Soviet redux: personal and political collide in two recreations of the Stalinist past

Khrustalyov, My Car! (dir. Aleksei German, 1998)

Ever since the Soviet Union ceased to exist, filmmakers have been recreating it. Once the shadow of censorship was lifted, the rush began to mine the recent past for material, to begin a process of reckoning that had been stymied in the moment. Soviet history was reproduced onscreen with differing levels of historical accuracy to contradictory ends, depending on the circumstances (personal, political, geographical) of the filmmaker in question. The same pattern continues today, the same historical events used variously to condemn and to justify, denigrate and celebrate. Think of the sheer number of films that continue to be churned out in the former Soviet sphere about the Second World War. The conflict has been the most reliable source of inspiration for the morbid genre of the Putinist blockbuster – Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad (2013) is just one of many examples – with their ham-fisted reiterations of Russian nationalist narratives; at the same time, it has provided a canvas for non-Russians to highlight the violence inflicted by Soviet forces – see the high-class pathos of Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 recreation of the Katyń Massacre, among countless inferior imitators.

Among these many recreations, then, there are many pro- and anti-Soviet films, but surprisingly few authentically post-Soviet films – that is, films that refashion Soviet material into something new and unfamiliar, deconstructing rather than simply recreating. Among the Soviet period pieces in the Klassiki Library, though, are two titles that are definitely worthy of the label: Latvian filmmaker Laila Pakalniņa’s Dawn (2015) and Aleksei German’s Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998). Both are first and foremost disquieting reconstructions of the Stalinist past, but the two films are linked by more than just their subject matter. Each is informed by the personal and creative history of its director, their relationship to Soviet film history, and their shared stylistic approach to recreating the sensations of totalitarian life. But these connections, and German’s clear influence on the younger director, also point to the disjuncture between post-Soviet reconstructions that wield the past to political ends, and those that engage in personal exorcism.

there are many pro- and anti-Soviet films, but surprisingly few authentically post-Soviet films – that is, films that refashion Soviet material into something new and unfamiliar

Pakalniņa takes us back to a doubly fictionalised version of the 1930s and one of the founding myths of early Stalinism. Pavlik Morozov was a Young Pioneer (something like a communist Boy Scout) who in 1932 denounced his own father to the secret police for anti-Soviet conspiracy. In retaliation, Pavlik’s family murdered him, making him into a kind of Soviet martyr, lauded in songs, plays, operas, and biographies. A version of the Morozov tale titled Bezhin Meadow was produced by Sergei Eisenstein in 1937 but destroyed before release. Pakalniņa picks up the great avant-gardist’s baton, transporting the action to the post-war era in Soviet-occupied Latvia, where Pavlik becomes Janis (Antons Grauds), an ardent young communist on a collective farm called “Dawn”. Janis betrays his drunken, violent father (Vilis Daudziņš) and adopts local political boss Karlis (Wiktor Zborowski) as his new uncle – with predictably brutal consequences.

All four of the films that German completed during the Soviet period were set under Stalinism: Trial on the Road (1971) and Twenty Days without War (1977) are set during the Second World War, and My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984) in the mid-thirties on the eve of the Great Terror. It was only in the free-for-all of the post-communist 1990s, however, that German could truly get to the heart of the darkness. Khrustalyov takes place in the days leading up to Stalin’s death in 1953. The “plot” is oblique in the extreme, but what there is orbits around the figure of General Yuri Klensky (Yuriy Tsurilo), a prominent brain surgeon who lives a life of luxury and prestige, until he is accused of being part of a plot to kill Stalin. German here is referencing to the so-called Doctors’ Plot – an anti-Semitic purge of Soviet high society premised on the absurd conspiracy that Jewish doctors were planning to assassinate Stalin. In one of the film’s many dark comic ironies, Klensky is ultimately released from prison in order to save the afflicted Great Leader. He fails. The film’s suitably off-kilter title is a reference to the command allegedly shouted to his assistant by secret police chief Lavrenty Beria minutes after Stalin’s demise.

Dawn (dir. Laila Pakalniņa, 2015)

German is a singular figure in Russophone cinema history, and his influence is readily apparent in Dawn. Like every German feature, Khrustalyov included, Pakalniņa’s film is captured in crisp monochrome – here the work of Polish cinematographer Wojciech Staron. As in German, period detail is exactingly matched down to the smallest set dressing, and the camera meanders through dwellings and across open landscapes in carefully choreographed long shots, populated by large crowds of extras who drift in and out of the frame at will. Both films feature scenes of atavistic mass violence: the ransacking of a church in Dawn, an act of brutal sexual violence visited upon Klensky in Khrustalyov. Pakalniņa replicates what critic Anton Dolin called German’s “baffling egalitarianism”, his habit of switching around primary and secondary characters mid-narrative, unsettling the distinction between foreground and background, and his immersion of the viewer in the grubby minutiae of the world onscreen. “The background is indeed the most important; it is life itself,” German once wrote, a lesson that Pakalniņa takes to heart in her many cutaways to the teeming, grimy world of insects and livestock.

