communal apartments) with peripheral characters popping in and out of the frame; voiceover narrators who disappear after the first minutes, leaving us adrift in a dizzying swirl of characters and events. As Guerman has said, “We wanted to show the interior, the spirit, of these times.”
This retrospective was organized by Seagull Films and the Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York) with the assistance of Lenfilm Studios (St. Petersburg) and generous support provided by George Gund III. Special thanks to Alla Verlotsky of Seagull Films.
For further information on Aleksei Guerman, we recommend these links:
- MY FRIEND, IVAN LAPSHIN
- (MOY DRUG IVAN LAPSHIN)
- 1985, Aleksei Guerman, USSR, 100 min.
- With Andrei Boltnev, Nina Ruslanova
“Masterly...Wonderfully vivid performances and amazingly original camerawork bring a vanished world to life with complete conviction.”
—Tony Rayns, Time Out
Completed in 1982, LAPSHIN was held back by the authorities until 1985; in 1987 a poll of Russian critics voted it the greatest Russian film ever made. Based on stories by Guerman’s father, the film takes place in a provincial town in 1935, where police inspector Lapshin unsuccessfully woos a touring actress and more successfully tracks down a criminal gang trafficking in human flesh. As usual in Guerman’s films, the central plot is less important than the ambience--a mood of bustling collectivist idealism (“We’ll clear the land of scum and plant an orchard!” is Lapshin’s rallying cry) shadowed by the great Stalinist terror that would soon descend. As Guerman said, “This reign of terror will in the end destroy all the principal people in this film...It’s quite clear that these people are not going to see the year 1937.” In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- TWENTY DAYS WITHOUT WAR
- (DVADTSAT DNEY BEZ VOYNY)
- 1977, Aleksei Guerman, USSR, 100 min.
- With Yuri Nikulin, Lyudmila Gurchenko
A war film in which, after the first scene, the battlefield is left behind, TWENTY DAYS is based on autobiographical stories by celebrated novelist Konstantin Simonov, who helped to revive Guerman’s stalled career out of admiration for the director’s long-banned TRIAL ON THE ROAD (see below). On furlough, Major Lopatin journeys to his hometown in Tashkent, where he visits the set of a movie being made (with comic inaccuracy) from his wartime writings and becomes romantically involved with a seamstress in the film’s wardrobe department. With its hero temporarily suspended between the worlds of war and peace, this is a film of mood and memory rather than momentous events; as Lopatin reflects in the opening scene, “What I remember now is the fog spread over the winter sea...Why does it come back to me now?” In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR!
- (KHRUSTALYOV, MASHINU!)
- 1998, Aleksei Guerman, Russia, 137 min.
- With Yurly Tsurilo, Nina Ruslanova
“An exhilarating comic masterpiece and one of the great films of the 1990s.”
—Tony Pipolo, Artforum
“Mad, brilliant...a visionary nightmare.”
—Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader
Guerman’s most ambitious and extreme film to date, this hallucinatory satire begins in a palpable miasma of paranoia, with snow swirling through dark Moscow streets as KGB agents prowl in big black cars and nab unlucky passers-by. The year is 1953, a time of maximum unease in the USSR, as Stalin lies dying and Jewish doctors are being purged for an alleged plot to poison Soviet leaders. Among those under suspicion is the dynamic Surgeon General Klensky, who presides over a Bedlam-like hospital and an equally demented apartment packed with relatives and hangers-on. The film follows Klensky on a frantic journey to the end of the night and beyond, as he is hounded by the police, hustled off to a gulag, and then yanked back to witness a far-fetched but unforgettable version of Stalin’s demise (after which security chief Beria, in a detail based on fact, calls to his flunky, “Khrustalyov, my car!”). In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- THE FALL OF OTRAR
- (GIBEL OTRARA)
- 1991, Ardak Amirkulov, USSR/Kazakhstan, 176 min.
- With Dokhdurbek Kydyraliyev
“One of the great unrecognized masterpieces of the Nineties”
—Olaf Müller, Film Comment
“Fabulous set design...spectacular battle scenes.”
—J. Hoberman, Village Voice
Championed by Martin Scorsese (who “presented” the film’s U.S. release) and compared by critics to Paradjanov, Kurosawa, and Leone, THE FALL OF OTRAR was produced by Guerman and scripted by him and his wife (and frequent collaborator) Svetlana Karmalita. Set in the 13th century, this stunning and strange historical epic combines political intrigue, vast landscapes, and gory torture and battle scenes. As the Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan sweep down into the Muslim regions of Central Asia, a former Mongol scout (another of Guerman’s “men-between”) tries to alert the obstinate leader of his threatened kingdom to the oncoming danger. In Kazakh, Mandarin, and Mongolian with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- TRIAL ON THE ROAD
- (PROVERKA NA DOROGAKH)
- 1971, Aleksei Guerman, USSR, 96 min.
- With Rolan Bykov, Anatoliy Solonitsyn
Guerman’s first solo directing effort scandalized Soviet authorities and was withheld from release for 15 years. Its primary sin was to introduce an unprecedented dose of realism (what Guerman called “the truth of the trench”), ambiguity, and antiheroism into the myth-dominated genre of the Soviet war film. After defecting to the Germans, a Russian soldier (a classic Guerman “man-between”) switches sides again to fight with the partisans, who regard him with deep suspicion and test him with the most dangerous missions. Guerman makes brilliant use of the snowy settings, staging skillful action scenes against a Breughelesque background of peasants buffeted by war. In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- THE SEVENTH COMPANION
- (SEDMOY SPUTNIK)
- 1967, Aleksei Guerman and Grigory Aronov, USSR, 96 min.
- With Andrei Popov, Aleksandr Anisimov
For his first film, Guerman was obliged to share directing duties with a more experienced helmer, and the two battled constantly. Despite the offscreen conflicts, the result was an assured and unconventional film, which introduces Guerman’s central theme of a protagonist caught between opposing sides at a turning point in Russian history (here, the “Red Terror” of 1918). The main character, Adamov, is former Tsarist official who sympathizes with the Soviets but is arrested as part of a program of reprisals against suspected counterrevolutionaries. When he is finally released, Adamov finds his apartment now turned into a commune and himself a ghostly outsider, reduced to doing the laundry (shades of Murnau’s THE LAST LAUGH) and unable to find a place in the new order. In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)