The Fog and the Snow
Published on March 16th, 2012 | by Nathan Rogers-Hancock0
“War and Remembrance: The Films of Aleksei Guerman” runs from March 14-20 at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
For any New Yorker terrified of the prospect of spring arriving so soon after this pitiful excuse for a winter, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is giving us one last chance to luxuriate in the fog and snow, with the very strange (and very Russian) life’s work of one of the most unknown great directors still living. With the projected 2012 release of Aleksei Guerman’s “History of the Arkanar Massacre,” the Russian director will have made a grand total of five features over nearly half a century. Nearly unknown in the West (with the possible exception of the monumentally unsettling “Khrustalyov, My Car!”, his last feature to date, which was the subject of a dismissive New York Times review, but was championed by the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman), with absolutely none of his films available on domestic DVD, Aleksei Guerman’s films are finally being given a complete retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, surfacing like bad dreams from a guilty conscience.
It should not be altogether surprising that these films are barely known in this country. Our appreciation of Russian filmmaking, especially from the Soviet era, is almost nonexistent, with even feted directors like Tarkovsky and Parajanov crippled by looming gaps of availability and deeply problematic DVD versions of their most famous films, while essential directors like the great Boris Barnet barely float on the outskirts of the cinephile consciousness like vague rumors. Historically dense and narratively elliptical, Guerman’s films are far more difficult to fathom than any by those directors. He himself has expressed doubts that anyone who isn’t a Russian could understand his films at all. In a thorough interview with Ronald Holloway he noted that the Americans who admired his first film, “Trial on the Road,” admired it for pictorial qualities while not understanding any of the underlying critiques, which is a good summary of the difficulties, and rewards, that any American viewer will have to face in approaching these films.
Neatly bookended by two outliers―“The Seventh Companion,” (1968), a civil drama which Guerman only co-directed, and “The Fall of Otrar” (1991), a Kazakhstan-set historical epic which Guerman co-wrote and produced―the four features form a neat set of pairs, separated by years of frustration on either side. The more accessible, if not quite as essential, contains his first two features, both set during World War II―“Trial on the Road” (1971) and “Twenty Days Without War” (1976). “Trial,” probably the most straightforward film Guerman ever put his name on, is a bleak, tense war film following a Russian soldier named Lazarev as he tries to return to the Russian army after being forced to collaborate with the German occupation. Treated as an irredeemable traitor, he is put through a kind of ideological hazing by his countrymen, who push him into missions of escalating difficulty, culminating in a suicidal attempt at hijacking a German supply train. Beautifully shot, like all of Guerman’s films, in black and white, in a style that goes from absolute clarity of staging (there are at least three action sequences that deserve to be considered classics) to moments of fog-shrouded abstraction, “Trial” frames the war effort in absolutely unheroic, despairing terms―fittingly, since in real life soldiers in Lazarev’s position were sentenced to decades in prison for having betrayed their country.
The second of Guerman’s World War II films, “Twenty Days Without War,” is slightly less assured even as it reaches forward towards the sui generis films he would create in the next decade. The basic outline of the plot is as simple as an anecdote: a decorated war correspondent is given twenty days of leave, travels to Tashkent to return the belongings of a dead soldier, meets his ex-wife, hooks up with a seamstress, and witnesses the shooting of a deeply glamorized version of one of his own stories, before his leave is cut abruptly short. The style of the film, however, is anything but simple; the smallest events seem to have weighted, elusive meanings, and the film pauses for a nearly ten-minute-long monologue from a character who disappears from the film immediately afterward.
This tendency, the almost dreamlike negation of plot in favor of seemingly unmotivated incident, not to mention an almost overwhelming sense of period detail, would be even more omnipresent in Guerman’s penultimate feature to date, “My Friend Ivan Lapshin” (1984). All directors who work sparsely leave a very specific and fascinating problem for their viewers; here, we must try to understand the enormous leap of tone and quality from “Twenty Days Without War” to “Ivan Lapshin,” which is to say, the jump between an interesting young director and a great one. A strange, elliptical memory film that plays like the relentlessly secular, downbeat urban cousin to the countryside mysticism of Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror,” “Ivan Lapshin” takes place during the brief period of optimism between the October Revolution and the Stalinist terror, interspersing present-day color footage (to date the only color footage of Guerman’s career) with life in a 1930s communal apartment, focusing on the difficult friendship between hapless policeman Ivan and writer Khanin, haunted with suicidal grief over the death of his wife, the sole parent to his adolescent son, who narrates the film but is little more than a ghost in the dramatic narrative (though a memory film, this is certainly no “The Long Day Closes”). Beautifully observed scenes of domestic life, and the oddly touching story of Lapshin’s failed courtship of a local actress aside, the film has a dark, even portentous heart; a long set-piece towards the end, a fog-shrouded police raid on a local gang, gives the film its dark, beating heart, and the marching band celebration that ends the film is just one more reminder of the world that is coming. Guerman himself calls the film a “presentiment,” acknowledging that these characters will not survive. “We wanted to show life,” he says, “and some of the things that brought the people to death later.”
Whatever presentiment lurks like a specter beneath the daily life portrayed in “Ivan Lapshin” erupts outright in “Khrustalyov, My Car!” like the buried id of the last three films erupting in full glory, finally free from the Soviet super-ego. In one of the most deliriously strange films ever made (really the only things that even come close are the films made at the height of Czech surrealism, like “The Cremator” and “The Fifth Horseman Is Fear”), Guerman takes an utterly simple plot line–a Jewish doctor loses his status during Stalin’s last terror, is sent to the camps and gang-raped en route, but is pulled away from this fate when he is needed to save the life of the dying Stalin–and plunges it into a perversely triumphant drunken wake for the dead, as if the drunken dance sequence from “Satantango” gained consciousness and set off to make its own film. That the most baffling moments of surrealism―a doppelganger living in the hospital’s enema room, or a pair of little Jewish girls living in the family wardrobe―are just as based on historical fact makes the desperation of it all even more vivid. It’s not surprising that this is the best known film of Guerman’s career―beyond the unblinking craziness of the proceedings as a whole, the staging and art direction alone would make this film essential viewing, and certain moments, such as the genuinely jaw-dropping final shots, reach a rare kind of sublimity, as if you’re watching a fake seance that turns at a moment’s notice into a real exorcism―but it is, without a doubt, the most grueling experience you are likely to have in a theater this year. And I don’t use that term lightly; the film is almost physically assaultive in its strangeness, making the films in the concurrent Żuławski retrospective look like the work of a playboy dilettante. If you’re not sure if that sounds like a recommendation or a warning, then the film probably isn’t for you, but if it’s at all tempting, take notice―this series is a rare bird, and will not likely land again.