Aleksei German (Russia, 1938)(with the "g" pronounced like in "go"), son of the novelist and scriptwriter Yuri German, debuted with
Sedmoi Sputnik/ The Seventh Companion (1967), co-directed with Grigori Aronov.
The war drama
Proverka na Dorogakh/ Trial on the Road (1971), about a
traitor who tries in vain to repent,
was banned by the censors and only shown in 1986.
The patriotic tones are secondary to the depiction of the suffering of ordinary people, which include people who defected to the enemy.
In December 1942, during World War II, a group of Soviet soldiers are working
in the middle of a snowstorm.
A female voicover narrates how the Germans invaders stole the food and animals from the village while we see a flashback of the German soldiers loading trucks.
Then we see a caravan of German soldiers through the lenses of a binocular.
The Soviet partisans attack them. A partisan chases a cow that he recognizes as his own, and is shot dead.
The captain of the partisans
enters a humble hut where a woman and her children are starving: her husband fled the war, and she has nothing to feed her children.
She vents her anger at him.
A young partisan, Mitka, arrests a Russian wearing a German uniform, former sergeant Lazarev, and delivers him to the captain.
The woman takes her two children, locks her house and runs after the column
While they are marching in the snow, the captain interrogates Lazarev, who tells him that he was looking for the partisans to surrender.
In fact, he didn't try to escape when Mitka found him.
Lazarev is locked in an improvised prison with a teenager, also a traitor, who is scheduled to be executed the following morning.
The kid, whining, confesses to Lazarev that he was told by the Germans to kill three fellow Russians, or be killed, and he killed them.
The Germans attack the village and peasants frantically escape.
The captain directs them to head for the swamp.
It started snowing again.
Partisans and villagers march in the forest.
The teenager takes advantage of the situation and escapes.
Lazarev, instead, wants to fight along the partisans.
The partisans and the villagers improvise a camp in the forest.
The captain has a plan to attack a German station using Lazarev who can enter freely.
For that mission he selects two men and feeds them good food because, in order to look like Germans, they have to look healthy.
One of the partisans, Solomin, who despises Lazarev, wants to test Lazarev's loyalty and asks him to
ambush a German sidecar, which he does. The partisans then ambush a car and this
time Solomin is killed. Before dying, Solomin asks Lazarev to forgive him for having doubted him.
The group of partisans also includes a major, who is not in charge but technically is the captain's superior. The major doesn't trust Lazarev. Only one partisan witnessed the ambush and he didn't see directly who killed Solomin, and so he suspects that Lazarev is the real killer, and accuses the captain of being too soft and gullible.
Thousands of Russian prisoners are being transported on a German boat, packed like sardines.
The partisans are actually trying to blow up a train but the train rides over the bridge just when the boat is passing under it.
The captain refuses to give the order to blow up the bridge: it would kill the Russian prisoners.
The major is furious: blowing up the German train was more important to him than the lives of those Russians.
The major orders a soldier to arrest Lazarev, which the soldier reluctantly does (he knows that Lazarev has fought like a hero and didn't kill Solomin).
Lazarev tries to hang himself with a leather belt but luckily the belt breaks.
The captain tells him that he counts on him for the mission to the German station: hijacking a train full of food.
Lazarev, the two partisans fed and dressed like Germans,
with the ids of the ambushed Germans, and
and a female partisan who speaks German,
use the car that they took with the ambush to drive to the German station.
Lazarev climbs the watchtower to distract the sentry while the other three
board the locomotive. Unfortunately, the teenager who escaped has rejoined the
Germans and recognizes the woman and gives the alarm. Lazarev kills the
sentry and grabs his machine gun and starts shooting at the Germans, killing
also the teenage traitor. The other three successfully set the locomotive
in motion and starts pushing the wagons full of food out of the station, but
abandoning Lazarev who is eventually killed.
The mission succeeds. The film ends
with images of the Soviet soldiers marching
in a liberated city (presumably three years later).
The captain is still a captain and his men have to help him push a truck that doesn't start, but a colonel recognizes him as the heroic captain who saved him and saved his platoon and promises to recommend him to the general.
