Saturday, February 14, 2015

Krushtalyov my car!

In these notes, and elsewhere, I have argued that the Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov is the greatest director working today in the world.  In 1999, both Sokurov and, another Russian, Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar-winning filmmaker and also a great director, had films in contention at the Cannes Festival.  Sokurov and Mikhalkov each withdrew their films from the competition in deference to Alexei German's Krushtalyov, my car! also representing Russia that year.  Sokurov and Mikhalkov both declared that they thought their movies were insignificant when compared with German's film and that they were ashamed their works were in competition with his picture.  People present during the screening of Krushtalyov, my car! recount that the soundtrack was largely inaudible and that the loudest noise in the auditorium was, first, the sound of people getting up and fleeing the theater and, then, boos and catcalls.  The European premiere of the film was a catastrophe and the movie was never commercially released in any market.  When the picture was awarded a Nika, the Russian equivalent of an Oscar, a Moscow critic complained with words to this effect:  "Why are the critics giving an award to a movie that the public has not seen and does not want to see, that the critics have not seen, that no one can sit through, and that no one will ever see?"  In the last month, German's most recent film, An Account of the Arkadan Massacre, was shown in New York City.  KINO owns the rights to the picture and has been cautiously screening the 175 minute film, based on a Soviet-era science fiction novel, in big cities.  Critical responses have been generally enthusiastic, even, rapturous and this has triggered interest in German's previous movies including the notorious Krushtalyov, my car!  I found a DVD available through Amazon of the 1998 film.  The DVD's packaging is printed entirely in Russian and I was afraid that the disc would not work in my machine.  But, in fact, the disk plays and the images are beautifully clear and sharp and, even, the subtitles, although sometimes unidiomatic to English, are legible.  And the movie is, indeed, an appalling, fascinating, infuriating masterpiece. 

Simply put, there is nothing in the history of film like Krushtalyov, my car!  I will have to study the movie in depth to understand it.  More than half of the picture, all of which is spectacularly shot in high-contrast black and white, was thematically incomprehensible to me.  As is true with all great works of art, I assume that with familiarity and repeated viewing, the movie will begin to make sense.  At this stage, I can say only that I detect greatness in the film, that I am enthusiastic about learning about the movie, and that I am confident that it will repay close analysis.  Accordingly, these remarks must be construed as purely provisional, tentative, an initial account of the movie's apparent subject matter and its remarkable style.

Krushtalyov, my car! is a phrase uttered by the Soviet commissar, Beria, toward the end of the movie.  Beria has just come from a dacha in which Stalin has died.  In Soviet lore, Krushtalyov, a shadowy figure, may have administered poison to Stalin resulting in his death. German doesn't show us Krushtalyov and Beria treats him as a chauffeur.  The film's action takes place in March 1953, during the three day period ending in Stalin's death.  A remarkable coda is set in Siberia, I think, ten years later.  Essays on the film emphasize German's fetishistic recreation of the Soviet past.  Production of the movie took place between 1991 and 1998 and, reportedly, the film's making was delayed for several years because German could not locate the requisite number of black official sedans (12) required for some of the scenes. 

Although Krushtalyov, my car! can be summarized as having something to do with Stalin's death, this thread in the plot doesn't emerge until the movie is five-sixths done.  Almost all of the film's action, which is frenetic, even, hysterical, takes place in Moscow during a spectacularly cold and snowy winter.  A 12-year old boy, the son of a neurologist named Yuri Klensky ("the General"), narrates some of the story, although the movie shows us many events that the boy could not possibly have witnessed.  Most of the film consists of long, grandiose tracking shots that follow characters through squalid labyrinths filled with grotesque extras who grimace at the camera or threaten the protagonists.  The screen is packed with action and event -- people are always falling down or slapping one another in the corners of the background and there is continuous motion, objects falling, breaking, actors spitting at one another or on the ground, dogs and cats everywhere, strange birds in the trees peering down at the chaos, no score or diegetic music but a cacophony of sounds: gypsy musicians, Jewish minstrels, brass bands playing in desolate city-squares, lions roaring in the distance.  German's players are, often, spectacularly hideous to the point of seeming malformed and everyone poses for the camera as if swooning in a silent film -- the movie is filled with extravagant and inexplicable gestures.  People shriek at one another, paw at each other's bodies with bestial lust, suck on one another's fingers and everyone, without exception, seems to be suffering from ghastly respiratory and sinus ailments -- the movie's soundtrack is a chorus of hacking and mucousy spitting sounds, wet choking coughs all laced with continuous obscenities.  Indeed, the movie's final words as translated by the subtitles is "Fuckall!" an expletive almost drowned in gurgling phlegm.  At one point, a tiny, fat woman expresses her desire for the enormous general -- he is a towering, bald-headed giant -- by punching him repeatedly in the chest, licking his throat, and, then, when he doesn't adequately respond, head-butting his sternum. The movie is full of accidents of all kinds -- in the opening scene someone almost gets electrocuted on a snowy street and there are streetcar collisions, motorcycle crashes, and all sorts of public and private calamities:  people spit into soup, drunks are continuously fighting on the ice, and a children's playground looks like a World War One battlefield with mobs of boys punching and gouging one another.  There are bizarre misunderstandings and intentionally confusing sequences:  the General has an exact double, apparently groomed by the party to represent him in a show trial.  (At show trials, the accused had to read lengthy confessions but were frequently unable to do this effectively because debilitated by torture; to address this problem, the KGB developed doubles for most of its important victims and used them to read the confessions that the accused were too weak and battered to present.)  All of this seems dispiriting, but the sheer magnificence of the film's imagery, the incredible density of the pictorial evidence on screen, imparts a majesty to the movie that his hard to describe, a sort of forlorn visionary desolation.  There are thousands of people on-screen in this movie and every one of them is noteworthy -- it is like seeing the cast of a Dostoevsky novel suddenly swarming the screen before our eyes.  The film is both profoundly exhausting and exhilarating.  (A warning is in order:  the movie also contains one of the most brutal scenes that I have ever watched, the general's gang-rape in a lurching truck designed for the delivery of champagne -- this sequence is astounding, but, also, truly horrifying and relentlessly
uncompromising.  But German follows this scene, which is close to unwatchable, with cartoon antics including the poor general soothing his tormented anus by sitting in a pile of snow -- the film shifts moods with an intensity and ferocity that is stupefying.)

Early in the picture, the camera tracks along one of Moscow's snowy streets, momentarily focusing on a street car.  In the streetcar, a drunk is sitting in the doorway balancing a glass of vodka on his head while the other people in the car cheer for him or shriek obscenities.  In the last shot of the film, the General sits on an open box-car rumbling across the Siberian taiga.  He seems to have a kind of disheveled court around him, a couple gypsies, some blonde whores, a little boy.  He stands up and someone puts a glass on his head filled with wine or brandy and, as the train lurches through the wasteland, he balances the glass on his bald head, defying the "shocks" in the road-bed and, I suppose, the shocks of history as well.

This film dwarfs all other movies that I have seen in the past year. Alexei German, who may have been the greatest filmmaker in the world, died on February 21, 2013 in St. Petersburg.   

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