Aleksei German’s Counter History/Realism

by Matthew Sanders Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 16 minutes (3900 words)

Khrustalyov, My Car (photo source, Arrow Video)

1.

A history is a story. Historians arrange events, records, memories and tales, into a coherent narrative. There are many histories to tell. In Soviet Russia, under Joseph Stalin, crafting history was a powerful and corrupt tool. Stalin constructed a legendary past to justify his heinous acts in the present. In two films by Aleksei German (1938-2013), My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1985) and Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), German presents a counter-history and a counter-realism that looks below the legendary surface of Stalin's Russia, into a world of doomed naiveté and paranoid confusion.

2.

For Joseph Stalin the historian’s pen was at once a weapon and an erasure. He transformed the teleological end of Marxist history, a classless society, into a vision of dictator and absolute rule in his image. He rewrote history, literally in the case of Falsifiers of History (1948), a personal rewrite of WWII history blaming Western aggression, to justify the present he was creating. And his present was, beneath the "official" history, one of complete terror. He wielded complete control. He could exile or execute with the swipe of a pen.

The most chilling example is the "Great Purge" between 1936 and 1938. Stalinist history presented this period as the purging of traitors and fakers and enemies from the Communist Party. In truth, the purge was Stalin orchestrating mass murder to secure power. Low estimates based on unlocked Soviet archives put the death toll at 600,000; upper estimates reach beyond a 1,000,000 souls. (Conquest) To put Stalin's purge into scale, it involved roughly 1000 executions a day (Pipes 67). These murdered souls were erased from the records, from history. Not even photographs were safe. In a photograph, Stalin and Nikolai Yezhov, the purge’s executioner and high ranking special policeman, stroll side by side along a river. Yezhov, like many complicit in the purge, was later executed in the purge himself. In a later publication of the photo Yezhov is edited out of the photo, the space where Stalin's walking partner once resided is now empty, a blemish stripped from history.

One must ask if Stalinist history can even count as history at all. Indeed, Stalinist history was not beholden to a depiction of the past as it was, but to the creation of a society in that leader's image. According to Robert Conquest in Reflections on a Ravaged Century,

unprecedented terror must seem necessary to ideologically motivated attempts to transform society...against its natural possibilities. The accompanying falsifications took place, and on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, real statistics, disappeared into the realm of fantasy...A new past, as well as a new present, was imposed on the captive mind of the Soviet Population. (101)

There are no questions, no need for interpretations, with Stalin's history; it's simple, there is only one history, there is only Stalin's history. So went the creation of Stalin's cult of personality.

Stalin's history, then, in its simplicity, is far closer to legend, or, as Conquest put it, "fantasy." By rearranging the past and the present, Stalinist history manufactured a kind of realism, an image of reality, that is similar to Erich Auerbach's concept of legendary literary realism outlined in a chapter on Homer's Odyssey from Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Auerbach argues the Odyssey presents a legendary realism, a sedate and simple retelling of events in their absoluteness. Homer's legendary realism, he argued, aimed at the upper class and never sought to tap into the hardship and daily human struggles of everyday Hellenic peoples. Homer, he explains, "does not need to base his story on historical reality, his reality is powerful enough in itself; it ensnares us, weaving its web around us, and that suffices him...this 'real' world into which we are lured, exists for itself, contains nothing but itself." (13) This quote could with no alteration also describe Stalin's historiography. The totalizing power of his history was a snare, a trap that "contains nothing but itself." Rather than refer to historical reality, Stalin hid and erased it.

Alongside Stalinist historiography came a film style officially named socialist realism. Just as Stalin altered the revolutionary ends of Marxist history, so too did socialist realism move Russian cinema away from a revolutionary aesthetic. Gone were the staccato machinegun montage editing, intellectualism by kino-fist, made famous by Sergei Eisenstein (Taylor 441-4, 453). By 1936 Socialist realism and film style had homogenized “for the millions” (440). After initial attempts in satirical comedy were deemed unpolitic – too close to questioning (454)– musicals and historical war epics were the norm with simple, linear narratives presenting morally righteous heroes and what Soviet society was to be, rather than what it was (Anderson 40-4). Negative portrayals of Soviet society were traitorous, tantamount to criticism of Stalin himself (Taylor 457).

Schors (Alexander Dovzhenko, 1939) is an excellent example of a film made under this strict control. Stalin personally commissioned the film. And the director Doyzhenko found that a personal commission from Stalin required the script to pass through a labyrinth of bureaucratic stipulations and rules far beyond the already restrictive rules imposed on Soviet filmmakers. Any script changes had to pass through “a seemingly endless series of people ‘who knew what Stalin wanted’” (Leyda 354). The story of the film concerns Nickolai Schors (Yevgeny Samoylov), a partisan revolutionary in Ukraine, during the civil war. Formally, the film is simple, with a series of spectacular sequences of mass combat interspersed with long static sequences of Schors proselytizing communism to the Ukranian proletariat. Presented as a “morally god-like figure” (354), Schors is a simple stand in for Stalin. In doing so, Schors retroactively through socialist realism places Stalin into the pre-history of Soviet life to suggest his legendary history, his reality of terror, as the logical result of the civil war.

