Screened May 24 2009 on 35mm at Anthology Film Archives, New York NY
TSPDT rank #934 IMDb
My Friend van Lapshin is an attempt to retrieve lost time that itself may be in need of revival. Upon its 1982 release, it garnered equal parts acclaim and controversy for its frank depiction of 1930s small town Soviet life, with comrades threatening to report each other and casual references to drugs, prostitution and secret police backroom brutality. The film was heralded as the greatest Soviet film of all time, beating out the likes of Tarkovsky and Eisenstein; today it’s largely unremarked outside of (and even among) Russian film circles.
The narrative is an extended series of unfiltered incidents of the past strung together in a loosely linear sequence. Despite being mostly shot in black and white and sepia, the film is alive with an unruly, uncentered and unprocessed feel of communal activity. Alexsei German orchestrates this action with masterful long takes and tracking shots. But unlike the employment of this technique by Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr, German doesn’t so much connect images along a meditative stream with his more roughhewn, often handheld camerawork as clash them in an animated clatter of incongruity, something resembling collage art.
Deep staging among multiple characters and a thin discerning between throwaway gestures and primary action within in a scene evoke a society moving in a perpetual fog – not for years will people remember what mattered among so many things that happened. The post-dubbed soundtrack gives the effect of hearing dialogue through waterlogged ears, adding to a vaguely claustrophobic sense of warped perception (an effect taken to an even greater extreme in German’s follow-up Khrustaliov, My Car!).
By the end, we’re not even sure what to make of the film’s nominal protagonist, a captain of the local police squad, who’s a seemingly nice guy who mediates squabbles and even a suicide attempt among his five roommates. He also goes practically berserk during a climactic police raid, shooting a man dead rather than taking him in. The ambiguous portrayal of a Stalinist authority figure may have been as edgy as German could have gotten away with in the 80s, though some critics saw it as not overtly critical enough. The film’s embrace of indeterminacy may on one hand compromise the forcefulness of its political critique; on the other hand it amounts to a critique in itself, of the overdetermined, two-dimensional propaganda that propagated itself through Soviet film history (and that gets lampooned in the film’s opening sequence). One feeling the film distinctly leaves us with is a sense of the stories that give form to our lives being as much a bewildering work in progress then as it is now.
YOU CAN WATCH THE ENTIRETY OF MY FRIEND IVAN LAPSHIN ON YOUTUBE WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES. Here’s Part One.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of My Friend Ivan Lapshin among They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They’s 1000 Greatest Films:
Peter Rinaldi, The Cinematheque Top 10 Project (2008)
Quay Brothers, Time Out (1995)
Sergei Bodrov, Sight & Sound (1992)
Verina Glaessner, Time Out (1995)
? Empire (Russia), 50 Best Russian Films (2008)
? Rough Guide to Film, Russia & The Soviet Union: 5 Lesser-Known Gems (2007)
Alexei Guerman’s 1984 film, based on short stories by his father Yuri Guerman and scripted by Eduard Volodarsky, is set in a remote and impoverished Russian village in 1937, where as a boy the narrator shared a cramped apartment with five men, including Ivan Lapshin, the head of the local police. The film alternates between black and white, sepia, and a few shots in color, though without any rationale that I could discern. Despite a supple and original camera style, some powerful acting, and a refreshing absence of sentimentality, the loose, episodic structure makes for a certain dullness, at least for spectators with no more than a glancing acquaintance with the Stalinist period that this film meticulously re-creates and addresses. Guerman has expressed some doubts that this film can be properly understood in the West, and it does pose difficulties for spectators who don’t know much about the historical context. But anyone with a serious interest in Soviet cinema won’t want to pass it up.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
ONE’S sympathies are all with Aleksei German. The Soviet director has had his troubles with his country’s authorities; movies that he made 10 and 20 years ago have only recently been released in the West. His fourth and latest effort, ”My Friend Ivan Lapshin,” which will be shown at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the New Directors/New Films series tonight at 8:30 and tomorrow at 6 P.M., is one of the first proscribed films to benefit from glasnost. Scheduled to open next month at the Cinema Studio, it is evidence that not every movie that has displeased the cultural commissars is a masterpiece.
