One of the most disturbing Russian films of all time, Khrustalyov, mashuni (Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998) provides the audience with a firsthand experience of the madness, paranoia and absurdity that pervaded Moscow during the final days of Stalin’s regime. Seven years in the making, Alexei German’s angry masterpiece is an extraordinary example of cinematic modernism and a visceral interrogation of the calamity of the Stalinist era.

The film is set over a few days in February 1953, during a notorious anti-Semitic campaign, the so called “Doctor’s Plot” – Stalin’s paranoid concoction that accused a group of prominent Jewish doctors of conspiring to murder the Soviet leadership. Yuri Klenski (Yuriy Tsurilo) plays an impressive, burly, shiny-headed high-ranking Red Army officer and a leading Moscow brain surgeon. He rules over his raucous extended family in their cramped apartment as he reigns over his staff at the hospital. With his shiny buttons, big moustache, broad smile and powerful hands he is dictator of his domain with an enormous sexual appetite that is tended to in his office by a nurse. But in those times, even big men could fall. When Klenski sees a “double of himself” at the hospital being prepared in the enema ward, he becomes instantly aware that he is being followed by Stalin’s secret police in their latest roundup of Jewish doctors. He escapes to the countryside, but a day later he is arrested for being a participant in the “Doctor’s Plot”. The secret police interrogate him. He is tortured and then on the way to jail he is brutally raped in a “Soviet Champagne” van before being sent off to Siberia. As soon as he arrives, he is ordered to return to Moscow by Beria, the head of the Secret Police, to save the Great Leader. When he arrives at Stalin’s country estate, Klenski finds the Generalissimo lying shrivelled on soiled sheets with no medical attention, dying and in pain. He is clearly there to provide a semblance of medical expertise when nothing more can be done. Klenski massages Stalin’s bloated gut, trying to relieve the pressure. Beria is keen to complete the proceedings and is quick to close Stalin’s eyes and pronounces him dead. Beria then kisses Klenski, opens the door and calls out triumphantly to his chauffeur, “Khrustalyov, my car!” These are the first words uttered of the post-Stalinist period. Klenski is, surprisingly, free…

Loosely adapted by Alexei German and his wife Svetlana Karmalita from the dissident poet Joseph Brodsky’s story “In a Room and a Half”, Khrustalyov, My Car! is partly founded in history but largely based on the filmmaker’s memory of growing up. The plot is not difficult to follow, but the meaning and significance is overwhelming and elusive due to the film’s fragmentary visual logic and maddening detail, incongruous connections and hysterical tone. The viewer is purposefully disorientated while following fragments and dead-ends at a dizzying speed and through mumbled snatches of dialogue. As if in a nightmare, there is no clear sense of what is going on; whose perspective we are viewing the action from and how it all fits together. The viewer is often placed in the cramped interiors of communal spaces where bits of private lives shrilly spill out, with no explanation given as to what is actually occurring. The language is vulgar and human relations are brutal. It is a searing interrogation of the impact of Stalinism on the people that gives a taste for the paranoia and psychosis of the time. The film reconstructs the savagery of the era that the director claims as a metaphor “for the terrible psychological trauma of national anal rape by the state, by tsars and by Bolsheviks” (1).

Khrustalyov, My Car! is a film about the vagaries of power. One minute Klenski is given fellatio by a nurse, the next he is being raped by prisoners, and then moments later he is rehabilitated and summoned to tend to the Great Leader. Stalin’s almighty power is omnipotent but his body is crumpled and his gut extended. He is not granted a final breath but an extended fart as Klenski massages his stomach. The symbolism is fecal, as the once great leader is reduced to dying in his own shit as a hysterical nurse tries to claim that she had just changed him. This is a vicious denunciation of Stalinism and the violence that it propagated throughout society, where one man bashes another before himself being brutalised by a third in an endless, fetid cycle.

Deliciously filmed in a high contrast deep black-and-white the film ranges from the beautiful snow filled streets of Moscow to the inky-black night, shiny black leather and the cruising “Black Maria” KGB cars. It is full of long takes and a roving, unpredictable camera capturing crowded interiors, coughing and spluttering, and the stench of excrement and foul food. The experience is disconcerting and is fuelled by a cacophonous soundtrack and a subjective camera that crafts the stuff of paranoid nightmares. German’s filmmaking is a search for new forms, experimental strategies of non-narrative-based cinema. The film has been variously described as Felliniesque and certainly the madcap quarrelsomeness of Amarcord (1973) is an influence. Yet to me it appears more like a dark version of Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995), with its macabre re-visioning of major historical events, absurd connections and frantic energy.