Dvadtsat Dney Bez Voyny/ Twenty Days Without War (1976), also banned for a few years,
Moy drug Ivan Lapshin/ My Friend Ivan Lapshin (completed in 1982 but shown only in 1984), based on his father's novel, is notable for the
manic attention to historical reconstruction and for the general mood of decay
and broken illusions. The characters are good people who live in miserable
conditions and struggle to make sense of their daily lives.
This is mostly a black and white film, with sparing use of color.
The hero of the film is a diligent cop who believes in his job but doesn't seem
to have found meaning in that, whereas his suicidal friend seems to find
meaning in his senseless love for his dead wife.
The hero is the "positive" man who is helping his nation to build socialism,
and the narrator is nostalgic about that age in which ordinary people still
believed in that vision.
Since the story is told in flashback by an old man, the film is an oddly nostalgic
not only to the irrational optimism of the Stalinist era but also
to that age of famine and poverty.
It is disorienting that the narrator is a child who hardly ever interacts with the hero, and therefore cannot have personally witnessed most of the events that he relates.
The narrating voice introduces us to a "sad story" that happened half a century earlier, in the winter of 1935.
Two men mock Mussolini's bombing of Ethiopia.
A group of friends are celebrating the 40th birthday of chief inspector Ivan Lapshin.
The narrating voice was then a nine-year-old boy, Aleksandr, living with his father, Ivan, his roommate and sidekick Vasya an old woman in one apartment.
At night his roommate, Vasya Okoshkin, realizes that Ivan is crying. Ivan says that he just had a bad dream.
One day a circus comes to town and Ivan is introduced to an actress, Natasha,
who is supposed to play a whore in a comedy.
Ivan introduces Natasha to a real prostitute, Katka, who has been arrested for stealing a pair of shoes, so that Natasha can study her part.
Throughout we see images of life in the village.
Then we see two frozen dead bodies carried out of a cellar and loaded in the back of a truck.
The narrating voice informs us that Ivan is pursuing the Solovyov gang, senseless and ruthless killers. Ivan already arrested Solovyov once but he escaped and so now Ivan has to arrest him for a second time.
One day Ivan's friend Khanin arrives, a writer who is working on the life of an aviator. Khanin tells Ivan that his wife just died suddenly of diphteria.
To prove that she's a good actress, Natasha comically pretends to be Vasya's wife while Vasya is flirting with two girls. She gets on her knees begging Vasya to
return home to his children. Vasya is caught by surprise and can hardly react, and the two girls run away.
Khanin is supposed to sleep on the floor of Ivan's and Vasya's room, but first
he takes a gun and tries to shoot himself in the bathroom. He comically
fails but the shot alarms Ivan who breaks down the door and finds Khanin
sitting on the floor. Ivan takes the gun from him and tells him that starting
the day after Khanin will accompany him in his investigations (presumably to
watch over Khanin so he doesn't try suicide again).
Vasya comes home drunk and furious and Khanin calms him down.
The narrating voice remarks that now there were six people living in that apartment.
Khanin watches while Ivan interrogates an accomplice of Solovyov, a butcher,
who seems to imply that the gang used him to cut up the victims (to sell them as meat?)
Back home Ivan and Khanin entertain Natasha, and she cheers up Khanin.
Finally, the play has its premiere, with patriotic and socialist overtones
(Nikolai Pogodin's "The Aristocrats").
It is a flop. Natasha's performance is particularly criticized at the reception following the performance.
Ivan looks of Natasha but she's already gone home.
Ivan uses a ladder to climb to her window and tries to kiss her.
She resists and then confesses that she's in love with Khanin.
Back home, Ivan finds Khanin typing on his typewriter and Vasya moving out:
he's getting married.
The narrating voiceover tells us that Ivan spent the chasing
Solovyov's gang. One day Ivan leads several cops, including Vasya, to the hideout of the gang
in the countryside, and Khanin decides to join them as a journalist.
Many families live in the building. Ivan and his men search every room for
Solovyov and arrest some members of the gang but don't find Solovyov.
Khanin is standing outside, smoking a cigarette, when he sees a suspicious
man walking out of the building.
Khanin tries to stop him but Solovyov prevails and wounds him severely.
Ivan has Khanin loaded on a truck and transported to the hospital.
Then Ivan returns to the place where the cops surrounded Solovyov who is
refusing to surrender.
Ivan grabs a rifle and walks towards Solovyov protected by the fog.
