It's an exceptional week in New York to explore the works of distinctive, uncategorizable filmmakers; the Brooklyn Academy of Music is hosting an exhaustive retrospective of Andrzej Zulawski (very much looking forward to seeing his mudmen-on-the-moon epic On The Silver Globe on Saturday!) while today the Film Society of Lincoln Center kicks off its brief look at the films of Russian director Aleksei German, or Guerman (for this post I'm gonna stick with the latter spelling) in a series called "War and Remembrance." The look is brief because there's no other choice: over the course of an over forty-year career, Guerman has completed only six films, and the first of those was a co-directing effort, 1967's The Seventh Companion, which he made with Grigori Aronov.
Guerman's first solo picture was 1971's Trial On The Road, which shows for the first time today at 6:15 p.m. Among other things, it once again proves the adage that I made up just now, which is that nobody makes a World War II film like a Russian. The movie begins with a stark depiction of Germans dousing a pit full of potatoes with kerosene, because that'll show those pesky partisans. It then features some narration from a young boy who we won't hear from again for the rest of the film, detailing back-in-the-day privation. And then it's trudge, trudge, trudge through densely packed snow, each footfall beautifully recorded, and being out of cigarettes, and deserted villages and stray gunshots and sudden views of a deadly platoon of goddamn Germans coming over a snow-white horizon to kill you all. Only the Russian World War II film gets this atmosphere so palpably, and if Trial doesn't reach the heights of pathos of Ivan's Childhood or the height of horror of Come And See, it takes a more than honorable place in the tension-and-tactics subcategory of war movie (a favorite of mine in this line is of course Mann's Men In War, and yeah, Trial would make a good double feature with it); from the atmosphere and anecdotes a very definite story emerges, in which a Red Army turncoat tries to make good with the partisans to whom he's surrendered. As much as the movie condemns war in a relatively conventional what-a-waste fashion, there is a certain exploitable heroism inherent in the protagonist's final sacrifice, and the up-and-at-'em, never-rest determination showed by the partisan's oft-besieged leader, played by Rolan Bykov, seen in the still above with Anatoly Solonitsin, a frequent Tarkovsky player here portraying a tightly-wound subordinate) seems a quality sure to please Soviet apparatchiks. Not so much, apparently; as Anton Dolin recounts in his excellent piece on Guerman in the current issue of Film Comment (in which he wryly asks, "how many other geniuses have managed to displease the Soviet censors, the post-Soviet commercial system, and the connoisseurs of Cannes?"), the movie was "denied release and nearly destroyed," and "finally screened in the Gorbachev era."
Possibly the most crucial of Guerman's films is the one he most recently completed (he's been working on his next picture, an adaptation of a sci-fi novel by the Strugatsky brothers, who also wrote the source material for Tarkovsky's Stalker, for decades), 1998's Khrustalyov, My Car!, which lives up to the oft-bruited idea of a fever-dream of a movie almost too well. A delirium of camera movement in which the lens takes in the exquisitely hoarded details of its settings with an addict's eagerness, it takes an extremely oblique narrative approach to a scenario inspired by the "Doctor's plot" affair in Soviet Russia directly prior to the death of Stalin, depicting in nightmarish detail the humiliation of its lead character, a rather magisterial physician. It makes no allowances for what the viewer may or may not know about the historical facts surrounding the story and of course that's not really the point: the point is the immersion, its awfulness, the specks of extremely mordant humor to be gleaned from it, all that. "Its characters aren't properly identified, its politics not elucidated, its geography vague," New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden complained when the picture played at the New York Film Festival. YES, EXACTLY. Nothing against Stephen, who's a smart fellow and a sharp writer, but relative to the ostensible institutional expectations of something such as The New York Times, yes, Khrustalyov, My Car! could be said to spit in the face of those expectations...although its resignation to its Otherness is such that spitting in the face may be too strong an action-image. It would be a perverse mistake to assert that Khrustalyov's greatness is acheived solely by way of its aesthetic querulousness, but its querulousness is certainly a part of its greatness. You hear rather too often of movies that take you down a rabbit hole, but this REALLY is one of those pictures. Put it this way: if you go check it out on my recommendation, I think you'll either want to hug me or break my nose upon leaving the theater. No middle ground.