For Auerbach, the opposite to the legendary mode of realism was the historical in the Bible. This historicism, according to Auerbach, stems from the desire to show the subjects of history as profoundly human, an image of confusion and humiliation, and whose tribulations reveal the absolute truth of God (17). This is a history that also seeks to be absolute history, history as vehicle of God. Did Stalin's history, and through socialist realism, as shown in Schors, not also present him as a “god-like figure”?

Aleksei German's films do not present Soviet Russia's past as legend, like Stalin, or claim Biblical historical transcendence, nor do they abide by the tenants of socialist realism, chief of which is the rule for a positive depiction of Soviet life. A comparison could be made between the era of socialist realism and German’s use of black and white film stock in My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Khrustalyov, My Car!, though the former’s muted gray tones reflect the ambiguous morality it depicts and the latters’ high contrast inky darkness suggests the dark pits of despair its characters wade through daily. Eschewing certainty and simplicity, German's films are a counter-history, as well as a kind of counter-realism, aimed at revealing and representing the troubled humanity hidden beneath Stalin’s "official" history and “official” realism. German’s films show a history of doomed naiveté and paranoid confusion.

3.

In My Friend Ivan Lapshin, German presents Stalinist Russia as one of doomed naiveté. The film follows people surviving in a fictional rural town called Unchansk in 1935. The title's namesake, Capt. Ivan Lapshin (Andrei Boltnev), is a police investigator hunting down a gang of violent criminals. A theatre troupe arrives and Lapshin falls in love with an actress, only for the actress to fall in love with Lapshin's visiting friend, a journalist and recent widower. While Lapshin is able to stop the gang, the film ends on a morose note. Lapshin kills the gang leader after he surrenders, and leaves to join the special police; the theatre troupe's play is a failure, and the actress is staying in the town though she hates it; and the journalist leaves the city recovering from a stab wound. The final shot of the era is of Stalin's portrait atop a streetcar. The Great Purge begins the following year.

As we will see to be a recurring trait in German's counter-histories, My Friend Ivan Lapshin unfolds as personal history recounted from an old man's memories. The narrator is present in the film as a small boy at the time of the film's events. But German frames the entire film with 2 short spoken monologues in colour depicting present day Unchansk. This positions the film's narrative in the past as narrated events and as personal history. This is in spite of the boy's –the would-be narrator’s– absence for the majority of the events in the film. While the child is missing, German's camera is constantly framing images at elbow height, peering into rooms, crooks, and crannies, and following the characters into rooms during long takes like a small frightened child. At other points, seemingly at random, shifts from the black and white stock, used for the majority of the film, to colour stock also allow the vibrant images to suggest a child's vivid memories, and the rest of the film as memories faded with time like old photos in a family photo album. This visual and narrative strategy links German's depiction of the past to the level of humanity, to vivid and faded memories and the grind of daily existence.

Though the film presents Soviet Russia before the Great Purge, everything in the film seems to presage it. A motif of doomed naiveté permeates the film alongside stark images of the decrepit town. According to Tony Wood in the Partisan Review article "Time Unfrozen: The Films of Aleksei German", "These are people whose faith in the future remain intact, but whose betrayal is imminent. German has said that his aim was to convey a sense of the period, to depict as faithfully as possible the material conditions and human preoccupations of Soviet Russia on the eve of the Great Purge." Indeed, the film is full of boasting. Characters sing war songs describing a bland glory won for the proletariat from the civil war; Lapshin and his friend describe how the frozen tundra will soon become a groomed garden, the actress rolls off future champagne production numbers as if they have been memorized and therefore must come true; it is all as if greatness is within grasp. But German’s images present the boasting as the doomed and naïve assertions they were. The glorious war songs contrast with Ivan's private and annual struggles with PTSD from the civil war. German’s mise en scene and production design emphasizes shabbiness, cramped quarters, disrepair, and barely working order to undermine Soviet Russia's supposed glorious future of plenty to come. The conversation of the tundra as soon to be groomed garden follows the exhumation of a mass grave of frozen bodies within miasmic seeming clouds of fog. And finally, threats of exile or being "sent away" by Ivan Lapshin pervade the constant arguments in the film. Though they thought a glorious future was to come, German's film shows the future had already arrived. They were not heading towards utopia, but into terror and hardship.