Solovyov walks out to surrender but Ivan shoots him in cold blood.
Then we see Ivan at the port while the band is playing festive music.
Khanin has healed and arrives with Natasha.
Natasha is happy. Khanin is sad that he has involuntarily "stolen" Natasha's heart from Ivan
and is leaving on a boat to go back to his city. Khanin rejects Natasha
because he is still in love with his dead wife.
Natasha leaves town too and invites Ivan to come and visit her, but Ivan
is cold and indifferent.
We also learn that the prostitute Katka is being deported to a gulag.
Throughout the movie, Aleksandr's father silently plays chess.
Now he challenges Vasya.
Then we see the town's marching band carried away by a tram and a color
scene showing the town as it has expanded in the 35 years since.
Seven years in the making,
the sprawling 150-minute Khrustalyov Mashinu/ Khrustalyov Get the Car (1998),
a loose adaptation of Joseph Brodsky's short story "In a Room and a Half", is an hallucinatory
tale that takes place over three days while Stalin lies dying.
The black and white film is mostly shot in long takes.
These long takes capture crowded interiors and make us feel that we are walking through them.
The dialogues are non-existent: they consists of mumbled and frequently vulgar sentences.
Because of the confused plot, it feels like an unfinished film.
If the film is meant to be an allegory, it's hard to find the meaning.
If it is political satire, like all political satire it only works if you are familiar with the politics.
Background: the film takes place in February 1953, when the communist party had fabricated a conspiracy theory known as "Doctor's Plot" that accused Jewish doctors of planning to murder communist leaders. Beria was the infamous the head of Stalin's secret police. During that time it was dangerous to have any contact from people living abroad.
The camera shows us a street at night covered with snow. There is only one
car parked in the street. Someone whistles and
a dog runs towards the camera. The narrating voice tells us that it is the end of winter of 1953 and introduces us to stoker Fedya.
Fedya touches the cars and suddenly three men come out of the car and attack him.
They drag him into a courtyard and lock him into a shack.
The camera then shows us a cramped apartment and an angry child, Alesha. The narrating voice informs us that the child is him back then.
His father is a big, tall, bald, moustached man.
In the street a pedestrian is hit by a truck and left bleeding in the snow.
Then we see again the cramped apartment and the narrating voice (the child)
informs us that his cousins were Jews.
The child's father, Yuri, is a general in charge of a military hospital that
looks more like a madhouse.
A female nurse is his passionate lover.
The general finds a locked door and has to use an axe to walk inside.
He finds a patient who looks exactly like him... someone has created
the perfect double.
We see random scenes of ordinary life by family and friends of Yuri.
Some playing music, welcoming a young "hero",
singing Italian songs outdoors.
A truck loses controls and crashes into a tram.
A woman doctor Sonia takes the bleeding pedestrian in a sauna.
He tells her that he wants to quit, she
gets on her knees and kisses him.
The pedestrian comes to see Yuri and tells him that Yuri's
sister, who teaches in Sweden, sends him his regards.
Yuri shouts that he has no such sister and angrily kicks him out.
Outside the pedestrian meets a woman and a man who don't give him a passport but promise one except he can't go to a hotel without one.
He hitches a ride and tries to alert Yuri of something, but the agents catch him in time and beat him unconscious.
It is now snowing heavily.
Yuri gets his dog drunk. His wife is
angry that he mocks Stalin.
He is coughing nonstop and
she tells him to accept that he is sick.
Yuri drives to the hospital when there's nobody around.
he cuts a hole in a wall to get to a secret exit.
He watches in the cold what happens outside the hospital.
He sees a dozen men come in a truck .
The he walks away, leaving the car behind, and
asks his former lover Varvara for help. He stays the night and they make love
while, unseen by them, her
mother watches (an old woman on a wheelchair).
Agents raid his house, and his wife tells them that Yuri left her letter that he was leaving them.
The family is evicted
(Alesha rollerskates around the house).
We see a long caravans of cars driving through the city.
A mother desperately looking for six-year-old boy.
Yuri in a pub.
Yuri attacked by an adult and a group of vicious children.
He is saved by the agents who arrest him.
Yuri calmly whistles a song.
Before being taken away he implicates the adult who attacked him with the children so he will be arrested too.
