Aleksey German only completed six films as a director. Ordinarily, that would be a rather limited body of work for an auteurist reputation to rest, but German did not just make movies. He built worlds. This one could be considered Stalinist World. Life there is nasty, brutish, short, disorienting, and surreal. Fortunately, it is also about to come to an end in the late German’s newly restored 1998 classic, Khrustalyov, My Car! (trailer here), which opens today at the Metrograph.
The film starts on the day of Stalin’s death, before flashing back to Gen. Yuri Klensky, the chief commissar of the Soviet military medical service, who has been hoping Stalin’s virulently anti-Semitic “Doctors’ Plot” purge would skip over him. Alas, Klensky’s optimistic illusions are shattered when he encounters his double in the cellar. Shortly thereafter, a foreign provocateur arrives with a supposed message from a family member living abroad. Klensky is coarse and corrupt, but he can recognize a power play, especially when he is the target.
In response, Klensky launches into a mad-dash escape attempt, careening out into the dark night of Stalinist Russia. However, the forces of darkness have the jump on him. Soon, his sprawling, bickering family will be evicted into the streets, as the Black Marias circle like sharks. However, all bets are off when Klensky comes face-to-face with the NKVD puppet-master, Lavrentiy Beria. There will even be a cameo for Stalin, but the expiring dictator hardly looks like himself.
Shot in starkly illuminated black-and-white, Khrustalyov, My Car! (an apocryphal quote attributed to Beria on learning of Stalin’s impending demise) offers a vision of what it might have looked like if Honoré Daumier had drawn caricatures of Stalinist Russia. The mise-en-scene is dingy, but baroque, much like his epic Hard to Be a God.
In just about every way, Khrustalyov represents some blisteringly uncompromising filmmaking from German, who doesn’t give a toss how uncomfortable viewers get when he openly compares Stalinism to violent forced sodomy. (There is no missing the significance of that scene.) German starts dark and goes progressively darker, until he reaches a Miltonian state of darkness visible.
As Lensky, Yuriy Tsurilo is about as animalistic as German could get, short a casting an actual raging bull. He is not exactly subtle (or pleasant company), but he commands the screen, even while enduring a torrent of humiliation. Frankly, it is rather remarkable how much his presence dominates the film, given the overwhelming nature of the maelstrom German orchestrates around him.