Savage and Sublime: Aleksei Guerman’s “Khrustalyov, My Car!”

Posted by Larry Gross on 3.16.2012

Khrustalyov, my Car!, showing in Film Society's Aleksei Guerman retrospective "War and Remembrance," is overlong, repetitious, often crude in language and humor, horrifically violent and at times almost incomprehensible. It is also one of the few indisputable masterpieces of world cinema completed in the last 40 years. There is nothing quite like it's combination of hallucinatory dreamscape, vulgar slapstick and mournful indignation over acts of violent political oppression. Imagine Alice in Wonderland mashed into a blender with the classic anti-Stalinist literature of Koestler, Orwell and Solzhenitsyn and you begin to get a sense of this bewildering accomplishment. The other comparable achievements are those masterworks of Latin American literature, by Marquez, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa and Donoso, that have found a language for rendering the the surreal violence of military dicatorship.

Khrustalyov depicts the last endless days and nights of the horrific Stalin dictatorship by following a charismatic army doctor as his world gradually implodes around him and he plummets from prestige and importance to the extremes of abjection and humiliation. In this process we experience with him, and a huge supporting cast, the massive collapse of all forms of authority, familial, professional and poliitical.

Guerman shot, ran out of funds, edited, reshot and re-edited this film over a ten-year period, but you can easily imagine him (as with Joyce's Finnegan's Wake) working on it forever. The chaos it discloses has no conventional shape and so the film quite properly begins and ends many times. Besides the velvety black and white cinematography the salient feature of Guerman's style is a relentlessly roving camera that constantly reframes and redefines the dramatic space to disorienting effect, introducing new characters, voices, and details in a method of perpetual digression further complicated by characters arriving from an always-threatening off-screen space. All of this ultimately puts any firm notion of foreground and background into jeopardy. Interiors display the archetypal Moscow of the Soviet-era housing shortage turning into an unending Felliniesque Carnival, but exteriors are just as extreme and disquieting, featuring the repeated motif of Beria's murderous secret police presented as a ghostly caravan of black limousines that seem to emanate from the darkness of night itself, disseminating panic, violence and deepening chaos. But this is not just another Dantean hell, it is a startlingly specific concrete synthesis of reality and unreality.

There are probably sources for Guerman's masterpiece. The bloody depiction of totalitarian violence owes something to classic war films realistically depicting Nazi atrocities like Wajda's Kanal and Klimov's Come and See, and Guerman's protagonist as he jokingly confronts an utter abyss of chaos bears more than a passing resemblance to Fellini's concept of Guido/Mastroianni in . But these debts notwithstanding, Khrustalyov is an utterly unique amalgam of tones and techniques. It takes us to the limits of the political horrors of the last century—a place that only a heroic few have been able to go.

Khrustalyov, My Car! plays again Saturday at 9:00pm as part of the retrospective "War and Remembrance: The Films of Aleksei Guerman," which continues through Tuesday.

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