Yuri's family is forcibly relocated to an even more crowded apartment.
Alesha's mother appears to go crazy
While he is being transported in a commercial van,
Yuri is attacked and sodomized by the other prisoners.
When the van stops for a quick break, Yuri crawls out and tries to drown himself in an icy poodle, and then sits on a pile of snow to relax his butt.
One of the agents beats a prisoner to death with a shovel.
Yuri is finally dragged into an office to be interrogated and also meets
again the double, presumably hired to impersonate him.
But almost immediately he is released and driven away in an official car to
an isolated dacha.
He is taken to Stalin's bed: Stalin is dying.
There is nothing Yuri can do. Stalin mumbers "Save me" but
dies after one last fart.
The only other man in the room is Beria.
Beria kisses him on the forehead and tells him to go home.
Beria leaves after shouting "Khrustalyov, get my car!", the title of the film.
Yuri rejoins his family (nobody seems particularly happy) but then leaves
and Alesha tells us that he never saw him again.
Now we see the stoker of the beginning start his journey towards the capital.
He boards a very crowded train and looks for a berth to sleep.
Eventually he sits next to another passenger, who is Yuri and together
they stare at the landscape. Someone beats the stoker and he starts crying
because people keep beating him.
German then sits at a table on a roofless car of the train and drinks with his friends.
As the camera stops and the trains moves away, we see that it is the last car of the train.
The 168-minute black-and-white Trudno byt' Bogom/ Hard to Be a God (2013),
loosely based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's sci-fi novel of 1964,
the second adaptation of the novel after Peter Fleischmann's Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein (1990),
was completed by his son.
It is the most incomprehensible film of his career (and probably of all his age).
It seems to draw from the most extreme elements of Pieter Brueghel's and Hieronymus Bosch's paintings,
from Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness",
as well as from
Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal
Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky,
to create a dystopian version of the European dark ages.
In its most carnivalesque and virulent scenes, this film evokes the Shrewsbury battle scene in Orson Welles' Chimes At Midnight, or the sack of the city of Vladimir in Andrej Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev.
However, there is filth and shit everywhere, an anti-aesthetic stance that echoes punk-rock rather than high art.
The concentration of macabre (not horror) is equally a quality of some gothic rock music.
The film opens with scenes of life in a destitute medieval village on an drizzling autumn day. The focus of the screen is a circle that seems to indicate that someone is watching through a monocular (or filming the scene with a head-mounted camera).
We are informed by the voiceover that this is not on Earth but on another planet; that observers from Earth are living as mere observers among the primitive people of the kingdom of Arkanar, forbidden to interfere in the political events of the kingdom; and that the regime in power is persecuting intellectuals
via the squads of minister Reba, who wear grey uniforms and are therefore called "greys".
Don Rumata is from the Earth and here is respected and feared as the son of the god Goran.
He wakes up after having a nightmare in which he dreamed of killing everybody.
The roof is leaking, the mice are eating the rotting food on the table,
there are cockroaches in his glass, and the room is a mess, but Rumata in his
rundown palace is doing much better than the people outside.
Clearly the people of this planet are centuries behind the Earth.
He has slaves who either are chained to the walls or wear instruments that
make it impossible for them to flee.
Rumata plays a clarinet, which looks like the most modern artifact around.
His slaves hate the music so much that they cover their ears and even
threaten to kill themselves when he plays.
The black-and-white cinematography by Vladimir Ilyin and Yuriy Klimenko, who
also worked on Sergei Parajanov's Legenda o Suramskoi Kreposti/ The Legend of the Suram Fortress and on Ali Khamraev's Chelovek Ukhodit za Ptitsami/ Man Follows Birds,
steals the show (especially since there is virtually no plot),
in the same hallucinated category of
Andrej Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev
of Terry Gilliam 's Monty Python and the Holy Grail (although on a tragic, not comic, plane).
The general feeling of the film is similar to the atmosphere of films such as
Elem Klimov's Come and See and
Bela Tarr's Satantango, with a bit of
Alejandro Jodorowsky's hallicinatory madness.
Or imagine a cross between the most vulgar and violent Quentin Tarantino and the most philosophical and fatalistic Theodoros Angelopulos.
German charges the camera with more than showing what happens. In fact, we mostly don't see what happens.
