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Thursday 21 February 2013

Aleksei German 1938-2013

February 21st 2013 is a day for Russian and Soviet cinematography that can only be compared to those fateful days such as 29 December 1986 or 26 October 2003. A titan of the last generation of Soviet cinema has died and Russian culture has been deprived not of a world but a whole universe. To compare German with Andrei Tarkovsky or Elem Klimov is surely no hyperbole and German's place will be up there in that Pantheon alongside the Eisenstein's, the Dovzhenko's and the Barnet's of a previous generation. There were, perhaps, three or four titans of that generation and now, perhaps, there are only two or three left (Alexander Sokurov who straddled the Soviet / Post-Soviet divide, Kira Muratova and, arguably, Marlen Khutsiev and, further afield in other reaches of the Soviet space, perhaps just Artavazd Peleshian, Shavkat Abdusalamov and Rustam Khamdamov,who in some way also belong to the highest spheres of Soviet cinematography). Andrei Khrzhanovsky and Yuri Norstein play a similar role in the world of animation now that Fyodor Khitruk has left us too). The relative silence of many of these figures in recent decades is testimony to how today's world seems to have little appetite for this level of true classical excellence. Muratova and Sokurov being, more or less, the only exceptions here. So in many ways the death of a German or a Klimov causes us to mourn twice - first because the Twentieth Century cinematic equivalent of a Gogol or a Dostoyevsky has just died and second because of all those projects which were never completed. One can breathe a sigh of relief that German at least completed all but the finishing touches to what is likely to be his masterpiece Hard to be a God (or one of its alternative titles The Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre) and that at least this film didn't share the fate of, for example, Victor Erice's La Promesa de Shanghai (The Gesture of Shanghai) withdrawn by his producer when he was deemed to have worked too long at it or the fate of Klimov's Master and Margarita.

German has recounted a number of times that he conceived this final film in 1968 in the Crimean resort of Koktebel when he heard that Soviet tanks had gone into Czechoslovakia. He was used to waiting years for his shelved films to be eventually released just as he was also used to them drawing a complete blank from the viewers. Jonathon Romney's piece in The Guardian in 2000 Romney on German described the Cannes reaction to his film Khroustaliov, My Car! in 1998 where he stated that he'd never heard the clatter of seats flipping up as people left the screening coming so thick and fast as during that film. He went on to compare the film as being cinema's Finnegans Wake and added:

It is a wonder the film was ever completed. It has been called impenetrable but it has its spaces and silence too - and the very first shot, as a dog chases a motorcycle down a snow-covered boulevard at night, is one of the most haunting images of recent cinema. Khroustaliov, My Car! resembles nothing else in cinema - although if Fellini, Tarkovsky and Tati had pooled resources to update a Gogol story, they might have matched it. 

German himself recounted the reaction of the Cannes jury chairman that year, Martin Scorsese, who stated that he felt that he should have given the prize to German but how was defeated by the fact that he couldn't really give this film first prize when he himself couldn't understand this film. Yet this wasn't only the reaction to this film. His earlier film My friend Ivan Lapshin made a decade and a half earlier was greeted with howls of incomprehension not just by the public but also by his fellow filmmakers, Andrei Smirnov and Elem Klimov. As German himself told the story, Andrei Smirnov and Elem Klimov, who had not spoken to each other for three years because of some dispute, warmly agreed with each other as to how they found German's film delirious. Perhaps, the first western critic to genuinely understand the brilliance of German was the Italian Giuseppe Buttafava who entitled an essay on him Alexei German or The Form of Courage. The Russian film critic, Anton Dolin, explained what German's courage consisted in with this remark:

The artistic problems he has sought to solve are insurmountable. And yet he keeps trying. There’s a saying: “To solve a difficult problem, you need a Chinese. To solve an impossible one, a Russian.” They must have been thinking of German.  

This courage was evident in his film Trial on the Road (1971) where he challenged some of the then great myths of (what is known in Russia as) The Great Patriotic War and this film would then give birth to both Sheptiko's response The Ascent and Loznitsa's recent response to Shepitko's film In the Fog. The three of them represent, along with Klimov's Come and See some of the greatest films ever to be made on this theme. Choosing to recount the fate of an individual who had deserted to the Germans only to return to the Partisans, Aleksei German showed an immense courage to make such a film at that time which not even someone like Shepitko could stomach (her film was in the form of a polemical response).

Today tributes have been pouring in to German many of them recognizing his true place in the Pantheon, film journals are reprinting old articles and old interviews and, finally, it seems the absent viewer for even German's most difficult films will be found. I can only hope that Moscow's cinemas will finally allow me to see a full screen 35mm version of Khrustalyov Mashinu, a pleasure hitherto denied me as well as his latest film. A small selection of scenes is available on youtube of this film here:

Here, too, is the end of his film Khrustalyov:

A whole host of actors were to consider that their greatest role to have been played in one or other German film - and the list of actors who appeared in his few is very impressive (from Nikulin to Bykov, from Yarmolnik to Tsurilo, from Andrei Mironov to Aleksandr Filippenko, from Lia Akhedzhadkova to Aleksey Petrenko).

In the coming weeks I hope to take a closer look at the importance of the German legacy as well as report on some of the many reactions in the Russian film community to this unique filmmaker. A director who denied certainty and tore through the veils that too many have used to picture the past, any past- one of the very few who was both hyper-real and hyper-honest in his vision.


  1. Thank you for your post about Alexey German! I personally think that he was a great director and a rare person. Here is the interview from 2010

    Not so long time ago I started a blog at where I also write about Russian cinema from time to time. Glad to see the blog mostly devoted to Soviet/Russian cinema. I think it is quite difficult to find an information about Russian movies in English in general. You are doing a great job!

  2. Thank you for sharing the interview and the compliment. Your blog has some fascinating looking posts - I was very interested in the interview with Denis Klebleev (I've reposted it on the Facebook Page for this blog)- I saw his film at ArtDocFest and a lot of other posts of yours have caught my attention. I'll be reading them over the weekend.