Aleksei Guerman and the art of time travel

by

comment

The secret police of My Friend Ivan Lapshin
  • The secret police of My Friend Ivan Lapshin
If it weren't for Facets Multimedia's Werner Schroeter series, Twenty Days Without War (1977) and My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1982-5), which screen twice this week in the Siskel Center's Aleksei Guerman retrospective, would be the most challenging movies in town. Both deal extensively with Soviet history while barely addressing Soviet politics directly; the films plunge the spectator into the past and demand that he fend for himself. Without any background knowledge of the sociopolitical context, these works might seem incomprehensible—and this probably accounts for Guerman's low profile in the U.S. despite his long-standing prominence in Russian cinema. Yet the films are often breathtaking even if you don't fully understand what's happening (and I speak from experience), which makes these rare big-screen revivals especially valuable.

Guerman's resurrections of the past combine stunning verisimilitude (he claims to spend months researching period costumes and architecture before he begins filming) with unpredictable camera movement, which varies from precise, Kubrickian tracking shots to spontaneous-seeming handheld work. Watching one of his films feels like exploring an alien yet vaguely recognizable environment—a sensation that Paul Thomas Anderson (in describing his own period films There Will Be Blood and The Master) has likened to time travel.

Indeed, I couldn't help but think of Anderson's latest when I previewed Ivan Lapshin a couple weeks ago. This probably has little to do with any similarities between the films; rather, The Master is such a strange new movie experience that it imposed itself on everything I saw for days after I saw it. (It's worth noting that Guerman's films have polarized Russian audiences much like The Master has polarized audiences here, with some viewers expressing awe at their unique artistry and others expressing outrage at their elusiveness.) Still, both films are built around gaping structural absences. The Master, of course, hints at the history of Scientology without really getting into it; and Ivan Lapshin alludes to Stalin's first major purge of 1937—something that many Western spectators may miss altogether, since the film takes place in 1935. Centering on the title character, a small-town police chief hunting a roving criminal gang hiding out in his area, but often drifting from his perspective to consider the lives of numerous other townspeople, the movie barely mentions Stalin at all. As Guerman has said, "This is a film presentiment. It shows the people who will die. We don't know about their death yet. And they think they will live. They think about a very good and happy life."

From My Friend Ivan Lapshin
  • From My Friend Ivan Lapshin
Stalin's purges cast a pall over the action, much like Scientology's insidious growth does in The Master. Certainly, knowing something about either subject will add to your appreciation of the films (and if you want to do some homework on the allusions in Lapshin, my colleague Kevin Lee assembled a superb study guide a couple years ago), but ultimately each one is about something bigger than even its proverbial elephant in the room. In Guerman's film, that subject is the false idealism of the early Stalin era, a sentiment no less pervasive or transformative than America's postwar optimism. Soviet critics Vladimiar Padunov and Nancy Condee, writing about Lapshin soon after its belated release in 1985 (authorities had shelved the film for almost three years due to its deromanticized historical portrait), described the director's style as a means of digging under that sentiment:

First, the original [Lapshin] stories [written decades earlier] by Guerman's father, Yuri Guerman], romanticizing the lives of the secret police, are transformed by the director-son into a depiction of the brutality, lawlessness and hardships of life in a small provincial town: communal apartments, overcrowding, lack of privacy, chronic shortages of food and firewood. The depiction of the seamier aspects of Soviet society—a thieves' den, prostitution, a raid on a hoarder's underground storehouse—are filmed in black-and-white, creating the atmosphere of old, documentary footage that has finally come to light.

From Twenty Days Without War
  • From Twenty Days Without War
This process of revelation is also at the heart of Twenty Days Without War, which takes place during World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, as it's known in Russia). And as in his subsequent film, Guerman isn't concerned with major historical events but with the cultural flotsam that emerges in their wake. The ostensible story concerns a respected author visiting the small town of Tashkent while on leave from reporting on the Russian front. In the director's signature style, the movie roams from one event to another, with the decentralized narrative making even the most mundane experiences seem strange and foreboding.

I should add that both Guerman films playing this week are full of humor. Granted, the humor's generally rather bleak, but there are times when the mordant irony gives way to something broader. In Twenty Days, for instance, there's a sequence when the author character visits the set of a movie based on one of his books, and the ineptitude of the production becomes an extended gag in light of Guerman's own meticulousness. (It's also worth noting that the star of Twenty Days, Yuri Nikulin, was best known to Russian audiences as a comedian and variety show host; evidently, Guerman often casts comic actors against type to mess with his viewers' expectations.) The humorous strain of Guerman's work comes to a head in the full-blown comic nightmare Khrustalyov, My Car! (1997), which screens in the retrospective next week.

Find out how you can help

Add a comment