While Aleksei Guerman (b. 1938) may be little known in the US, in his native Russia he is widely considered Tarkovsky’s main rival for the title of greatest Russian filmmaker since the heyday of Soviet silent cinema. The fact that he has completed only five films in 40 years has both hindered his international reputation and added to his legend. According to Guerman, he originally wanted to be a doctor but was convinced by his father, distinguished author Yuri Guerman, to pursue an education in directing for the stage, which led to an apprenticeship with famed filmmaker Grigory Kozintsev. His first screen credit came as co-director with the more experienced Grigori Aronov on The Seventh Companion (1967), about the civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution. Guerman already had strong, and unconventional, ideas about filmmaking that he was mostly forced to stifle for this assignment; he remains reluctant to claim any responsibility for the film.
He was given the chance to direct his own project a few years later: Trial on the Road set during World War II. With its decidedly unheroic look at combat, it ran afoul of the censors and was not released until 1986. In the meantime, Guerman eventually managed to make another World War II film, Twenty Days Without War, followed by the work that won him international renown, My Friend Ivan Lapshin. The emergence of this film, combined with the release of Trial on the Road, made it possible for him to secure foreign funding for what remains his latest feature, Khrustalyov, My Car!. For the past several years, he has been working on the sci-fi epic Hard to Be a God.
Guerman’s popularity and importance in Russia stem in part from his decision to focus on times of historical import for the Soviet Union, from the Revolution to the death of Stalin. The preparation for each film has involved extensive research, including the examination of archival photos and interviews with survivors of the period in question. But history is glimpsed only obliquely in Guerman’s work. The early films feature not heroes but simply people doing what they can to survive, only occasionally having the opportunity to wonder how their actions will be judged. As Guerman’s idiosyncratic style has emerged over the course of his career, narrative itself becomes more diffuse, with major events taking place just offscreen or between scenes.
Finally, with Khrustalyov, My Car!, significant incidents are not so much absent as engulfed by a mise-en-scene teeming with details and characters ranging from the banal to the grotesque, like a Brueghel painting. If Guerman’s strategy is to approach history not from the top down but the bottom up, his particular genius is to present it as though glimpsed through the wrong end of a telescope, where the crucial happenings and important figures are lost among the myriad occurrences of everyday life.
Film notes adapted from text provided by Seagull Films and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. This series is a co-presentation with Seagull Films and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, with the assistance of Lenfilm Studios. Generous support provided by George Gund III. Special thanks: Alla Verlotsky—Seagull Films; Paul Richer—Pyramide Films.
Directed by Aleksei Guerman. With Rolan Bykov, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Vladmir Zamansky
USSR 1971, 35mm, b/w, 96 min. Russian and German with English subtitles
Inspired by a real case documented by Guerman’s father, Trial on the Road tells the story of a sergeant in the Red Army during World War II who has defected to the Nazis and, as the film begins, switches sides yet again. His loyalties questioned by all except for a benevolent commander, the soldier is forced to prove his patriotism via a series of increasingly perilous missions. The visual flourishes of Trial on the Road’s battle scenes even attracted the notice of some in Hollywood, but Guerman himself remains proudest of such innovative touches as actors who gaze directly into the camera. For daring to question the orthodoxy that World War II was a heroic struggle free of ironies and ambiguities, the film was shelved for fifteen years.
Directed by Aleksei Guerman. With Andrei Boltnev, Nina Ruslanova, Andrei Mironov
USSR 1984, 35mm, b/w & color, 100 min. Russian with English subtitles
A nostalgic look back at Stalin’s Russia just before the Great Purge began in 1937, My Friend Ivan Lapshin remains Guerman’s best-known work internationally. Affectionately detailing a love triangle that develops in a small town between a police detective, his widowed friend and a local actress, the story is told from the point of view of a narrator (seen occasionally in the only color sequences in Guerman’s work) remembering what he witnessed as a boy. The wealth of peripheral incidents – a theatrical troupe visits the town, Lapshin investigates a band of black marketers – allows Guerman to indulge his taste for weaving together a number of narrative strands that threaten to crowd each other out of the frame. From time to time, the villagers express their pride in the revolution and their optimism – unaware of the grim future lurking just offscreen.