Mr. German’s knack for visual authenticity provides the movie’s main interest. Scene after scene, shot for the most part in the sepia of old photographs, catches the poverty and confusion of a hard time – the crowded apartment, the beat-up cars, the dreary town and its shabbily dressed people, the outbursts of desperation and nuttiness. In his treatment of a troupe of actors and some musicians jangling along on a flag-festooned little trolley, the director seems to have picked up some tricks from Fellini, but the spirit is very different. It’s mostly complaint and bickering; only the policemen seem in good humor. People quarrel constantly about food and living space; a woman goes into hysterics over the loss of some gasoline.
The scattered reminiscences, unrelated to the boy from whom they ostensibly originate and about whom we learn nothing, keep getting in the way of the rather casual plot, which has Ivan’s best friend, a journalist, becoming involved with the actress and the murderer. Mr. German shows more consideration for his father’s anecdotes (much is made of little practical jokes, youthful byplay, awkward accidents that add up to nothing) than for his audience’s comprehension. You can hardly tell one policeman from another and often can’t be sure where they are or what they are doing there.
- Walter Goodman, The New York Times, March 24 1987
Gherman’s masterly film (his third) is framed as an autobiographical reminiscence of the 1930s, just before the Stalinist terror began to bite. Through the eyes of a nine-year-old we watch episodes from the life of a small town police chief: his home life in a ludicrously overcrowded apartment, his unsuccessful courtship of a glamorous actress, and his rather more successful campaign to hunt down the criminal fraternity of the Soloviev gang. There is nothing sinister about this Ivan, but the film is crammed with tiny suggestions of the horrors to come, designed to provoke disquieting speculations about the eventual fate of this potentially dangerous man. Gherman’s methods are resolutely observational and low key, and his subject is the lull before the storm; the drama emerges as if by accident from a collage of resonant and deeply felt scenes from day-to-day life. Wonderfully vivid performances and amazingly original camerawork (mostly in elegantly faded monochrome) bring a vanished world to life with complete conviction.
- Tony Rayns, Time Out
Alexei German‘s third film as director is based on stories written by his father, prominent author Yuri German. The mostly black-and-white film begins with a present-day color sequence, then reverts to monochrome and the freezing winter of 1935, when the narrator was nine years old. The boy lived in an apartment with his father and two other men, Police Chief Ivan Lapshin (Andrei Boltnev) and his officious underling (Alexei Zharkov). The story focuses on Lapshin as he tracks down a gang of crooks in his provincial Russian village, helps his recently widowed friend, and enters into a tentative relationship with an actress (Nina Ruslanova). Capable direction by German and a talented ensemble cast make this detailed look at the pre-purge Soviet Union both entertaining and richly rewarding.
- Robert Firsching, Allmovie
Aleksei Gherman’s legendary My Friend, Ivan Lapshin (Moj drug Ivan Lapshin) has been called by Andrei Tarkovsky and many Russian critics, both Soviet and post-Soviet, the greatest Soviet film ever made. Its complex, stormy vision of drab provincial life in Soviet Russia has the visual elan to drug, and the power to sweep away, the viewer. I am sorry to say that the film left me cold. There’s no question that the film is great. There is some question, though, whether anyone needs to see it. It doesn’t strike me as essential, as did, for instance, Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Autumn (1960), which I left the same sick bed to go see at the movies the night before. Dazzlingly brilliant, My Friend nonetheless afforded scarcely a moment of pleasure to justify my years of anticipation of one of cinema’s most heralded accomplishments.
Gherman may be playing with time, but he isn’t playing games with his audience. The confusions are to the point since one of the film’s themes is the psychology of memory. In this instance, memory is hampered not only by the passage of time but also by the persistence of harsh socioeconomic conditions over time, thus eliminating, by implication, the points of normal reference that might better distinguish one time from another. Formally, it’s a sophisticated procedure that Gherman employs, and had I been a tad healthier I might have been fit to meet its challenges. As it is, at times the film’s parallel universes of different times made me hanker for the clarity of the parallel universes in the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix (1999).
