In March of last year, I took a chance by watching a film I knew nothing about, based on a passionate post written by cinephile par excellence and friend Glenn Kenny. The film had the bizarre title of Khrustalyov, My Car! And I knew more or less nothing going in besides some plot revolving the night in which Josef Stalin died. Emerging two hours later, I still had no idea what I watched, but I knew the cinematic voice I had just seen was an authorial presence that didn’t just hold my hand, but shoved me in front of him while wearing a blindfold. I was barely able to process the images I had watched, but felt rapturously connected to them.
In film history, German has always played a second fiddle to Andrei Tarkovsky in the way Mizoguchi has played fiddle to Ozu, though even Mizoguchi is a better known quantity in comparison. His films are impossibly notorious to track down. Not on DVD in either the States or Europe. Torrents and YouTube streams are sparse.
But they are works of visceral cinema, exploring Soviet history from a Soviet perspective. This makes them feel inaccessible in a way to the Western viewer, but it is in that inaccessibility that I found myself in a trance by his absurdist dark humor, expressionist cinematography, and intensely swerving tracking shots. There are cultural clues throughout, one that I missed when I watched his films, and will continue to miss throughout my life. Tarkovsky’s films are universal—I dare a viewer to feel nothing as the bell rings out at the end of Andrei Rublev. German’s films are specific, built on a nation’s history of contradictions. But one doesn’t need to have lived Soviet history to feel the pains of those who did. I think of the pain in the protagonist’s face in Trial on the Road as he realizes the suicide mission he must commit. I see the pain in the young boy of My Frined Ivan Lapshin seeing what is happening in his society. And I see it in the utter confusion of the Doctor General of Khrustalyov, realizing how little power he has. The pain is not one for myself but of another, an entire country that is both distant and alien, yet all too human. In Tarkovsky, you see your own struggles. In German, you see that of another.
I’m no expert on German, but when I learned he passed away in Russia yesterday, I felt a real loss in a way no director had made me feel. Perhaps because German’s films remain an unknown quantity-a sect of cinephilia still only left to those lucky enough to have taken a chance. My hope is that this feeling won’t remain.
Since I think an appreciation of Aleksei German's cinema does not necessarily require an understanding of language, watch My Friend Ivan Lapshin on YouTube.
Ante Dolan's fantastic piece from Film Comment from the German series I attended.
For years, German struggled to finish a science fiction film called Hard To Be A God. His son, an accomplished filmmaker himself, may try and finish it. A six minute collection of clips is here.
Gina Telaroli posted an amazing clip from Twenty Days Without War.
Kevin B. Lee's round up of various writings on Ivan Lapshin from his Shooting Down Pictures project.
David Hudson has an extraordinary amount of links as usual at Keyframe Daily.