A set of metaphors and symbols ends German's counter-history in My Friend Ivan Lapshin. At the unsuccessful premier of the play—the actress, representing the glory of future Russia, falls after the wheelbarrow she is standing on falls apart—a young partisan boy—a party faithful, no doubt—watches over the kind of experiment only a communist could dream up. Inside a cage, which is prominently displayed in the playhouse, is a fox and a chicken. By feeding both the chicken and the fox, so the hypothesis argues, they are able to exist in communal harmony. At the plays unsuccessful premier, however, we then learn the fox ate the chicken. Somebody forgot to feed the fox. The experiment failed. So goes the powerful over the weak, German's rather blunt metaphor suggests, and so goes the eventual slide into Stalin's dictatorship. Chained to this is one of the final shots of the past in the film. As Lapshin discusses living arrangements in their overcrowded communal apartment, the boy/narrator steps out into the hallway in the background of the image while awkwardly slapping his skies across the floor as he attempts to get to the door. German freezes the image on his face as he turns to Lapshin. The boy's face is one of innocence and naiveté, seemingly indifferent to events displayed in the film for which he is largely absent from. Here is, German's frozen frame suggests, the future of Soviet Russia, a child, naïve and doomed to the fate of Stalin's purge. That fate, to which all Russia heads towards, is ominously present in the final long shot of the past, the final memory narrated by the old man: a portrait of Stalin atop a streetcar that pulls an overbearing orchestra drowning out everything else on the audio track. Already the legend is in the making. The dream of many, in German's counter-history, crumbles into the singular image, the cult of personality, of Stalin and doom.

4.

In a review of the film, Greg Dolgopolov describes Khrustalyov, My Car! as "One of the most disturbing Russian films of all time." The description is apt to colour the era the film depicts. German's film unleashes a torrent of sounds and images, a world of filth, cruelty, and paranoia, for the viewer to peer into. It is history verging on non-history, realism verging on surrealism, human madness beneath the simple legendary history Stalin constructed. German’s film presents a counter-history of paranoid confusion.

The film's narrative pulls from German's memories of the era, and, like My Friend Ivan Lapshin, is loosely narrated by a man through voice over recounting the events, and present at times in the film as a young boy in 1953. The other historical referent for the narrative is the "Doctor's Plot", an anti-Semitic purge of prominent military doctors by Stalin for a fabricated coup attempt (Ro'i 103-6). The film begins in the midst of this purge. The young boy's father, and the film's main character, general Yuri Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo), falls victim to the purge. Forced to flee his family, he is eventually caught, suffers incredible cruelty, and then, with an incredible reversal of fortune, is brought to the death bed of Joseph Stalin and is witness to the ruler's final breaths. His family, in the meantime, charged with supposedly smuggling Jewish relatives out of the country, are kicked out of their mansion into a derelict communal apartment. In the aftermath of Stalin's death, Klensky flees again. In the final shot he has transformed into the boss of a train on the way to Moscow.

While the narrative is relatively simple, German presents it for the viewer as a descent into madness. The camera moves with dizzying speed through room after room of shill screaming people and half heard conversations. German's predilection for long takes creates a pervasive unease. It is as if we are constantly only hearing and seeing half of the story. Faces, gestures, spit, and mountain upon mountains of stuff hoard the small rooms and the frame of German's images. Characters appear and then disappear just as quickly. Logic and causal chains of action are confused. As Tony Wood describes, "the film's logic is that of a hallucinatory, delusional condition, bordering on hysteria. Plot events, the chain of causes and consequences are all secondary to the evocation of a frenzied imaginative state." This is German representing the fear and madness that gripped Soviet Russia during Stalin's dying days. At any moment the film would lead somewhere new and all that came before would be snuffed out. This is German's expression to the viewer of a realism and history as paranoia and confusion, the day to day life of summary execution and sudden disappearances that typified Stalinist Russia.

Again and again German presents life under Stalin as mental and physical madness and violation. Two lengthy sequences from the film will serve as examples. The first is of Klenksy traveling to his work place, a mental hospital. Klensky is, though it is unmentioned in the film, apparently a brain surgeon. In German's film, though, the line between sane and insane in this hospital is unclear. In the midst of stunning long takes through room after room, frequently circling back on itself to follow Klensky's perpetual drunk and belligerent stumbling, the viewer has their senses assaulted. A sense of claustrophobia, of a world barely restrained beyond the confines of the frame, is overpowering. Doctors and soldiers scream on the audio track. Nameless patients numbly walk by mumbling through German’s frame while thick, barely healed scars protrude from their heads, evidence of the state 'fixing' these men with a scalpel that Stalin completed with a historian’s pen. Finally, in the enema ward, Klensky stumbles upon his body double. This double at once hinting at his imminent kidnapping, and appearing in this setting as a manifestation of Klensky’s fractured mind and sense of self. Like this mental hospital, Soviet Russia at large in German's counter-history and counter-realism blends sanity and insanity. The mental patient and the citizen are not so different. Even the brain surgeon is seeing things.

