A while ago, Aleksei German passed away from kidney failure in a hospital in Saint-Peterberg, for the past seven years, he was working on his unfinished masterpiece, History of the Arkanar Massacre aka Hard to Be a God, based on the Strugatsky brother’s science-fiction novel, he never finished it.The film now in the editing and post-production stage, and according to his son, Aleksei German, Jr, it is to be released within a year, or maybe more.
In the span of more than 40 years, Aleksei German only made six films, his first was co-directed with Grigori Aronov, and his last, unfinished. His short cinematic resume is perhaps one reason that he is unknown to many film viewers, a pity, for he is among the masters of Soviet Cinema, believe it or not, three years after making My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1984, the film was voted by Soviet critic and filmmakers as the greatest Soviet film ever to have been made, surpassing all the previous masters. Looking back to my film diary, here is my short reviews to all the films from a forgotten master; Aleksei German, and impatiently waiting to see History of the Arkanar Massacre.
Sedmoy sputnik aka The Seventh Companion (Aleksei German and Grigori Aronov, 1968) Aleksei German’s directorial debut, The Seventh Companion was co-directed with Grigori Aronov, based on a novel by Boris Lavrenev, before directing the film, Aleksei German was a student of Grigori Kozintsev, and The Seventh Companion shows the influence of Kozintsev, it is a realistic and fascinating film that seem to have been made in Soviet days of 1930s rather than in 1960s with the acting, dialogue, set designs, and the cinematography re-creating the realistic and nostalgic early days of the Union . The story take place during the early days of the Revolution, Yevegeny Adamov (Andrei Popov) is a former general of Czar’s Army, a professor at the military academy, when taken to custody, he obey and later join the new force of the Bolsheviks, although his joining is a matter of will to continue to live, for he has no home nor any family left to return to, and he is dire need of food and shelter, he is never convinced of the Bolshevik ideology, when later captured by the White and he refuse to join them, asked as to why he had joined the Bolshevik and would not join his old army?, his answer is rather a philosophical one, “When a large body passes through space, smaller bodies are drawn into its orbit. Sometimes against their will”, it is indeed against his will that the forces of revolutions and wars drive him from fate into another; he become a prisoner of the Reds, a homeless man, then a worker, a soldier of the red army and finally a prisoner of the Whites, and not once, does he question nor condemn his fate, rather, he goes alone with it, he is a man who time and circumstances shapes his life, always for the worse, but he lives with it, he is a man whom history will never remember, for neither he is a hero nor a villain, but a simple man, a victim of his time.
Proverka na dorogakh aka Road-Checkpoint (Aleksei German, 1971) Road Check-point is a timeless masterpiece from a master, Aleksei German. It is a revisionist war film in which the hero of the film is no other than a former traitor and collaborator of the German Nazi invaders, when giving a second chance, as Aleksei lets him have it, he prove himself to be a hero of the Red Army and the motherland, but he is unsung hero like many of the Partisans that he fight alongside, in Aleksei German’s war films, it is no words and tactical planning of generals and army big shots that decide the fate of winning or losing a war, but the individual actions of the foot soldiers, they are the real hero, they are the ones who change the rules of the game. It is no wonder that the film was banned and shelved for 15 years, for the hero of the film, Lazarev is anything that one may consider a war hero, but his self sacrificing action is what save the others, and in process redeem himself. Shot in gritty black and white, monochrome tone, with long takes and subtle silent acting, with explosive action sequences, Road-Checkpoint is not only one of Aleksei German’s masterpiece, but it is among one of the best war films ever to come out of the Soviet Union, it pay tribute to those that history will never mention, nor will they be remembered, the theme is best visualized at the end of the film; as the train leave dying Lazarev, crawling to make it, but fail, and the living reaming partisans has to push the machinery of war from behind, always struggling, the story of unsung hero.