Critics are divided as to what this all means about Ivan Lapshin. Is Gherman whitewashing the Soviet police by not showing them going after ordinary citizens, or is he demonstrating by metaphor state police brutality? But more is involved here than metaphor, for the gangsters are, on the one hand, driven to their viciousness by the dire nature of Soviet economic conditions and, on the other, hunted down and murdered by the police for their viciousness. It’s a losing state of affairs.
Still, Gherman hedges his bets formally. The climactic gunfight at the U.S.S.R. Corral includes extraordinary tracking shots; but their effectiveness would have been that much greater had Gherman earlier not overused his tracking camera, thus robbing the shots of their unique character when they finally arrive at a real purpose and point. Gherman, earlier, tracks simply because he can, and his showiness costs him points at the end. Nor am I as impressed as are others by all the times a tracking camera follows the characters just to reiterate a child’s point of view. There’s a lot of formal messiness in the film before Gherman “pulls it all together.”
The technique of switching between colour and black and white from one scene to the next has always fascinated me. It is such an effective stylistic tool for quickly creating atmosphere and striking a contrast. It’s also a powerful way to jolt the viewer into a dialogue with the film. My Friend Ivan Lapshin begins in colour, with a long handheld tracking shot that examines various objects and people as it searches carefully through a quiet house. This is the only time we will experience such ultra-personal camera work, as the film soon jumps back 50 years to the mid 1930s, now in a mesmerising black and white. Our narrator continues speaking from his present time, reflecting through memory on his experiences as a child living in a small town in Soviet Russia just before the Great Purge. It is essential to keep this time period in mind to fully appreciate the contradictions and ultimate decline that the film explores. The parties, the music and laughter, the joking and pranks, all mislead and clash with the depressing situation that surrounds the town, expressed elegantly through the constant thick fog.
Editing is used sparingly, placing value on the natural progression of time. Long tracking shots quickly become familiar as they fluently create a circling world which is able to encompass expansive outdoor locations as easily as it manages confined indoor spaces. Haphazard jumps between scenes often occur without any causal reasoning, resulting in a level of chaos and confusion that reflects the social and political situation present within the film. For the most part the narrative works as a stream of consciousness, and this allows for dramatic shifts in mood and importance whenever necessary. There is still a plot, and even a few subplots, but these fall secondary to the precise study of life, which is exemplified in a number of near silent moments that watch characters from a distance as they go about routine daily tasks. Such scenes are contrasted with loud, grandiose street marches, and then again with serious, dramatic instances of desperation. Clever uses of light, snow and night photography create images of exquisite beauty out of ugliness. As the world declines into darkness the use of colour also disappears, leaving us to pessimistically contemplate the bleak future ahead.
INTERVIEW WITH ALEKSEI GERMAN
How long did it take to complete Moi drug Ivan Lapshin?
As for the film Moi drug Ivan Lapshin, it took a year to write the script. Then it took a year to make all the preparations. Because we had to buy the technical means, and then we had to collect all the costumes. We visited many people and tried to find all the costumes we needed. We collected a lot of photographs because we didn’t want to use the archives. Because the archives in all the countries are lying. The things put into the newsreels for the archives are all lies. In America, in Germany, in Russia most of all. What am I talking about? I’m talking about those newsreels that were supposed to show the positive things in life. The joy, all the good things. Not just showing a street. So in order to understand what kind of life it was, we had to find things, pictures about, for example, how something was being built.
For example, we watched some short films about building water pipes. Of course, the cameraman was showing all those pipes. At the same time, when he moved his camera from one place to another, to look at the street, to look at the boys, who were probably not always very polite, who didn’t have very good manners. Or we saw a woman with quite a few bags. So we could see the real life. We couldn’t make the film without all these things. That’s why it took so long for every film. If you want to know, Moi drug Ivan Lapshin is really filming. It was introducing something new.
What sorts of “new things” were introduced in Moi drug Ivan Lapshin?
