Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Time Unfrozen - The Films of Aleksei German

This is my declaration of love for the people I grew up with as a child’, says a voice at the beginning of Aleksei German’s Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin). There is a pause as the narrator struggles for the right words to express his feelings for the Soviet Union of the thirties; when they come—ob”iasnenie v liubvi—it is with a strained emphasis on ‘love’. The film, released in 1984, is set in 1935 in the fictional provincial town of Unchansk, where a young boy and his father share a communal flat with criminal police investigator Ivan Lapshin and half a dozen others. It weaves together elements from the director’s father Iurii German’s detective stories and novellas of the same period: a troupe of actors arrive to play at the town’s theatre; Lapshin tracks down a gang of criminals trading in human meat; a friend of Lapshin’s, Khanin, becomes unhinged after his wife dies of typhus; the spirited actress Adashova falls in love with Khanin, and Lapshin with Adashova. The authorities are largely absent: it is a film about people ‘building socialism’ on a bleak frozen plain, their town’s one street a long straggle of low wooden buildings beneath a huge white sky, leading from the elegant stucco square by the river’s quayside out into wilderness. There is a single tram, a military band, a plywood ‘victory arch’ of which they are all proud—‘My father’, the narrator recounts, ‘would never take a short cut across the town’: he always went the long way round, under the victory arch.