Dvadtsat dney bez voyny aka Twenty Days Without War (Aleksei German, 1976) Aleksei German is famous for casting his actor against the system, and perhaps no other actor in his films has being miscast as Yuri Nikulin playing the role of a major Lopatin in Twenty Days Without War, and Nikulin delvers, for in real life he fought many battles during WWII, only later to become a comic actor, the irony of it. In Twenty Days Without War, everything is foggy, life on the battlefield is equally as cruel as in the home front, getting 20 days leave to go back to Tashkent after the battle of Stalingrad, Lopatin only find the effect of the war on the people more devastating than on the soldier on the battle front, and he is puzzled by the naivety of the people, especially the intellectual class, artist and filmmakers as to their romantic notion of wars, heroic deeds and glory, when his 20 day leave is cut short, he is indifferent to it, as going back to the front, he know the war will be long, but more important, he knows that after the war, his life will be even a longer struggle to overcome what he had lost during the war, as always, at the end of an Aleksei German, the viewer is left with the collectivity of the emotional impact of the film, his last few images always speak for the whole film; Upon returning to the front, he walk with three other soldiers to join his outfit, only to shelled, when surviving, amid the foggy and smoky landscape, the soldiers talk about their planning after the war as they disappear from the screen into the smoke, Lopatin is silent, he has already experienced what life after the war will be like, to him, the war and after the war is a long way from now, he is silent to others, but his voice-over speak his inner thoughts to the audience; “Though we’re plodding forward, we’re only in Kuban, and Berlin is a long way off. A long, long way.”
Moy drug Ivan Lapshin aka My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Aleksei German, 1984) Believe it or not, three years after making My Friend Ivan Lapshin, the film was voted by Soviet critic and filmmakers as the greatest Soviet film ever to have been made, with that, My Friend Ivan Lapshin was and is praised upon not only us one of the great Soviet film, and the crowning achievement of Aleksei German, who would go on to make only one other complete film. Like all of German films, the story is set in the past, in 1935s, during Stalin’s purge, the film is based on stories from Alekse’s father, Yurii German, it is told in flashback, and for once, in an Aleksei German film we have a few shot in color, very few scenes, but they are the only color footage that German ever shot. Ivan Lapshin is an investigator who share a commune flat with others, including our narrator and his father,a little kid of seven, we get a glimpse of each character in episodic turn; their relationship, struggle, hope, pessimism and desperation, but we rarely see our narrator as and adult and as a little kid, he is there only as a passive eye witness, for many incident take place without him being present, one might as well assume he had made a fictional recreation. What is significant about this film and all of the other films from Aleksei German is how raw his Mise-en-scène are; out of nowhere we see a passerby crossing the frame, or at a distance someone walk, two people talk, another one stare at the camera, his composition equally lack any priority to be given to characters or subjects, with long takes and pure black and white imagery, light bulbs overexposed, or scenes underexposed, the film is a realistic portrait of the time is choreographed to utmost details, such perfection give it a feeling of hyper realism in lyricism.
Khrustalyov, mashinu! aka Khrustalyov, My Car! (Aleksei German, 1998) I cant remember who said it, but the quote was “Khrustalyov, My Car! is a mix of Fedrico Fellini and Andrie Tarkovsky”, to some extent the quote speak best for the film, for it has a roller coaster ride with its unique characters of the likes in a Fellini film, as it also a film rich with Tarkovsky moments, but with hyper realism, saying that, one could never judge a film by comparing it to that of others. Khrustalyov, My Car! is a pure Aleksi German film, and perhaps his masterpiece. As always, expect masterful black and white cinematography, especially the use of depth of field, it is used to highlight everything, not only the action within the frame, but characters insignificant to the action, passerby present for no reason; a man looking at a distance at the foreground where an argument is taking place, but he is light more brightly than the foreground, or suddenly, a character block the camera, we won’t see the action, or the action take place offstage, we only hear sound of the action, as always, long tracking shots and lengthy takes make the film depend very little on editing. “The mills of the Gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine”, said the Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus, so it is with General Yuri Glinshi, one moment he is exiled, next, he is by Stalin’s deathbed. The characters show their suffering and joy by action, not words or meditation, the General’s wife is sad, or rather, she is going mad after her husband is taken away, she won’t sit and cry, nor would she talk to other about her misfortunes, rather, she pick a bucket full of dirty cloth and smash it on top of her head. When a character is hopeless to respond to violent, they slap themselves on the face, for they are hopeless. All the character in the film behave like children when driven to the edge, they react by use of violent to express their disapproval or by playing games and laughter to express their joy. The desperation and inability to control their life drive them to the edge, but this illusion of state of the mind as is with the General take a twist into the reality of the time, as he is falling from the grace, the film become an absurdest nightmare, as cruel fate make an animal out of him, in a demonstration of realism in violence and savagery that few films dare to get there,he is told. “Don’t tempt fate, mister”, tempt it or not, he has to live it, the life, the fall and rise of a General, his title alone determine how others view him, for his personality, deeds and character is judged by his position alone and nothing more.