If you want, I can show you in a very short way which technical means we used. Just what kind of film is Moi drug Ivan Lapshin? This is a story about the 1930s. Margarita Aliger wrote about the period that we were young, and there was no war that we couldn’t win. And now we are accused of every fault. There is no fault that we are not accused of. So this is said about the 1930s. This is just a phrase.
What was happening back then? A lot of repressions took place. Many peasants were made to leave their residence and their property to the State and go away. The Party was being destroyed. The village, the whole system was being destroyed. The idea of the revolution was being destroyed. And all the moral principles were being destroyed. And all these things happened.
But were there any good people? Yes, there were. Good people with moral principles? Yes, there were. People who tried to live according to the truth. Yes, there were. My parents lived at that time. So we tried to speak about the 1930s, about life in those days. We wanted to show life and some of the things that brought the people to death later. So this is a film presentiment. It shows the people who will die. We don’t know about their death yet. And they think they will live. They think about a very good and happy life.
How do you position, or employ, the camera during shooting?
The camera is there in order to capture these particular conversations from this angle of perspective right in the middle of the action. In particular, the camera is to show this or that at this special time, and in this special way. After all, a conversation is supposed to have a certain particular reason or sense to it. For instance, the conversation with the young man is also a conversation about the gulag [prison camp]. Someone says something. And suddenly the question is raised: I’ll put you in jail, I’ll throw you in prison. Of course, that’s a little bit of a joke. But a joke set in these very times. And then if you look at it, someone really did put somebody in prison. In other words, the following sequence does show that somebody was thrown in prison. So along these principles, along the principles of a turntable, that’s the way we shot this film.
Is Moi drug Ivan Lapshin primarily about Stalin and the “Great Terror”?
Of course, when you make a film about Ivan Lapshin at this time, you are also including things that refer, of course, to Stalin. And, of course, later also to Beria. But on the whole we simply wanted to show the times. And we wanted to avoid this vulgar way of stating everything so clearly. Such a vulgarity would be a discussion in the film about Stalin, or even a way of behavior. We wanted to avoid all these clichés, and we wanted instead to dive deep into the lives of the people. Of course, they talk about certain things. For example, they talk about the death, the suicide, of Mayakovsky. But this is always in the background of the film.
How did the Russian public respond to Moi drug Ivan Lapshin?
They can be divided into three groups. The first group wrote to me, saying that I was an idiot. They were very furious, especially when it was shown on television. Millions of people who saw it were furious. There was an article in the newspaper before the film was shown. A good article, saying that you should watch the film, really watch it, not just come and go. Then, when the film was shown, some lady made a telephone call, saying that the film should be burned—together with the director. So the Russian newspaper Izvestia responded: why should the film be burned? Just turn to another channel if you don’t like it. So a third of the audience was furious and said that the film was worth nothing.
There was another third. It was very interesting that they headed their letters with the words: “A Copy to the Central Committee.” Or: “A Copy to the KGB.” This third thought they were speaking the truth about the film-maker. These people were from institutions, or scientific establishments. And the citizens of …. collected all their signatures, so that the film-maker would never come to their places of work. I don’t know why the editor was like that. Very often, their letters started with “Dear Editor” and ended “With communist regards.” All these letters were written by old Bolsheviks. When I saw that they ended “With communist regards,” then I knew that a copy of such a letter would be in the KGB files.
I am not being ironic about these letters. It wasn’t funny for me at all. I was really hurt. Because these letters said: “Yes, probably all those things in the film are right, but we won’t give you the right to show all these things. There were letters with the words: “Solzhenitzyn with his dirty boots and criminal characters is allowed to dance on our future and our past. And now you are allowed to do the same thing, and so on.” It was really very trying to get all those letters.
