“Khrustalev, My Car!”, Dir. Alexei German (Russia, 1998) and “Taurus”, Dir. Alexander Sokurov (Russia, 2000)
Recent Russian films on historical themes have been concerned above all with the end of things. For instance, Gleb Panfilov’s The Romanovs: Crown-Bearing Family (2000) looked at the Russian royal family’s final years, culminating in their massacre in 1918, and suggests that those really responsible for their demise were not the Bolsheviks (mere blunt instruments of history), but the royal generals,disillusioned with the Tsar because of his increasing reluctance to prosecute an unwinnable war. German and Sokurov also revisit the past, but without the agenda Panfilov espouses (rehabilitation of the royal family as martyrs for Holy Russia). Rather, these are cinematic excursions into Russia’s history using the full arsenal of modernist techniques: the grotesque and the absurd, and above all irony.
Khrustalev, My Car! is set in the last days of Stalin’s reign, indeed, as the tyrant lies dying. The film follows German’s tradition, evident since My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), of presenting the narrative retrospectively, as told in the present by someone who was a boy at the time.
The Stalinist night is literally realized, as most of the film is shot in darkness either outdoors or in dimly-lit apartments, and the use of black-and-white photography emphasises the gloom and despondency apparent everywhere. There is little difference between the inamtes of an asylum and those who work there, a metaphor that can be extended to the whole of society.
This is a nightmarish vision of rule by force, where all relationships are based on power and its ruthless application, and with violence both verbal and actual an everyday fact of life.
The human frame is subjected to every kind of indignity here, all part of an ‘aesthetic of the repulsive’ that has become the dominant feature of Russian culture in the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Even the viewer is eventually singled out for abuse, for as the final credits roll, we hear a disembodied male voice swear, and then spit – seemingly at the audience itself.
By comparison Sokurov’s Taurus is restrained. Lenin lies dying after suffering a stroke, now a figure of fun and ridicule by those attending him.
This is an image of one of the most important figures of twentieth century history, forced to witness his own physical and mental degradation, shorn of all dignity and certainly of the heroic status accorded him in Mikhail Romm’s adulatory films of the late 1930s, and subsequent Soviet propaganda images.
Stalin makes an appearance in a show of comradely affection, but really he sees him already as a dead man, and is looking to the post-Lenin future. He can barely conceal his contempt for the frail figure in front of him.
The film’s final scenes show Lenin unable to speak or move, but at the point of death content to hear birds sing amid the natural surroundings of his garden. This man, born under the sign of the bull, may be responsible for most of Russia’s twentieth century suffering, but the viewer feels nothing but pity and even sympathy for him as a sick and helpless invalid. So much for power narratives.
Both these films, therefore, can be clearly located within a post-Soviet cultural discourse that confronts the past and seeks not only to reassess, but to reinvent history.
This is not just debunking of historical myth, set out in a deliberately uncomfortable and disorienting aesthetic style. Both German and Sokurov, in their individual ways, dismantle the architectonics of tyranny. With the present of Russia still in disarray, and the future far from clear, its past, at least, has been laid to rest.