It is interesting to note that a number of the cast and crew who worked on Khrustalyov, My Car! are German’s long-term collaborators on his often drawn-out projects. German started work on the film in 1992, but with the financial crisis that dominated post-Soviet Russia ran into financing difficulties soon after. Miraculously he finished his film, completing it for 1998 Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or but met with mass audience walkouts. It did win the 1999 Russian Guild of Film Critics Awards as the Best Film and German won Best Director before becoming an elusive cult classic.

German is an enigmatic figure of Russian cinema. In a career spanning more than 40 years, he is celebrated for his Stagnation era films: two war dramas, the remarkable Proverka na dorogakh (Trial on the Road, 1971) and Dvadtsat dney bez voyny (Twenty Days Without War, 1977), and the popular Moy drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1986). His style is personal, neo-realist and anti-establishment. All of his films are about a meticulously recreated past but filtered through fantasy and personal recollections (some based on the stories written by his father, Yuri German). Like his contemporary, actor and director Nikita Mikhalkov, German comes from Soviet royalty. His father attended Stalin’s banquets and was a celebrated novelist and screenwriter. Unlike Mikhalkov, Alexei German did not make nationalistic or commercial films preferring to remain a director who swam against the tide. Both directors made a film about Stalin’s terror. Mikhalkov’s Utomlennye solntsem (Burnt by the Sun, 1995) is a sultry Chekhovian tale of the melodramatic downfall of a Soviet hero that upholds the idea of the essential beauty of the land and the people, pointing only to the excesses of the Leader. In contrast, German’s film demonstrates that no matter how big and burly, a Soviet hero could be easily destroyed by the broader society of debased, hungry and terrified wolves. Whereas Mikhalkov has made numerous films and occupied a leading position in the film industry, German’s status is one that can be compared favourably to Andrei Tarkovsky and Kira Muratova. Writing in Film Comment, Anton Dolin stated that for “many Russian critics, cinephiles, and viewers German is their national cinema’s foremost figure after Tarkovsky. Others insist that, in fact, he is more important and more original” (2).

On the 21 February 2013, German passed away in St Petersburg. His final project was the long awaited adaptation of the Strugatskii Brothers’ 1964 science fiction novel, Hard to be a God, titled Trudno byt bogom (History of the Arkanar Massacre). He began the project in 1968 in a veiled response to the Prague Spring. Like much of his work it was an allegory of Stalinism, but set on another planet. Without government funding, he had been working on it sporadically over the past decade with recent rumours that it had become an allegory of the Putin era. The film tells the story of a historian who is sent to a planet that bears a strong resemblance to Earth during the Middle Ages. There he must monitor the brutal events but without getting too involved and changing the fate of history. It is reputedly in the final stages of the audio-mix and set to be released soon. It appears that his filmmaker son, Alexei German Jr, will complete his father’s film.

German’ final completed film, Khrustalyov, My Car! is a difficult masterpiece but one that provides a sense of the psychology of the Stalinist era like no other, by a director who dedicated his life to struggling against the effects of totalitarianism.

Endnotes

  1. “German o Khrustalyovye: Interview with the Alexei German”, youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-WUiwJiF9A.
  2. Anton Dolin, “The Strange Case of Russian Maverick Aleksei German”, Film Comment 2012: http://www.filmcomment.com/article/the-strange-case-of-russian-maverick-aleksei-german

Khrustalyov, mashuni/Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998 Russia 150 mins)

Prod Co: Canal+/CNC/Goskino/La Sept Cinéma/Lenfilm Studio/Orimi/ Sodaperaga Productions/VGTRK/Petroagroprombank Prod: Aleksandr Golutva, Armen Medvedev, Guy Séligmann Dir: Alexei German Scr: Alexei German, Svetlana Karmalita, based on the story “In a Room and a Half” by Joseph Brodsky Phot: Vladimir Ilin Ed: Irina Gorokhovskaya Prod Des: Mikhail Gerasimov, Georgi Kropachyov, Vladimir Svetozarov Mus: Andrei Petrov

Cast: Yuriy Tsurilo, Nina Ruslanova, Mikhail Dementyev, Aleksandr Basjirov, Natalya Lvova, Sergei Dyachkov

About The Author

Greg Dolgopolov is a lecturer in Film Studies at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.