- Excerpted from interview with Aleksei German by Ronald Holloway, published in Kinoeye, Sept 2004
‘This is my declaration of love for the people I grew up with as a child’, says a voice at the beginning of Aleksei German’s Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin). There is a pause as the narrator struggles for the right words to express his feelings for the Soviet Union of the thirties; when they come—ob”iasnenie v liubvi—it is with a strained emphasis on ‘love’. The film, released in 1984, is set in 1935 in the fictional provincial town of Unchansk, where a young boy and his father share a communal flat with criminal police investigator Ivan Lapshin and half a dozen others. It weaves together elements from the director’s father Iurii German’s detective stories and novellas of the same period: a troupe of actors arrive to play at the town’s theatre; Lapshin tracks down a gang of criminals trading in human meat; a friend of Lapshin’s, Khanin, becomes unhinged after his wife dies of typhus; the spirited actress Adashova falls in love with Khanin, and Lapshin with Adashova. The authorities are largely absent: it is a film about people ‘building socialism’ on a bleak frozen plain, their town’s one street a long straggle of low wooden buildings beneath a huge white sky, leading from the elegant stucco square by the river’s quayside out into wilderness. There is a single tram, a military band, a plywood ‘victory arch’ of which they are all proud—‘My father’, the narrator recounts, ‘would never take a short cut across the town’: he always went the long way round, under the victory arch.
The film holds hope and suffering in the balance. Adashova proudly boasts about what the 1942 production quotas for champagne will be; Lapshin declares, ‘We shall clean up the earth and plant a garden, and we ourselves will live to walk in it’—just as the hacked-up corpses hidden by the meat-traders are loaded onto a truck. The film is full of such alarming details and ill omens: dubious meat, which retains the headline offprint of the newspaper it was wrapped in (‘WE REJOICE’) even after it’s been cooked; febrile explosions of rage over spilled paraffin; flocks of crows cawing across the sky. There is a mismatch between the optimism of the characters and what we know of subsequent events. ‘I’m going on a course’, Lapshin says towards the end of the film, and his words are left hanging in the air. These are people whose faith in the future remains intact, but whose betrayal is imminent. German has said that his main aim was to convey a sense of the period, to depict as faithfully as possible the material conditions and human preoccupations of SovietRussia on the eve of the Great Purge. It is for this world, for these people that the narrator struggles to declare his love—unconditional, knowing how flawed that world was, and how tainted the future would be. German compared the film to the work of Chekhov, and one can see in it a similar tenderness for the suffering and absurdity of its characters.
Loosely episodic, the film is remarkable in its resistance to linear narrative: dialogue is often drowned out by senseless chatter or the clanging of buckets; our view of important characters is frequently blocked by figures crossing the screen. In its cinematography, Ivan Lapshin consistently refuses to accept established priorities: as though every element of each shot must be allowed its meaning. The camera often enters the room behind characters’ backs, like a guest, or at elbow-level, like a curious child. There is no sense that the scenes are choreographed or pre-arranged, but rather a feeling that the camera, wide-eyed, is capturing what it can of a bewildering world.
Filming on Moi drug Ivan Lapshin finally began in 1979 and finished in 1982. Although the first screening was greeted with a standing ovation, the film was immediately attacked from within German’s own studio, Lenfil’m—an article in the studio’s newspaper called it a ‘gadkaia kartina’, a ‘disgusting film’. An official of Goskino informed him that everyone knew 37 and 38 weren’t good years, but he shouldn’t destroy all people’s illusions—‘leave 1935 alone’. German was then told to re-shoot half of the film, and when he asked which half, the head of Goskino replied: ‘Either. Leave half of your crap and do half as we want you to’.  Fortunately, due to lack of finance and the director’s protestations, the re-shoot never took place. After prolonged debates within Goskino, the film was released in 1984, to critical acclaim and even a certain commercial success.
Gorbachev’s accession signalled a turning point in German’s career. The Conflict Commission established in 1986 by the Cinematographers’ Union at last sanctioned the release of Proverka, along with over seventy other ‘shelved’ films, including such masterpieces as Aleksandr Askol’dov’s Komissar (1967) and Tengiz Abuladze’s Monanieba (Repentance, 1984). In 1987, Lapshin was voted the best Soviet film of all time in a national poll of film critics, ahead of anything by Eisenstein, Pudovkin or Vertov. German’s film is in many ways a precursor to the series of films of the glasnost’ period that return obsessively to the era of Stalin—much as one of the characters in Repentance keeps exhuming a small-town tyrant. It encapsulates the issues that were to haunt the Soviet Union until its demise, and continue to resurface in contemporary Russia: how are we to retell our history without disgracing our forefathers, magnifying them out of proportion or simply deleting them from the record? Which memories should we claim as ours?