The second sequence is the disturbing violent rape of Klensky at the hands of Soviet soldiers. At first, German shows images of soldiers smiling in a shadowy interior thick with steam and human humidity. "It's better this way," one cruelly tells Klensky who is off-screen. Then, Klensky is pushed into the frame and onto all fours. German, then, unflinchingly, cuts back and forth from the crazed images of pleasure on the soldiers faces to images of a shovel handle forced into Klensky's behind. The sequence goes on for an uncomfortably long time, only to stop. German cuts to the exterior of Klenky's cage/transport, a soviet champagne truck, where the surgeon vomits. While a car of special police saves Klensky, there is no pity or forgiveness. He is repeatedly told to act as if nothing has happened and that everything will be fine. According to German in an interview, Klensky's violation is a "metaphor for the terrible psychological trauma of national anal rape by the state, by tsars, and by Bolsheviks" (Dogopolov). The unflinching depiction of the metaphor is deeply disturbing, as is the indifferent response afterwards from the special police. For the viewer, Klensky’s rape is a violent violation of the main character in the story and of a father, a victim, and a human. But in Stalinist Russia, this is just as it is and, as German’s film presents, as it was.

At the core of Khrustalyov, My Car! is Klensky's unnamed son (Mikhail Dementyev), the young boy and reflective narrator. Like in My Friend Ivan Lapshin, this young boy is the future of Soviet Russia, and his future is one of paranoid confusion and terror. For much of the film he has no idea what is going on. He idolizes his father, but he can't understand why he must disappear. Or, more precisely, he is tormented by the fact that at any moment, and because of any insignificant action, his father might disappear. When the young boy and his family are kicked out of their mansion and put into the decrepit communal apartment, he struggles with his new location as people in the apartment scream at him and his family while German’s camera closely follows the boy’s frustrated tantrums and repeatedly moves into close-ups on the boy’s terrified face. An agent that asks him to call should his father return, compounds the confusion of the situation. He is to call the number and say one cryptic message, "eagle" or "lion." What does each mean? The agent won't tell him. The boy, and the viewer, knows it's a trap. In the midst of German's Soviet Russia, deep in paranoid confusion, the call is enough to make the young boy's father disappear. But to not call, after the boy accepts the agents request, throws him and his family in danger. It's a purposeful paradox that captures the cataleptic paranoia that pervaded the era in Soviet Russia. The boy’s predicament is like the Biblical tale of Abraham, only the roles are reversed: the son will kill the father. And unlike the Bible, German’s film and the character of the boy reveals crippling terror rather than theological truth. Through the young boy's paranoia, and humiliation at the request made of him, German depicts the way families were turned on one another, son against father, and the result was a nation that lost its future.

5.

Aleksei German was born in 1938 and died in 2013. During his life he only completed 6 films. While the constraints and fragility of Soviet Russia hampered his productivity, he never turned his back on the people, regardless of the awful conditions they were put through. German's counter-history and counter-realism presents a human history of doomed naiveté and paranoid confusion against Stalin’s historiography. Viewing German’s films as a kind of counter-realism, against the “official” reality in socialist realism, reopen films that reflect on a communist past, such as the surreal Serbian comedy Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995), to analysis. Perhaps, the only proper response is madness, perhaps madness is also the grounds of a counter-history and a kind of realism, one of confusion, terror, and humanity, but not one of legends.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Trudy. “Why Stalinist Musicals?” Discourse, vol. 17, no. 3, 1995, pp. 38–48., www.jstor.org/stable/41389383.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2013. Print.

Conquest, Robert. “Excess Deaths in The Soviet Union” New Left Review. no. 219, Sept.-Oct. 1996. < https://newleftreview.org/I/219/robert-conquest-excess-deaths-in-the-soviet-union>. Web.

---. Reflections on a ravaged century. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001. Print.

Dolgopolov, Greg. “Khrustalyov, My Car!” Senses of Cinema. March 2013.

Leyda, Jay. Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film. London Allen, 1960. Print. Online Archive available for viewing at:

Pipes, Richard. Communism: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Print.

Ro'i, Yaacov. Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union, Routledge, 1995.

Taylor, Richard. “A 'Cinema for the Millions': Soviet Socialist Realism and the Problem of Film Comedy.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 18, no. 3, 1983, pp. 439–461., www.jstor.org/stable/260546.

Wood, Tony. “Time Unfrozen: The Films of Aleksei German” New Left Review. no 7. Jan.-Feb. 2001. Web.

Aleksei German’s Counter History/Realism

Matthew Sanders has an M.A. in Film Studies from Carleton University. He wrote his thesis on narrative and on how film uses and makes history. In between watching films he also finds time to write about them.

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Essays   aleksei german   russian cinema   socialist realism   stalinism