Objects dangle in front of the camera.
The camera advances through a jungle of wooden and metal objects.
The camera is constantly trying to "see" but it is impeded by the fetid cacophony that surrounds it.
The lens of the camera is either occluded or congested.
We hear voices off-screen, but often we cannot see who is speaking.
The camera is suffocating inside closed chaotic claustrophobic overcrowded environments or trying to sneak through narrow filthy alleys that are labyrinths.
Furthermore, a perennial smoke blurs the landscape.
Insanely, the director goes out of his way to make sure that we cannot comprehend the elaborate scene that he created.
Every now and then a passerby stares into the camera, sometimes even making faces at the camera, as if to remind us that there's a cameraman walking among the characters, implementing
Pier Paolo Pasolini's principle of "free indirect vision".
One could argue that
the film is not about the nominal protagonist but about its multitude of grotesque and hideous extras, who often interact with the camera for what they are: untrained actors (or trained actors playing the role of untrained actors).
The dialogues are no less cryptic and surreal,
littered with statements like:
"I'm speaking to you, but that doesn't mean we're having a conversation";
"a scholar is not an enemy, the enemy is a scholar in doubt";
"you write books, but you have no thoughts".
German also bestowed on the film a multi-sensory quality.
Objects that dangle in front of the camera (typicaly tools, instruments, dead animals and fluids) obscure the view of what is happening, but
add a sort of tactile dimension to cinema.
At the same time stench pervades all scenes. The filth and shit are so graphic
that we end up smelling them.
What the camera delivers is sensory overload.
The political allegory (with references to Stalin's "terror" and perhaps Mao's "cultural revolution", with the "Red Guards" who here are "greys") is secondary, and perhaps there is also an allegory about and against contemporary high art: the idiot who holds a toilet seat around his face and declares it a painting; or the child disgusted by Rumata's modern music.
And finally there is the protagonist and whatever message he is supposed to incarnate.
This dandyish detached observer, whose
lazy hedonism contrasts with the state's repression,
is eventually driven to a murderous madness.
But then he realizes why his wise superiors commanded him to remain neutral: any good-intentioned interference to alleviate the suffering of the people is doomed to only make the situation worse for the people and after a colossal carnage that actually killed those people.
Nothing can be done from the outside to help nations to escape their fate. In fact it results in the debasement of the outsider himself. And perhaps this is also a lesson for superpowers like the USA and their passion for foreign interventions and "liberations".
He is not a god but just one of those failed intellectuals.
The more literal message is that
even a god cannot improve the condition of brute people who reject "intellectuals" (i.e. knowledge).
Outside a man collapses panting in the rain and sits on the stairs.
Two soldiers drag an old writer into a latrine and drown him in shit after
burning his papers, while the panting man curses him for having criticized
his book 40 years earlier (one grumpy intellectual rejoicing of another intellectual's misfortune).
Rumata rides out of his castle on his horse, followed by idiots, children and cripples who beg for money.
Rumata is impressed when he finds out that two men have found out how to distil alcohol, a first sign of science, and nicknames one Leonardo because he's trying to build a flying machine.
The voiceover informs us that the town is surrounded by a swamp.
This is the kingdom of Arkanar.
Rebels led by Arata the Hunchback and runaway slaves
live on the other side of the swamp, in Irukan, where intellectuals can find refuge.
Rumata drinks with other Earthlings and is informed that his friend
doctor Budakh, an intellectual, has disappeared together with his escort.
Rumata needs to see him because of some pain in his knees.
Men have hanged a tobacco trader, who was known as a wise man, and now throw shit on his head so that the birds will come and pick his eyes.
Rumata rides his horse through the muddy streets in search of
Budakh, and witnesses the extreme poverty and backwardness of the population,
among which are an incredible number of idiots and madmen, and among which
legends and superstitions are endemic like the fleas.
Rumata despises these people and sometimes uses violence to get them out of his way.
Nobody dares strike back at him, the son of a god, armed with a sword.
The woman who lives with him, Ari, tells him that a writer was tortured all night long.
Rumata teaches his friend, a drunk baron Pampa, how to use a special sword.
Rumata is known to have fought 186 duels but never killed anybody: Rumata only
cut their ears.