Directed by Aleksei Guerman. With Yurly Tsurilo, Nina Ruslanova,
France/Russia 1998, 35mm, b/w, 137 min. Russian with English subtitles
“Khrustalyov, my car!” is supposedly the excited cry for his chauffeur uttered by the infamous Soviet security chief Beria as he hurried from Stalin’s deathbed. Guerman’s film is a feverish, frantic evocation of Moscow in January 1953 as Stalin lay dying. Consistent with Guerman’s habit of observing history indirectly, Khrustalyov, My Car! follows the itinerary of a surgeon whose life, and that of his family, is thrown into turmoil by the infamous “Doctor's Plot,” in which a group of predominately Jewish Moscow doctors were fingered as members of a conspiracy to assassinate Soviet leaders. Guerman creates a consistently amazing visual and aural rendition of the charged atmosphere of those sad times, in which no point of view is ever fixed, no shadow devoid of possible danger, nor any stray remark free from potentially lethal consequences.
Directed by Aleksei Guerman and Grigory Aronov. With Andrei Popov, Aleksandr Anisimov, Georgi Shtil
USSR 1967, 35mm, b/w, 89 min. Russian with English subtitles
Having co-directed The Seventh Companion with Grigory Aronov, Guerman now discounts his own involvement, citing Aronov’s more conventional approach to filmmaking. Nevertheless, the film displays the oblique approach to Soviet history that characterizes Guerman’s work. Based on the novella by Boris Lavrenev, the film unfolds during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. A general in the tsar’s army, having been arrested by the secret police, is released into the brave new world of the Soviet Union. His apartment is now a crowded commune and, with nowhere else to turn (“The fact that you are alive is a misunderstanding,” he is told), the soldier begins a campaign to return to the battlefield.
Directed by Ardak Amirkulov. With Dokhdurbek Kydyraliyev, Tungyshbai Dzhamankulov, Bolot Bejshenaliyev
USSR/Kazak 1991, 35mm, color, 176 min. Kazakh, Mongolian and Mandarin with English subtitles
Guerman produced and co-wrote – with wife and regular collaborator Svetlana Karmalita – Ardak Amirkulov’s staggering historical epic about the intrigue and conflict that led to Genghis Khan’s systematic destruction of the lost East Asian civilization of Otrar. Spurring an extraordinary wave of great Kazakh films in the 1990s, The Fall of Otrar is at once hallucinatory, visually resplendent and ferociously energetic, packed with eye-catching detail and traversing an endless variety of parched, epic landscapes and ornate palaces. A national epic that is also an art film, the closest antecedent to The Fall of Otrar may be Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, yet it also betrays the influence of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone.
Directed by Aleksei Guerman. With Yuri Nikulin, Lyudmila Gurchenko, Ekaterina Vasileva
USSR 1976, 35mm, b/w, 101 min. Russian with English subtitles
Guerman’s second film about World War II continues his typically oblique glance at the great events of official history by keeping the war offscreen, as the title implies. Twenty Days Without War takes place during a break from the front during which a soldier journeys to another town. The time is the winter of 1942 and the film’s title refers to the duration of a furlough taken by Soviet Army Major Lopatin (Yuri Nikulin, a celebrated comic actor and circus performer cast against type) to deliver the effects of a fallen comrade to the dead man’s wife in his own hometown of Tashkent. While there, Lopatin reunites briefly with his own ex-wife and begins a tentative courtship of a lonely seamstress working in the costume department on a feature film — a film based on Lopatin’s published wartime memoirs. Above all a film of astonishing intimacy and tenderness, Twenty Days is Guerman’s melancholic tribute to those who remain on the homefront in times of war, and how none of them escape without their own physical and emotional scars.