In just six films over four decades, Alexei Guerman has established himself as his country's foremost filmmaker after his celebrated contemporary Tarkovsky. After its rapturous reception in the US, this essential retrospective now introduces Toronto audiences to one of the overlooked masters of world cinema.
To the august list of retrospectives dedicated to Russian or Soviet directors at our cinematheque — Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Barnet, Tarkovsky, Sokurov, Shepitko, Klimov, Muratova, Ptushko, Kozintsev/Trauberg et al. — we now add Alexei Guerman, a master of modern cinema whosesmall but remarkable body of work (five films, plus one he produced) provides one of the most anticipated and critically celebrated film events of the past year in North America.
The title of Tarkovsky's penultimate film, Nostalghia, aptly characterizes the films of Alexei Guerman, which are often framed as works of memory or recollection. "That's me, back then!" cries the narrator at the outset of Khrustalyov, My Car! over an image of a young boy spitting on a mirror. Not particularly Proustian — the boy's madeleine is a slab of kielbasa — his reminiscence turns out to be a nostalgia for adversity. Tracing a history of the Soviet Union's dark ages — from the "Red Terror" in The Seventh Companion through Stalin's Great Purge in My Friend Ivan Lapshin, the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany in Trial on the Road and Twenty Days Without War to the "Doctors' Plot" that unleashes the nightmare of Khrustalyov — Guerman's films evince a yearning for the past despite the horrors it held, horrors explicit in some films (Khrustalyov, Trial), oblique in others (Lapshin, Twenty Days). Born into the cultural aristocracy as the son of author Yuri Guerman, and ever attentive to the canons of Russian literature — his characters are forever referring to Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and his own ironic tone tends to the Chekhovian — Guerman returned again and again to the same thematic and historical concerns as his celebrated father. Yet even while resolutely suppressing the contemporary — all of his films are set decades ago, and resist allegorizing the present (does this partly account for the Presidential Medal he received from Vladimir Putin?) — the professedly apolitical Guerman nevertheless proved to be a radical traditionalist, antagonizing Soviet authorities with his modernist indirection and ambiguity; ever the contrarian, Guerman once joked that he did not attend the Cannes screening of the post-Soviet Khrustalyov, My Car! because it was his first film not to be banned.
(One wonders if Guerman's sometimes sympathetic references to religion added to his woes: during a campfire discussion about faith in The Seventh Companion, a new Bolshevik admits that he suddenly feels lost without God; a man declares he is not a party member in My Friend Ivan Lapshin because he is married to a priest's daughter; and is it coincidence that the Soviet-German officer who is granted reprieve from death in Trial on the Road is called Lazarev? Guerman's long-delayed sixth film, rumoured for many years to be ready for the next Cannes festival only to prove a perennial no-show, is based on Hard to be a God, the Strugatsky brothers' 1964 anti-religious sci-fi novel.)
Though Guerman's films are often identified with the misty, slate-coloured winter landscapes, echt-Russian in their barren beauty, that the narrator invokes in the opening sequence of Twenty Days Without War, the director's teeming interiors, with their pelting dialogue and spatial and narrative divagations, reveal his more idiosyncratic terrain. Guerman's crowded, capacious frames, in which a restless camera dollies and swivels to capture all manner of incident within one ample shot, recall those Brueghel paintings that swarm with grotesque faces and capering figures, each acutely individual, each contesting for attention: bit players sometimes come to predominate as the story swerves into a sudden aside, and secondary actors occasionally outshine the principal ones. (Guerman was prone to casting, often against type, popular actors from the variety hall or circus worlds for nostalgic reasons.) Exerting formidable formal control at the service of organizing excess, Guerman's films are rife with event, densely populated (e.g., the crammed ship of soldiers in Trial on the Road, the assembly hall in Twenty Days Without War that seems to recede into infinity with its serried rows of spectators), and brimming with language so pungent and poetic that subtitles can hardly keep up. (While such wordplay as Okoshkin's "au revoir-reservoir-samovar" refrain in My Friend Ivan Lapshin comes through, at other times translations are forced to privilege one of Guerman's many overlapping lines of dialogue.) Simply asking for directions in Twenty Days Without War, Lopatin is assailed by a welter of contending opinion, and words are not always trustworthy: "Everything is under control," a doctor assures us at the start of Khrustalyov, My Car!, as events careen crazily into chaos.
Like the continual stream of trams and trains, motorbikes and dark cars that flows through his films' stark landscapes, Guerman's mastery of camera movement — the Steadicam in Khrustalyov, My Car! performs boggling feats of interior navigation and narrative multiplication — suggests a restive spirit. Collapsing and conflating genres — love story and crime film in My Friend Ivan Lapshin, war film and romance in Trial on the Road, satire and tragedy in Khrustalyov, My Car! — and radically shifting tone, with rue and calamity suddenly giving way to absurd humour (a big dog called Tiny and a woman who complains of a missing boot interrupt the poignant farewell that ends Lapshin, a partisan runs after his cow in the midst of a firefight with the Germans in Trial on the Road), Guerman reflects the in-between nature of his ambivalent characters, often caught between opposing forces, loyalties, and beliefs. In The Seventh Companion, General Adamov refuses to violate his own system of justice, developed under the tsar, despite his new adherence to the Bolsheviks; in Trial on the Road, the contrite defector Lazarev declares of his mysterious motives, "I didn't make the choice — the path chose me."
In Guerman's strange bestiary — Khrustalyov features a drunken Great Dane, a "degenerate" cat that gets a dunking, and a resurrected fish — no creature is odder than the human. The word "circus" appears numerous times in Guerman's cinema, referring to the coarse spectacle of humanity's endless humiliation. "It's a three-ring circus," Lapshin comments when Natasha rejects him; "Animal circus!" an elegant woman proclaims as she surveys a party in Khrustalyov, My Car!, while at the end of the film the disgraced Klenski performs circus tricks for his fellow inmates as they head toward oblivion. Ringmaster of this absurdist cirque, Guerman concludes that mad opus, and his career to date, with the only sentiment appropriate: "Fuck it all!"
This series is a co-presentation with Seagull Films and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, with the assistance of Lenfilm Studios. Generous support was provided by George Gund III.
Special thanks to Alla Verlotsky, Seagull Films; Paul Richer, Pyramide Films.