The baron whispers to him that Budakh is an impostor: he is no doctor, he is just someone who worked at the port.
Budakh has been kidnapped by Don Reba, the kingdom's most powerful minister.
Don Reba has somehow usurped the power of the king and using his troops, the "greys", to terrorize the intellectuals.
A group of greys, led by colonel Kusis and armed with spears, come to arrest him (they use a woman's body as a ram to break the front door), but they are
idiots and he easily scares them away.
Nonetheless, later he is captured with a net and dragged away through streets
full of cadavers to meet Don Reba.
Somehow released, despite the fact that Reba calls him an impostor, Rumata
is informed that the greys have been overthrown by the "blacks", which are like a monastic warrior order. They are now in control of his neighborhood.
We are informed that these "monks" used to be in power before the age of the plague.
They are no less vicious than the greys: Rumata finds several people hanged on the gallows and instruments of torture are everywhere.
The monks are slaughtering women using a rudimentary machine with huge wooden phallus.
The monks are flogging people and we see Rumata picking something from the bloody buttocks of one of their victims, who has been hanged over a barrel.
A fat man who is friendly to Rumata jokingly tells Rumata that he cannot be who he claims to be: the last don died 20 years earlier at the age of 85. And shows him the bones and the skull of the old don.
Rumata frees a slave who has been chained since he was three and the slave, unable to endure freedom, dies right away.
Rumata determines that it is time to kill Don Reba.
Armed of a pot, Rumata breaks into the jail and finds his baron friend imprisoned in a cage. They free Budakh, who is unharmed, is mostly silent and busy eating.
We witness savage acts of extreme cruelty, including the killing of the
baron by archers: his body with arrows sticking out of it is thrown into a pile a garbage,
scavengers steal his clothes and birds feed on its flesh.
Rumata takes Budakh away on a leash but Budakh has to stop repeatedly to urinate.
Rumata asks him philosophical questions but Budakh, who is supposed to be an intellectual, has no intelligent answer. Budakh simply says that,
if he were god, he would want to annihilate everybody.
Rumata's woman tells him that the greys killed a slave and the blacks killed the greys.
Arata, who survived a hanging but has a scarred face, comes to
negotiate with Rumata: Arata wants Rumata to join an insurrection against the blacks. Arata's men have already killed two of Rumata's slaves and Arata threatens to kill Rumata.
Rumata almost kills Arata and a slave immediately tries to steal Arata's ring.
Budakh wanders around naked.
Rumata's "wife" Ari tells Rumata that she is pregnant and
is angry at Rumata because he doesn't want to fight and is wasting time (he complains that he doesn't have his pants).
An arrow kills Rumata's pregnant "wife" (and one of the slaves blames Arata).
The greys invade and kill Arata.
Rumata is furious. He wears a horned bull-helmet and goes on a rampage (thereby disobeying the order to stay out of their politics) and slaughter all the
adults (we don't see the massacre, only the dead bodies afterwards).
At one point
Rumata's slaves finish a dying man by crucifying him onto a door and then
Rumata's sword cuts into the body to let the entrails gush out and we catch a
glimpse of the man's heart still beating.
A child cuts the belly of a dead fat man and runs away with his intestine.
A fellow Earthling, Pashka, surveys the village littered with dead bodies,
and finds Rumata alive and unharmed (which obviously doesn't sound very credible), sitting barefoot in a muddy puddle.
The child who wanders around the ruins claims that Rumata never left the Earth and this is all a product of his madness or of a brain tumor (or is the nightmare that Rumata had at the beginning of the film).
Pashka offers to take him back to Earth, but Rumata refuses.
Rumata tells Pashka that it's hard to be a god.
Some time later, in winter, Rumata is
wearing glasses and his head is shaved.
A wagon passes by, carrying two corpses:
Leonardo and his friend killed each other (two scientists killed each other).
Rumata turns to the camera, removes his glasses, and angrily asks "why"
as if all his hopes had just been shattered.
Rumata is carried away on another wagon and he starts playing his clarinet.
A little girl says that the music makes her throw up.
German died in 2013.
His son, also called Aleksei, directed
Poslednij Poezd/ The Last Train (2003),
Bumazhnyj Soldat/ Paper Soldier (2008),
Pod Electricheskimi Oblakami/ Under Electric Clouds (2015)