Leningrad director Alexei Guerman, one of the most singular talents to emerge from the Soviet Union in the ’70s, whose 1982 portrayal of the bleakness of Soviet society, “My Friend Ivan Lapshin,” won him a cult following inside and outside the USSR, returns to the scene after 16 years with the mightily disappointing “Khrustaliov, My Car!” After attempting to finance the project for more than a decade, Guerman seems to explode with long-repressed ideas like a swollen balloon, spewing forth a cacophony of images, characters and camera pyrotechnics while trying to tell a story that is almost impossible to follow. As admirable as many of the bits and pieces are, the details largely fail to come together or even make much sense to a Western viewer. The French-Russian co-production may arouse initial interest on a curiosity basis, but looks to sink quickly in specialized markets.
On a snowy Moscow night in the early 1950s, a boiler repairman (A. Bachirov) leaves work and comically falls into the hands of Stalin’s police in a single, beautifully choreographed shot that bodes well for the rest of the film. A rueful voiceover mentions “the forgotten people” of that time, suggesting the film will continue with the same melancholy drollness of “Ivan Lapshin” and “Twenty Days Without War.”
But by the middle of the next scene, set amid the nonstop anarchy in a huge apartment stuffed with actors doing absurd things, the audience stops laugh-ing and starts straining to understand who’s who and what’s what. Only character to emerge from the chaos is Klenski, a tall, bald, mustachioed type (Y. Tsurilo) with a Tartar’s face and a mad grin. The General, as he’s called, turns out to be the head of the household, which includes his wife (N. Ruslanova) and young son (M. Dementiev), twins, grandma and servants. Their ceaseless antics are drolly recorded through a wildly mobile camera eye, in incredibly complicated traveling shots that leave the viewer reeling.
Scenes shift with the disturbing facility of a dream. In a big hospital full of hallways and doors, the General makes his rounds while staff fawns on him. The hospital seems to be a madhouse without rules. Though very inventive and playful in its anarchic absurdity, this protracted scene fails to give the viewer a hook on the story, or to offer any help from the facetious nonstop dialogue, many of whose references and witticisms are no doubt lost in translation.
It is a relief to find something understandable happening, like the General’s arrest at the hands of the KGB. But why? Nowhere is it explained that Klenski, a general in the Red Army, has been swept up in the “doctors’ plot” organized by the KGB in 1953, though a few history students might pick up the references to anti-Semitism connected to the affair. He makes a half-hearted attempt to flee, but is caught at a snowy train station in the country. Wife and son are kicked out of their apartment and forced to take up residence in a hovel where residents carry their own jealously guarded toilet seats to the bathroom.
Film is already way overtime when “Second Part” appears on the screen. The General is in the back of a truck on his way to a gulag when he is gang-raped in a shockingly brutal scene that puts an end to pic’s madcap atmosphere. Here the film briefly comes into its own, painting human degradation in its lowest terms and most chilling implications.
Abruptly, the general’s fate shifts yet again. Being a doctor, he is pulled out of the camp, cleaned up and taken to see the dying Stalin, who is expiring in a country house. His feared henchman, Beria, presides over the historic death, and returns the General to his family and his ruined Moscow home.
Instead of closing here, pic goes on, becoming opaque once more, until it lamely ends with the General and the boiler repairman aboard a train going nowhere. Neither seems to have changed or learned anything from his horrific experiences.
There is such a wealth of material here that one can say “Khrustaliov” is truly a film that has everything, including the kitchen sink. But throughout, Guerman shows a lack of control over his ideas, largely voiding their meaning. It would take a massive re-edit, and merciless trimming of the first part, to get this anarchic film into some kind of shape for non-Russian audiences.
So many fine thesps cram the screen that it’s hard to single out perfs in what is very much a choral work. Tsurilo carries the main role with unflagging manic energy, yet the General, like the others, is too abstract and symbolic a character to touch emotional chords, whatever befalls him.
Vladimir Ilyne is credited with pic’s superb black-and-white photography, but four cinematographers, including Guerman’s regular lenser Fedosov, worked on the film during the course of shooting. Outdoor lensing in the eerie silence of snow-covered city streets is particularly atmospheric. The hectic hand-held camerawork used for the indoor studio scenes is technically astonishing, but despite the inventive shots it becomes very tiring after a while and gives film a strangely deja vu quality, recalling Soviet films from the ’70s. In fact, the screenplay everywhere shows its age, taking no apparent inspiration from recent political and cultural developments.
An additional snag for prospective buyers may be unraveling a copyright dispute filed in Finland by Finnish producer-director Pekka Lehto. Lehto bought rights to a Joseph Brodsky essay, “In a Room and a Half,” and took it to Guerman in the late ’80s with a proposal to co-direct. Developing the project with Guerman’s wife and co-scripter, Svetlana Karmalita, on coin from the Finnish Film Foundation, the trio delivered a treatment to the FFF’s satisfaction. Lehto, who is uncredited on the film, was cut out of the production and has demanded his investment back.