My Friend Ivan Lapshin is a movie released in 1984 directed by the great Alexei German. The film is apparently exceptionally popular in the former Soviet Union. Indeed, the movie may be the most successful of all Soviet films in terms of its audience appeal. The film's appeal is hard to understand -- My Friend Ivan Lapshin poses many challenges to an audience, although, perhaps, these are less severe for people raised under the Communist system. The narrative is only obliquely presented -- as in all of German's later films, the distinction between plot and random circumstance is hard to make. Images that are highlighted or that remain in the viewer's mind are, often, inconsequential (or, even, distractions) to the plot. On several occasions, we see a very striking boy with big ears and glasses in a wheelchair -- the boy smiles warmly at the camera. His presence seems to be significant -- German's ceaselessly roving camera has twice taken notice of him. But, as far as I can tell, the boy has nothing to do with the story and does not figure in the plot -- to borrow Barthes' term, he is a punctum, a point of interest for the eye that signifies nothing other than that the film must take account of intractable reality. Things always take place around a narrative that have no bearing on that story and German, often, highlights these images or events. In one of the final scenes in the film, we see the hero Ivan Lapshin walking away from the camera -- he has been disappointed in love and the scene is a sad one. In the middle of the town square, a woman is having difficulty with an enormous bear-like dog incongruously named "Tiny." The dog will not obey her commands. As Ivan Lapshin walks past her, departing, in fact, from the film that bears his name, the woman's difficulties with her dog become central to the image -- they distract us from the hero's exit. But the woman and the dog don't figure in any other parts of the film -- she seems to be inserted as a warrant of authenticity: this film shows us the truth because it dares to present aspects of life in the town that can not be assimilated to the story told by the movie.
My Friend Ivan Lapshin bears many stylistic similarities of German's monstrous and great Krushtalyov, my car! The characters live in a chaotic boarding house, six men crammed together in a claustrophobically narrow and cluttered space. The film posits itself, like Krushtalyov, as a memoir -- although not one as lacerating as the story told in the later film. Both pictures feature long and complex takes in which the camera roams through landscapes that seem to have been designed by Bosch or Brueghel -- the landscapes are swarming with all sorts of picaresque detail, every kind of human activity. If something intriguing is occurring in these landscapes, the camera will jerk to the side and pause to record this event before, then, returning to track the affairs of the film's protagonists. My Friend Ivan Lapshin is an affectionate elegy for the mid-30's in a small town somewhere north of Leningrad. The plot is apparently derived from several short stories about Ivan Lapshin written by German's father, Yuri. At the start of the film, we glimpse the director moving among this records and books in his Leningrad flat: we see his grandson sitting in the darkness on the stairs and the images are in color, a Rembrandt-styled dense and shadowy brown. From the top of the stairs where German's grandson is working, we look down into sun-dappled study where the director's father is sitting -- he looks up at us and the image fades to black and white, beginning the narrative that takes place in 1935. We see the director as a small boy and are gradually drawn into a very diffuse series of events that constitutes the movie's slender plot. Lapshin is a Soviet police officer who has come to the small-town, possibly to pursue a vicious master criminal named Sololyov. It's winter time and, for the film's purposes, the town consists of a long, narrow and grim-looking police-station, a big public square with a wooden arch lit with Christmas lights, and the crowded, smelly boarding house where Lapshin lives with his fellow policemen. A group of actors comes to town to present some kind of propaganda production, a play involving a rebellion against the wealthy by the proletariat. One of the actresses, Natasha, flirts with Lapshin, a shell-shocked veteran of the Civil War, and asks to meet a real prostitute so she can perfect her performance in that role in the play. Lapshin oblilngly introduces her to a whore, Kate Napoleon, so that the actress can study that woman's demeanor. (Kate Napoleon is plain, weirdly demure, and shows no signs of any kind that she is a prostitute -- probably exactly as a real prostitute would present herself when not plying her trade; amusingly, the only performance said to be weak in the play is that of the actress impersonating the prostitute.) Lapshin's friend is another cop called Khanin. Khanin's wife has just died from diphtheria. In a frightening scene, Khanin tries to kill himself but every time he shoves the gun down his throat, he gags uncontrollably. Lapshin intervenes and Khanin doesn't commit suicide. Later, Lapshin climbs into Natasha's rooms, using an unstable-looking ladder. He confesses his love to the actress. She tells him that she loves Khanin. Disappointed Lapshin goes back to his crowded boarding house and, on an impulse, dips his hand in boiling water while he is doing his laundry. Later, the police conduct a raid in the mist on the master criminal Sololyov's headquarters -- a big wooden house that is also a chaotic, confusing sort of apartment building with a half-dozen people in every chamber. A bad guy stabs Khanin and we think that the policeman is going to die. But he recovers. Khanin later rejects the advances of Natasha (he is still in love with his dead wife, Lika). Although Khanin has rejected Natasha, the actress is not ready to accept Lapshin's love. Instead, she departs for Leningrad on the first steamer capable of breaking the spring ice on the Neva River. We see the steamer leaving the town, this time shown in color, and German, as narrator, tells us that the city is much larger now and has many tram-lines whereas there was only one when Lapshin was in town. And, on that note, the film ends.
The mise-en-scene in My Friend Ivan Lapshin is fantastically complex and discursive and I will have to watch the film again to better understand it. There is no doubt that the picture is some kind of masterpiece but it resists interpretation and the story, like some narratives by Chekhov, is all atmosphere and really very little event. German is one of the greatest directors of the 20th century -- all of his films, like those of Tarkovsky, are brilliant and memorable and repay close attention. Therefore, these remarks must be accounted preliminary only. The film has a number of scenes that I didn't understand on first viewing -- in particular, there is one horrifying sequence in which people come from within an underground pit, climbing laboriously up a narrow trench in which there are stairs. Several of the people are either dead or some kind of living corpses and they are taken away in an open truck in the middle of winter (from Krushtalyov, my car! I interpret these people to be political prisoners, but I don't know for sure) -- I have no idea what this sequence means and will have to watch the movie again to see if I can figure it out. Like Tarkovsky's films, German's movies are rapturously beautiful but also incredibly squalid -- the little town is a wretched backwater and you can almost smell the poverty on-screen.