- Tony Wood, The New Left Review, January-February 2001
My Friend Ivan Lapshin, made in 1983 by Alexei German, was released in 1985 after a two-year skirmish with Goskino. The dispute was due in part to the fact that it dealt with a very sensitive period of Soviet history – the 1930s, the years of forced collectivization, famine, the purges. Although this background is absent from the film, the realistic portrayal of ordinary life in those days, so different from the propagandistic films of the period about the marvels of industrialization, was in itself unacceptable. To make matters worse, the film was the creation of a very original talent, which automatically made the censors uncomfortable. The ambiguity of the multilayered text and the lack of clear narrative closures looked like an ideological trap to the official scanning eye, a visual quagmire that might harbor insidious meanings.
When the film was broadcast on television in early 1986 it became the subject of heated debate among the public. The film was at once exciting and disturbing. It offered a glimpse of an historical period that had been proscribed until then. But the portrait of that period was very personal, and left many viewers uncertain about the intentions of the director. What was his point of view? Why did he choose a police officer as the hero? What was he really saying about the Stalinist years, besides the fact that life was hard and drab in the provinces? The confusion was reinforced by the subjective camera and the post-modernist montage, virtually new in Soviet cinema. It was too early for the general audience to believe what they were seeing on the big screen, in the open. Later, it became obvious that German’s hero, Ivan Lapshin, was presented as a victim of the system – a true believer in the communist ideals, doomed to perish, strangled by the machine that he helped to build. His fate was similar to that of many others – Kirov, for example, whose portrait opens the retrospective core of the film and sheds a mournful shadow on the whole narrative. The year 1935, right after the Leningrad party chief was assassinated, was the last moment before the beginning of the great terror, a moment when it was still possible to nurture the illusion of a future, perfect world. German intended to pay a tribute to a generation that believed in the Stalinist myth and perished with it. He said in an interview: “The story I am telling is about the real life of these people, their faith, their melancholy, the fact that they go straight ahead toward communism without understanding that the road is long and dangerous. Maybe these people included my father and my mother.”
- Anna Lawton, Kinoglasnost: Soviet Cinema in Our Time. Published by CUP Archive, 1992. Pages 146-147, 148
Having heard for weeks that this unusual film would be showing sometime in late January 1985 (Step One), we began rousing ourselves from bed several Saturdays in a row to buy Leisure ( Step Two). Finally, in the last week of January, Leisure printed a one-line announcement that My Friend, Ivan Lapshin would be playing on January 26th in only one Moscow cinema. Thus began the final Step Three. After several days of fruitless telephoning, we went to the cinema the day before the showing and were told that the film would be shown the next day only at 7.00 p.m., that tickets would go on sale that day at 4.00 p.m. and, in the curious logic so common here, at that point there would be no tickets anyway, since they were already all sold out. After an hour’s tactful inquiry, rediscovered that there were in fact at least three other unannounced showings there on that same day, to which we were at last permitted to buy tickets. The whole experience was a little like standing in front of a locked door with a ring of skeleton keys, knowing that one of them, if jiggled just right and not too loudly, would let us in.
The film itself has generated enormous interest here. One Soviet acquaintance described it as a devastating critique of the secret police activities in the 1930s. Another acquaintance travelled approximately 600 miles from Riga to Moscow in order to see the film. There are several reasons for this interest. First, the original stories, romanticizing the lives of the secret police, are transformed by the director-son into a depiction of the brutality, lawlessness and hardships of life in a small provincial town: communal apartments, overcrowding, lack of privacy, chronic shortages of food and firewood. The depiction of the seamier aspects of Soviet society – a thieves’ den, prostitution, a raid on a hoarder’s underground storehouse – are filmed in black-and-white, creating the atmosphere of old, documentary footage that has finally come to light. Other technical features of the film – open-microphone recording, alternating colour footage (though not consistently carried through in the film, the tendency is to record events of the 1980s in colour, of the 1930s in black-and-white), and the accuracy of historical detail (interiors, costumes, village scenes) – are also unusual.
