Aleksei German’s 1998 film makes an interesting companion piece with The Death Of Stalin (2017). Set at the same time – in the days immediately before and after the passing of the Soviet dictator – both are blackly comedic, savagely satirical and resoundingly bleak. But whilst Armando Iannucci’s film navigates the lunacy of the Soviet Union under Stalinism in a knockabout, sitcom-esque fashion, Khrustalyov, My Car! is an altogether more ferocious beast. It is a film that chills, baffles and appals, pulling you under into its heart of darkness, and holding you there for every minute of a draining two-and-a-half-hour runtime.
It’s early 1953, and military surgeon General Yuri Klensky (Yuriy Tsurilo) becomes entangled in the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’, when Jewish physicians of all stripes were accused by Stalin – paranoid, sociopathic, not long for this world – of scheming to kill senior Kremlin officials. The entire thing was nonsense, of course, but alcoholic, womanising Klensky (who isn’t actually Jewish) soon finds himself on the run, his job and home gone, his family banished to a chaotic communal apartment. His ordeal becomes ever more brutal and surreal (early on, at the hospital where he works, he even meets his own government-sanctioned double).
Tsurilo is a great big bull of a man – with his circus strongman’s moustache and bald head, he reminds me of Tom Hardy in Bronson. His sheer physicality somehow makes the pitiless dismantling of Klensky’s life and self even worse – if Stalin and his thugs could drag someone such as he so low, what chance did anyone else have?
There are times during Khrustalyov, My Car! – titled after Soviet security chief Lavrentiy Beria’s apocryphal first words upon hearing of Stalin’s death – when you get a bit lost and fear you might not come out the other side. In that it is very much like Hard To Be A God – German’s critically-adored final film from 2015 – and yet you come away admiring it and wanting to return again and again to drink in the film’s heady monochrome atmosphere and many extraordinary moments.
German’s work process was insanely detailed; pre-production on Khrustalyov went on for years and the director would source thousands of photographs, so he got the look and feel of 1950s Moscow just right. You see every bit of that research on screen in the costumes, the cars, the clutter.
But the tactile world German creates would be significantly diminished without Vladimir Ilin’s cinematography. There are moments of austere beauty (such as the film’s shimmering opening shot of a snowbound Moscow street at night), but it’s the way his camera interacts with Khrustalyov’s characters that really catches the eye, gliding and swooping around rooms and down corridors, as a parade of people run, dance, march, and saunter across the screen. Sometimes they look directly at the camera, making a voyeur of you. Tracking shot after tracking shot, all perfectly choreographed.
Despite the film’s impressive authenticity and verisimilitude, Khrustalyov isn’t social realism. In fact, it is frequently surreal, like a dark fairy tale or, more appropriately, a Kafkaesque nightmare. There’s the aforementioned double, the enormous decorative birds in the Klenskys’ apartment (they really are quite something), a stuffed and mounted wolf’s head that, despite being dead, still unnerves. Two otherworldly young girls (Jewish twins) leap out of a cupboard – where they are being hidden from the authorities by Klensky – to continue a running battle with his son. Much like the society it depicts, Khrustalyov has a rich seam of madness running right the way through it.
Disc and extras
This is a new – and genuinely gorgeous – 2K restoration from the original negative by Arrow Films. It is presented in 1080 HD, with newly translated English subtitles.
An excellent set of extras kicks off with an insightful commentary from Daniel Bird, who produced the film’s restoration. He’s very good at illuminating plot points and references in Khrustalyov that might not be immediately obvious to a Western viewer. Bird also discusses the influence of Dostoevsky (and other Russian literary figures) on German’s work and, most interestingly, the way the director’s films and reputation were rehabilitated in the Soviet Union during Perestroika, something he wasn’t particularly comfortable with.
Between Realism And Nightmare is a superb 25-minute video essay by historian and film critic Eugenie Zvonkine. It deftly explores the genesis and evolution of German’s unique directorial style and features clips from several of his earlier films, including Twenty Days Without War (1977) and Trial On The Road (1986). It might actually be worth watching this before you see Khrustalyov because, although it contains spoilers, Zvonkine does a terrific job of getting to the core of what the film is actually about.
Running at 43 minutes, Diagnosis Murder sees academic Jonathan Brent analyse the Doctors’ Plot in detail, examining the roots of Stalin’s anti-Semitism and how that came to be weaponised. He also lays out why he believes the Soviet dictator was poisoned. I could happily listen to Brent talk about this stuff all day – his knowledge of the era is both remarkable and fascinating, and he articulates it with enthusiasm and no little humour.
There are also two interviews with German himself; one from veteran film historian and critic Ron Holloway, the other from producer Guy Séligmann. The former is from 1988 and in it the director talks about his novelist father (“He wasted his talent”), goes in depth on several of his films, and recounts various run-ins with the Soviet authorities (“War should be won by clean-shaven, beautiful, young men” was one of their diktats). The latter is most notable for its footage of German and his crew shooting early scenes from Khrustalyov in the icy Russian winter.
Additionally, you get a re-release trailer, a limited-edition 60-page booklet and a double-sided fold-out poster. In the interests of full disclosure, I haven’t seen the booklet or poster, as I was only sent a disc. Even without those items, though, this is still a terrific set.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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