Khrustalyov, My Car! (Cert 18)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Video) Running Time: 147 minutes approx.
Russian cinema is very much in a league of its own when it comes to the arcane and idiosyncratic but this is to be expected given it is a country whose history is one of great turmoil and political oppression. From Sergei Eisenstein through Boris Barnet, Mikhail Kalatozov, and Andrei Tarkovsky this is very evident. Then there is Aleksei German.
Like most of his prior films (all four of them at the time) Khrustalyov, My Car! is set during Stalin era Russia, but this time as his reign is coming to an end, unbeknownst to the majority of the country. In 1953, the Doctor’s Plot was in full effect, Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign that targeted Jewish doctors under the pretence they were allegedly planning to poison Soviet officials.
One doctor who believes he is beyond reproach and has nothing to fear is brain surgeon General Yuri Georgievich Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo), a towering alpha male boor, fond of drink and throwing his weight around with impunity. However, soon the net closes in on Klensky and his life of comfort and bullying is threatened, forcing him to flee his home and leave his family in chaos.
At least that is the plot as outlined in official releases and other online sources – call me dense if you will but the storyline doesn’t exactly leap out at the audience from behind the surreal and absurdist buffoonery that dominates practically every scene. And this film runs for almost two-and-a-half hours; like Tarkovsky’s Mirror, this it the cinematic equivalent of searching for a needle in a haystack.
When Khrustalyov, My Car! won much praise from the star-studded jury at Cannes for its artistic merits but was met with confusion and admissions that nobody understood it, Aleksei German is said to have declared that it helps to Russian to understand and appreciate the story being told. I’m going to take this a step further and proffer it helps to be Aleksei German to understand it!
I didn’t use the words “arcane and idiosyncratic” lightly in the opening paragraph as they describe German’s work to a tee. I’m sure there are many non-Russians cineastes on his wavelength but – as much as they’d loathe accepting it – they are in the minority. Yet, as impenetrable and confusing as they are, German’s films possess an intrinsic hypnotic quality to keep us glued to the screen.
German only made six films between 1967 and his death in 2013, with his most ardent supporters naturally found in his homeland, at least when his films weren’t banned by the Russian government for their opprobrium and critical light. Khrustalyov is billed as a satire although it can’t be compared to Armando Ianucci’s Death Of Stalin despite the similar plots.
Stalin has indeed popped his clogs in this film too but the news hasn’t been announced yet as there is one last ditch attempt to save the leader – have a brain surgeon cut open his head and kick start the brain again. What a shame that the best surgeon in the land is Jewish and just happens to be the latest victim of Stalin’s own persecution program! There must be a way out of this, surely?
This is where things get confusing as there is the hint of a scheme in which a double for Klensky is seen being prepared to assume Klensky’s position only to disappear for two hours, whilst the real Klensky hectors his way through the village until going on the run, learning his status as a general mean nothing to the impoverished outside of his comfy little bubble and endures much humiliation and unspeakable indignities by their hands.
For the majority of the epic run time, we are treated (for wanting a better term) to the extent of German’s esoteric, curious but undoubtedly inventive mind, crammed full of ideas that he isn’t afraid to throw onto the screen, whether they are congruent or not. People randomly wander – or in some cases dance – in and out of shot regardless of the room space of the setting. Most don’t have lines; those who do are seldom relevant.
One of German’s unique distractions is the sheer amount of dialogue that isn’t related to the scene or the main characters, instead attributed to the many peripheral cast members the poor cameraman has to push past. And this is another German trait – the single POV uninterrupted cut that thrust us directly in the heart of the scene as if we were a proximate observer, the cast even acknowledging our existence.
Prior to this belated UK Blu-ray release (it originally came out in 1998), the only German title available here was his swan song, 2013’s equally oblique Hard To Be A God. If you’ve seen that film you can expect the same unique style of presentation here, right down to the stark but enigmatically captivating monochrome aesthetic, which is anything reaffirms German as a true individually minded auteur of arthouse cinema.
Because of the exacting methods of his direction and the complexities of his scripts and ideas, German’s film always took years to make. One thing that never fails to marvel and astound is the sheer precision of the timing of the quirky interjections, background movements and adroitly executed interactions of the entire cast, which much have taken an age to master and perfect for each lengthy single take.
Yet, when the whole raison d’être of a film is to tell a story, the overwhelming fripperies that dominate German’s works should, and for more tastes, will be counterproductive. This makes them so frustrating since it leaves people like me feeling like I have the IQ of a Sun reader for not understanding them, but as a film buff, the artistic side of German’s output is to admired and venerated by all.
For those who will get Khrustalyov, My Car!, no explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, it’s a hell of a ride all the same!
Russian Language 2.0 Stereo
Audio commentary by producer Daniel Bird
Between Realism and Nightmare
Diagnosis Murder: Jonathan Brent on The Doctors’ Plot
Aleksei German Interview with Ron Holloway
German… At Last – Aleksei German interview with Guy Séligmann
Double-sided Fold-out Poster
Limited Edition 60-page Booklet
Rating – ***
Man In Black