By de-romanticizing the depiction of life in the provinces, the director has not, however, demystified the way in which agents of the secret police are represented. The characterization of the police, and in particular of the police-chief, Ivan Lapshin, is every bit as idealized as in the literature of earlier times; Lapshin and the police are indefatigable, dedicated, honest, fair. They are almost saintly figures, who are trapped in a hellish life. Their occasional callousness is the result of the conditions with which they must deal uncomplainingly; their brutality, that of the avenging angel. German succeeds in having Soviet audiences respect and praise their depiction for two essential reasons. First, the narrative frame of the film is the reminiscences in the presence of an ageing writer, who recalls his childhood awe of Lapshin (“the servant of the people and a father to his men,” to paraphrase paradoxically Lermontov’s words in the poem “Borodino”, about Kutuzov, the saviour of Russia during the war with Napoleon). The camera is the eyes of the child. Like Cherkassov in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, the gaunt and chisel-faced Lapshin towers above everyone else in the film. Second, the case on which Lapshin is working belongs more to the domain of the militia than to the secret police. He is pursuing vicious gangster-murderers, rather than engaged in the activities traditionally associated with the secret police: surveillance and repression of citizens, purging of dissidents from society, searching for counter-revolutionaries and “cosmopolitan” traitors.
As a result, although Soviet audiences react very favourably to the honesty with which the difficulties of life in the 1930s are portrayed in the film, a Western viewer is more attentive to the ways in which the film engages in white-washing the activities and personalities of the secret police agents. From this point of view the film is exciting because it dares to address the existence of the NKVD in the years immediately before the purges, an association that most Soviet citizens also make; but it is disturbing because it refuses to challenge received ideas and official ways of describing the role of the secret police in that period, or even to undermine some of the dominant clichés in Soviet cinema. In Lapshin we still have a positive hero, however tarnished his image has become with time. “Good guys” never die in this film, nor do they die in other Soviet films, war films being the one exception to this general rule. In My Friend, Ivan Lapshin, one eviscerated NKVD member survives a long drive in the back of a truck, bumping over provincial roads. Released from the hospital after a remarkable recovery ( a real testimony to rural emergency medical procedures in the 1930s), he is gruffly reminded by Lapshin, “Don’t forget to bind your guts with a towel.” Having seen this film, so praised by progressive intellectuals for its verisimilitude and honesty, we find it lacking above all in precisely those two traits. The film, however, continues to play to packed theatres in at least one out-of-the-way cinema in Moscow each week.
- Vladimiar Padunov and Nancy P Condee, Framework 29, 1985
Like much of recent Soviet cinema, the film repeatedly returns to a flashback structure, with a prologue and epilogue, accompanied by the off-screen voice of a witness who was at that time a 9-year-old boy. The flashbacks illustrate the theater of action in the thirties today in 1984 (thus in color, with our new signs of the times). But the current frame doesn’t serve to confer any real tenderness to the memory, or to connote it sentimentally, ideologically, or even formally. Nor does it serve to glorify, or even to justify, the present, the “leap forward.” It serves, first of all, to give a feeling of truth to the testimony. Not autobiographical, however, in the strict sense of the word (Alexei German was born three years after the year he set the action, 1935). The flashback structure series, if anything, to reconfirm and repropose the theme of the passage of “direct” testimony from generation to generation, from father to son, even if both the boy-witness and the father are secondary figures, silent mediators of a historic moment that towers over them and goes beyond them. Once again the film is based on pages by Yuri German, and only in that sense is it autobiographical.
At the end of the film, after the catharsis and the catastrophes, the “return to the future” from the Stalin-period town, from the poverty and marching bands (“There’s an orchestra for every inhabitant”), to the same city fifty years later, isn’t the return to a more livable, more comfortable, more judicious contemporaneity. Today the city has asphalt, they say, but no metropolitan symphony follows even the top brass there. Today there are lots of streetcars, buses, trains, modern and efficient means of transport; back then there were only two trams – tram number one and tram number two. With Stalin’s face over them. German doesn’t try to approach the new city, almost as though he were afraid of having to assume a celebratory tone. He contemplates it from afar. The colors don’t get brighter, don’t ring out. The voice of memory is tender, but firm.