My Friend Ivan Lapshin



The film holds hope and suffering in the balance. Adashova proudly boasts about what the 1942 production quotas for champagne will be; Lapshin declares, ‘We shall clean up the earth and plant a garden, and we ourselves will live to walk in it’—just as the hacked-up corpses hidden by the meat-traders are loaded onto a truck. The film is full of such alarming details and ill omens: dubious meat, which retains the headline offprint of the newspaper it was wrapped in (‘WE REJOICE’) even after it’s been cooked; febrile explosions of rage over spilled paraffin; flocks of crows cawing across the sky. There is a mismatch between the optimism of the characters and what we know of subsequent events. ‘I’m going on a course’, Lapshin says towards the end of the film, and his words are left hanging in the air. These are people whose faith in the future remains intact, but whose betrayal is imminent. German has said that his main aim was to convey a sense of the period, to depict as faithfully as possible the material conditions and human preoccupations of SovietRussia on the eve of the Great Purge. It is for this world, for these people that the narrator struggles to declare his love—unconditional, knowing how flawed that world was, and how tainted the future would be. German compared the film to the work of Chekhov, and one can see in it a similar tenderness for the suffering and absurdity of its characters. Loosely episodic, the film is remarkable in its resistance to linear narrative: dialogue is often drowned out by senseless chatter or the clanging of buckets; our view of important characters is frequently blocked by figures crossing the screen. In its cinematography, Ivan Lapshin consistently refuses to accept established priorities: as though every element of each shot must be allowed its meaning. The camera often enters the room behind characters’ backs, like a guest, or at elbow-level, like a curious child. There is no sense that the scenes are choreographed or pre-arranged, but rather a feeling that the camera, wide-eyed, is capturing what it can of a bewildering world. All German’s films focus on moments in which history and myth have become entangled, if not dangerously indistinguishable. He has described his films as ‘antipotochnye’, ‘against the current’: disrupting certainties and undermining convenient truths. [1] The Stalin era, his principal subject, is the period of his own childhood and youth. Born in 1938 in Leningrad—the same generation as Tarkovsky and Mikhalkov—he grew up in a milieu frequented by leading cultural figures of the time: Kozintsev dropped by regularly, the playwright and fabulist Evgenii Shvartz was his ‘uncle Zhenia’, and even Akhmatova was seen on occasion at the Germans’ flat on the Moika. German graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinematography in 1960 as a theatre director; it was not until the mid-sixties that he made the shift to scripting films, during the extraordinary rebirth of Soviet and East European cinematography—influenced in part by Italian neo-realism but also by the French New Wave—that came with the Khrushchev thaw. In career terms, German made the move just too late. By the time he had scripted Trudno byt’ bogom(It’s Hard Being God, 1968), based on the Strugatskii brothers’ science fiction novel, and Ivan Lapshin (1969), Brezhnevite conformism had set in; neither film could be made. German’s first feature, Proverka na dorogakh(Trial on the Road), was finally shot in 1971; in retrospect it seems almost incredible that it was filmed at all. Soviet, indeed, Russian identity since World War Two had been founded on that bitterly won victory: the march to Berlin did more than any cult of personality to legitimate Stalin’s rule. German’s film undermines the fable of unwavering heroism and loyalty that sustained the self-perception of whole generations of Soviet citizens. A former Red Army lieutenant defects to the Nazis on ideological grounds, then decides to switch sides again to defend his homeland. The partisan brig­ade who capture him are suspicious and test his loyalty in a series of operations behind enemy lines. The motivations for the main character’s actions are barely discussed: questions of treason, of ideological as opposed to patriotic commitment are left largely unaddressed, and there is an uncomfortable sense of futility lurking behind any seeming acts of heroism. Proverka na dorogakh was shelved until 1986 because, according to internal memos of the state film agency Goskino, it ‘distorts the image of a heroic time’—‘the people it depicts could only have lost the Great Patriotic War’; the subtext being that German’s film ‘makes us someone other than who we want to be’. [2] The production of his second film Dvadsat’ dnei bez voiny (Twenty Days without War) was less problematic. Made in 1976, it was released after only six months’ delay although again, it looks aslant at a crucial Soviet story: the siege of Stalingrad. German has described it as ‘an anti-romantic melodrama’ with ‘anti-beautiful’ heroes. The middle-aged Lopatin has twenty days’ leave from the battle and spends it in Tashkent. He visits his ex-wife, signs divorce papers, meets up with friends and becomes involved with another woman; then his leave is curtailed and he is sent back to fight. We see nothing of Stalingrad itself. As is frequently the case in German’s work, plot is minimal, the emphasis instead being on the portrayal of a mood. Perhaps more importantly, neither characters nor events are typically heroic. Lopatin is part of an army that has begun to turn the tide, yet throughout the film he looks dog-tired, and smiles only briefly flit across his face. Filming on Moi drug Ivan Lapshin finally began in 1979 and finished in 1982. Although the first screening was greeted with a standing ovation, the film was immediately attacked from within German’s own studio, Lenfil’m—an article in the studio’s newspaper called it a ‘gadkaia kartina’, a ‘disgusting film’. An official of Goskino informed him that everyone knew 37 and 38 weren’t good years, but he shouldn’t destroy all people’s illusions—‘leave 1935 alone’. German was then told to re-shoot half of the film, and when he asked which half, the head of Goskino replied: ‘Either. Leave half of your crap and do half as we want you to’. [3] Fortunately, due to lack of finance and the director’s protestations, the re-shoot never took place. After prolonged debates within Goskino, the film was released in 1984, to critical acclaim and even a certain commercial success. Gorbachev’s accession signalled a turning point in German’s career. The Conflict Commission established in 1986 by the Cinematographers’ Union at last sanctioned the release of Proverka, along with over seventy other ‘shelved’ films, including such masterpieces as Aleksandr Askol’dov’s Komissar (1967) and Tengiz Abuladze’s Monanieba (Repentance, 1984). In 1987, Lapshin was voted the best Soviet film of all time in a national poll of film critics, ahead of anything by Eisenstein, Pudovkin or Vertov. German’s film is in many ways a precursor to the series of films of the glasnost’ period that return obsessively to the era of Stalin—much as one of the characters in Repentance keeps exhuming a small-town tyrant. It encapsulates the issues that were to haunt the Soviet Union until its demise, and continue to resurface in contemporary Russia: how are we to retell our history without disgracing our forefathers, magnifying them out of proportion or simply deleting them from the record? Which memories should we claim as ours? German himself was now occupied with an experimental workshop at Lenfil’m, set up in 1988, which saw the emergence of a new generation of Soviet directors—among them Aleksei Balabanov, whose 1991 debut feature Schastlivye dni (Happy Days), based on motifs from Beckett, German produced. Balabanov went on to make Brat (Brother, 1997) and Pro urodov i liudei (Of Freaks and Men, 1998).... TONY WOOD

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