Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Alexei German I knew

Last week, Russians bid farewell to a man many considered to be the country’s greatest living filmmaker. Largely under-appreciated in the West, Alexei German’s films delighted in their complexity, tones, textured aesthetics, and the absence of simple heroes or villains. Ian Christie remembers him

2013 should have been the year that Alexei German’s long-awaited sixth film finally appeared. With just five films released in forty-five years as a director, German has long occupied a unique position in film history, comparable only to that of Terrence Malick. His latest, based on a novel by the Strugatskys, almost unbelievably has been in production since 2000. But on 21 February, German’s death was announced.

I heard the news while in the Czech Republic, where German apparently shot part of what will now be his last film, and felt an immediate sense of loss, as I recalled how both he and his remarkable oeuvre had entered my life at crucial moments during the last decade of the Soviet era. German was born in 1938 and actually began directing in 1968, but as with others of his generation – like Aleksandr Askoldov and Kira Muratova - his early work was either buried or ‘shelved’, as the saying went.

My first encounter came in 1984, when the Soviet Filmmakers Union invited me to assemble a delegation of British ‘independent’ filmmakers, so that they could see at first hand the kind of avant-garde work that never reached official platforms such as the Moscow Film Festival. Our little group included the filmmakers Sally Potter and Derek Jarman, neither as well known as they would become, along with Ed Bennett, Peter Wollen and Peter Sainsbury from the British Film Institute Production Board. Among the films the Union offered to show us was German’s Twenty Days Without War, which had been made in 1977 but never seen abroad. Jarman, who was shooting clandestinely what would become his Imagining October, was deeply impressed by this understated, melancholic reflection on the heightened realities of wartime life on the home front. The world-weary war reporter on leave from Stalingrad, we learned was played by Yuri Nikulin, an ex-clown, who was also one of the most popular of screen comedians. His love interest was played by an equally popular actor and singer Ludmilla Gurchenko; but oblivious to this casting against reputation, we only knew we had seen something of extraordinary integrity in the burnished black-and-white that German always used.

One year on, the Moscow Film Festival of 1985 would prove to be a milestone in the transformation of the USSR. The most controversial competition film by far was Elem Klimov’s Come and See, a ferocious vision of the partisan war against the Nazis in Belorussia that took first prize – a harbinger of the revolution within Soviet cinema that would soon put the previously banned director Elem Klimov in the forefront of Gorbachev’s reforms as first secretary of the Union. But during the festival, a discreet invitation went out to selected visitors that there would be an unannounced screening. A bus took us to a remote cinema and, without explanation, we found ourselves watching an unsubtitled print of German’s masterpiece, My Friend Ivan Lapshin. I was lucky, because my interpreter knew the work of the popular writer Yuri German, Alexei’s father, on whose stories the film is based. All around us, interpreters and puzzled festival visitors were struggling to make sense of this subtly disconcerting film. ...

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