- Giovanni Buttafava, “Alexei German, or the Form of Courage.” From The Red Screen: Politics, Society, Art in Soviet Cinema. Edited by Anna M. Lawton. Pages 281-282.
ABOUT ALEKSEI GERMAN
All German’s films focus on moments in which history and myth have become entangled, if not dangerously indistinguishable. He has described his films as ‘antipotochnye’, ‘against the current’: disrupting certainties and undermining convenient truths.  The Stalin era, his principal subject, is the period of his own childhood and youth. Born in 1938 in Leningrad—the same generation as Tarkovsky and Mikhalkov—he grew up in a milieu frequented by leading cultural figures of the time: Kozintsev dropped by regularly, the playwright and fabulist Evgenii Shvartz was his ‘uncle Zhenia’, and even Akhmatova was seen on occasion at the Germans’ flat on the Moika. German graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinematography in 1960 as a theatre director; it was not until the mid-sixties that he made the shift to scripting films, during the extraordinary rebirth of Soviet and East European cinematography—influenced in part by Italian neo-realism but also by the French New Wave—that came with the Khrushchev thaw. In career terms, German made the move just too late. By the time he had scripted Trudno byt’ bogom(It’s Hard Being God, 1968), based on the Strugatskii brothers’ science fiction novel, and Ivan Lapshin (1969), Brezhnevite conformism had set in; neither film could be made.
German comes from a generation of filmmakers unable to make their reputations (as Tarkovsky did) before the liberalization of the Khrushchev years evaporated under Brezhnev; witnessing, as students, a burst of cinematic creativity that they were not allowed to carry forward. Tarkovsky’s Stalker apart, the late 1970s are more known for likeable comedies than for films of great import. The comparison with another near-contemporary is instructive: German and Nikita Mikhalkov (The Barber of Siberia, Burnt by the Sun) both come from well-connected families of the Soviet artistic elite—Mikhalkov’s father wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem, German’s breakfasted with Stalin at least twice—yet where German chose to be antipotochnyi, Mikhalkov’s films have been lush and uncontroversial: Western money has flooded in. German’s hardships and professional struggles have been one result, a career caught between the more open, experimental wave of the sixties and the harsh realism of the perestroika years. Paradoxically, German’s films properly belong to this period in which they could not be released: a bridge between two phases of Soviet filmmaking. They both refer to and prefigure a range of stylistic devices and strategies, rarely seen in the work of one director: each frame of Ivan Lapshin is loaded with potential meanings and suggested histories that emerge differently with every viewing; Khrustalev, mashinu! is now gaining a reputation as a misunderstood classic. German’s current project—the adaptation of the Strugatskiis’ Trudno byt’ bogom that he first scripted in 1968—continues his engagement with difficult areas of Russia’s past. Two observers from earth visit a planet similar to their own in mediaeval times, and find themselves constantly tempted to intervene and change the course of events. The book was a talisman of the Soviet thaw of the early sixties; it was the invasion of Czechoslovakia that put an end to its filming then. In returning to it now German has the possibility of commenting not only on the Prague Spring but perhaps also on Russia’s present ‘intervention’ in Chechnya.
But although his films abound with real details and concreta, German does not see himself as documenting or reporting events. When he portrays the past it is always as a morass of anecdotal details and forgotten objects, forcing us to recognize its complexities and confusions. There is a continual denial of certainty in German’s films: definitive explanations of the ‘real’ are undermined in a way that reveals to the viewer the impossibility of ever remembering anything totally—along with the hazards of forgetting even the smallest of incidental details. Indeed, it is often these that speak most powerfully in German’s films: champagne quotas never to be reached, empty plains that are left unplanted, the stray dog in the snow-covered street.
- Tony Wood, The New Left Review, January-February 2001