Perhaps most significantly, both films have at their centre an intense domestic psychodrama, in which a child is made to bear witness to the irrationality of the adult world. In this sense, they pick up a cinematic endeavour that had begun while the Soviet Union was still in existence (one catalysed in part by German’s own My Friend Ivan Lapshin). As the communist project exhausted itself, a slew of high-profile films from the 1980s and 1990s attempted to relitigate the lost idealism of the Stalinist childhood, from Ivan Lapshin to Repentance (Tengiz Abuladze, 1984), Burnt by the Sun (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994), and The Thief (Pavel Chukhrai, 1997).

Khrustalyov, My Car! is German’s definitive reckoning with the world of his father, a film that could only have been made in post-Soviet Russia, but which depends for its effect on a lived-in sense of the preceding decades and the psychological toll they had inflicted

Pakalniņa herself has spoken about Dawn in terms of her own encounter with, and graduation into Soviet film history. She was one of many non-Russian filmmakers who travelled to Moscow to study at the USSR’s most prestigious film school, VGIK. In an interview with Klassiki, she recalls that although she was studying documentary film, she became enamoured with the script for Eisenstein’s aborted take on the Morozov tale. When she eventually returned to the material after establishing herself as a documentarian, she was keen to draw on the atmosphere of her time in Moscow and the canon that served as her education. “Obviously, I [was going to] use all my memories of what I’d seen in film school… I just allowed everything that I’d seen to lead me. It’s not just Eisenstein – it’s my memories about Soviet cinema, and not just from the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, but the ‘60s as well… I allowed all my memories and impressions to lead me in making it. For example, the demolition of the church — it’s totally different from what Eisenstein did, it’s more my memories of Vertov.” Indeed, the sequence reimagines a similar ransacking scene in Vertov’s 1931 classic Enthusiasm; elsewhere, there are hints of other avant-garde influences, from shots of copulating snails that recall Mikhail Kaufman’s In Spring (1929) to a funeral march that references Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930).

For German, the stakes were different. For him, the Soviet canon was not something imparted at film school: it was profoundly personal. His father, Yuri German, was a celebrated author in the state-mandated socialist realist mould. (Coincidentally, German Senior was born in Pakalniņa’s native Riga.) He wrote the screenplay for the quintessential Stalinist adventure film The Courageous Seven (1936), directed by Sergei Gerasimov – the man after whom VGIK is named. German’s family history was Pakalniņa’s curriculum. My Friend Ivan Lapshin was an adaptation (some would say a mutation) of Yuri German’s best-known novel. In a sense, Aleksei’s entire career represented an attempt to reckon with the aspirations and the crimes of his father’s generation. While he had made his name with his reconstructions of Stalinist Russia, the fall of the Soviet Union freed him to direct, finally, on his own terms. Khrustalyov is thus German’s definitive reckoning with the world of his father, a film that could only have been made in post-Soviet Russia, but which depends for its effect on a lived-in sense of the preceding decades and the psychological toll they had inflicted.

Yuriy Tsurilo in Khrustalyov, My Car! (dir. Aleksei German, 1998)

Here, then, is the dividing line between Pakalniņa’s and German’s post-Soviet reconstructions. Dawn’s shuffling through of Soviet cinematic landmarks (German chief among them) both stands as a reminder of the ongoing influence of the communist era on the film industries of even the most steadfastly anti-Soviet independent nations. Pakalniņa’s ironic, ambiguous relationship to that legacy – her genuinely post-Soviet method – ultimately proves more a subversive approach to that inheritance than outright rejection. Layering the opacity of the post-modern on top of a clear-minded dissection of the psychological and emotional mechanisms that undergirded the totalitarian past, the film’s closest relatives are nineties Russian outliers like Khrustalyov, or Sergei Livnev’s gonzo-Stalinist satire Hammer and Sickle (1994). In a sense, the film isn’t even about the Soviet Union: Dawn may be set within a Stalinist fever dream, but as satire it is an assault on conformity and indolence tout court. Hence the switch to Latvia, as Pakalniņa herself explains: “it came to my mind that this story is kind of universal: it’s important for any nation, and I just need to adapt it for Latvia… I didn’t want it to have Russian communists. I wanted to show that you can find all these problems inside any nation… Because it was important for me to show how not to become a tool of the system, not to allow a system to make you stupid.”

Rather than working through the anxiety of influence, though, German in Khrustalyov hones his own singular style to a sharp edge in order finally to sever his audience’s nostalgic bond to the Stalinist past. What makes Khrustalyov the first truly great post-Soviet film is that its concerns are so insular, but so far-reaching. The film ends with Klensky disappearing into the distance, carried away from the viewer by a train to nowhere-in-particular, totally denuded of one-time idealism. All of German’s films are period pieces about the forestalling of the future, and Khrustalyov is his most devastating. Even the death of Stalin ­– let alone the fall of the USSR – cannot redeem matters. “That lost Soviet future is recaptured by German as an homage en arrière to the verdancy, ignorance, and naivete of the fathers,” writes the scholar Nancy Condee, “[a naivete which is] no longer available to German’s contemporary audience, for whom a grasp of the past is the only compensation.”

Watch Laila Pakalniņa’s Dawn and Aleksei German’s Khrustalyov, My Car! on Klassiki now.