Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Aleksei Guerman: Insight into the Russian Auteur

By Devin Wachs, Public Relations Manager

Aleksei Guerman
Next week Bryn Mawr Film Institute begins a five-film showcase of the work of Russian filmmaker Aleksei Guerman with screenings of The Seventh Companion and his masterwork Trial on the Road on Tuesday, October 23. BMFI is one of a select group of cinemas showing the first North American retrospective of Guerman's work.

Russians consider Guerman one of their greatest living filmmakers, but Guerman’s work is little known, little distributed, nearly impossible to see outside of Russia, and not available on home video in the English-speaking world. Guerman’s entire directorial repertoire from his 40 year career consists of a handful of films to date, but his unique style and approach to his subjects marks him as an auteur of the highest caliber.

Each of the screenings will be introduced by Tim Harte, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair of the Russian Department at Bryn Mawr College, which is co-sponsoring BMFI’s Aleksei Guerman Retrospective.

Our intern Erin Korth interviewed Tim Harte via email about Aleksei Guerman’s films. Keep reading to learn more about the work of this exciting filmmaker and his influence.
Why do you think it is important that we in America have a chance to see Guerman’s films, especially now?
Guerman is finally receiving the credit and high praise in the West that he deserves, as evidenced by the recent (March/April 2012) Film Comment article on him. Guerman’s masterful rendering of bygone Soviet eras, particularly those of the Stalinist period, provides a uniquely Russian take on the so-called “period piece” that Western filmgoers can glean a tremendous amount from and appreciate. Guerman’s exploration of memory and the distant past rivals that of any filmmaker in the world. In certain respects, Guerman follows in the celebrated Soviet filmmaking tradition of Andrei Tarkovsky, who made makes such rigorous, visionary films. And from an academic perspective, U.S. students who are familiar with the theoretical writings of Mikhail Bakhtin, particularly Bakhtin’s notions of the chronotope, the carnivalesque, and polyglosia, will see considerable overlap with Guerman’s films.

Guerman is called one of the greatest living filmmakers in the world, and yet he has only completed five films in the course of his career. Do you feel, even with such a small repertoire, that this title is earned?
Guerman is without a doubt one of the greatest living filmmakers in the world, even if he remains relatively unknown in the West and boasts such a small repertoire. I’d first point to Guerman’s perfectionism: he painstakingly recreates even the most minor details of the distant past in his work. It’s what makes his films so unique, but it’s also why his cinematic output is relatively meager. I’d also note that Tarkovsky, also a perfectionist and the one Soviet filmmaker to whom Guerman is continually—and deservedly—compared, also made only a handful of films. And like Tarkovsky, Guerman fell victim to Soviet censorship in the 1970s, which partially explains his low output as a filmmaker. He continually ran into Soviet roadblocks when making his films. Since the downfall of the Soviet Union, Guerman has also had to contend with the vagaries of the free market, for his aesthetic is hardly one that makes buckets of money at the box office, and thus he has struggled to complete his most recent work, The Story of the Arcanar Massacre, a science-fiction film that is finally in post-production.

Aleksei Guerman on the set of his latest film, The Story of the Arcanar Massacre, an adaptation of the sci-fi novel Hard to Be a God.
What do you personally think it is about Guerman’s writing and aesthetic that makes him such an acclaimed director?
Guerman has established a film aesthetic that is all his own and unmistakable. Shooting primarily in black and white, he vividly recreates the past, evoking the sounds and everyday details of these past eras. Even the smells of the past seem to emerge in his films. No other filmmaker delves into the past and memories of the past like Guerman. Moreover, a certain sense of chaos and the carnivalesque arises in his films, as characters come and go, blurting out dialogue that doesn’t always seem apropos of anything. And through polyglosia—where layers of sounds and dialogue reverberate—Guerman establishes a vision of the past that comes alive in a way that most films, whether they take place in the present or the past, can never achieve.

Which of Guerman’s films is your favorite and why?
Visually, Trial on the Road is stunning (and all the more effective on the large screen), but I prefer the Guerman film My Friend Ivan Lapshin, which so tenderly evokes the spirit of the Soviet 1930s, despite all the horror and repression that was occurring or about to occur at the time. None of Guerman’s work is “easy” per se, but if you give his films a chance, they can transport you to the past in such a genuine, rewarding fashion. Lapshin does this extremely well. 

My Friend Ivan Lapshin was based on a novel written by Yuri Guerman, Aleksei's father.
I’d also mention Khrustalyov, My Car!, which is by far Guerman’s most difficult film (and the one work of his, alas, that we haven’t included in the retrospective due to the prohibitive costs of the print): when I first saw this film in Boston, the theatre was packed with Russians, most of whom left part-way through the film. Even for native speakers of Russian, it’s hard to understand the film’s dialogue, but that’s ultimately the point. The film’s events take place during the last days of Stalin’s life, when whispers, lies, and intrigue were all such a conspicuous part of Soviet existence. I find the Fellini-esque atmosphere of the film intoxicating.

What can we take away from this series regarding Russia and the Soviet Union?
Guerman uses actors in a way that reflects a Russian ethos of egalitarianism; so-called stars often fade into the background of Guerman’s films, as non-professional actors overshadow them. And in several of his films (Twenty Days without War, My Friend Ivan Lapshin, and Khrustalyov, My Car!), Guerman delves into life within the purely Soviet construct of the communal apartment, where families and individuals had to live together in very tight quarters. Guerman’s work provides such a vital, hyper-realist look at these quickly disappearing facets of Soviet life. And when watching Guerman’s films, American audiences should keep in mind that Russians find these films extremely faithful to the Soviet era they depict.

Trial on the Road, Aleksei Guerman's most lauded work, was censored and its release postponed for 25 years by the Ministry of Culture of the Soviet Union.
Can you talk a bit about the suppression of Guerman’s film Trial on the Road? What made it so controversial? Is there a concern that its suppression has added political layers to the film that Guerman may not have intended?
From what I understand (details of what happened are somewhat murky), the censoring of Trial on the Road stemmed from the film’s treatment of its various protagonists, all soldiers fighting in World War II. Soviet cinema’s depictions of its soldiers in the Great War, as it was called, were almost always positive, following in the tradition of socialist realism, which arose in the 1930s and mandated a romanticized, highly unrealistic depiction of Soviet heroes. 

Guerman fights against this tradition in Trial on the Road, as his protagonists prove to be highly complex individuals finding themselves in ambiguous situations where they must make difficult moral decisions. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the suppression of Guerman’s film may have influenced its reception, but now I think we can view the film for what it is, which is simply an excellent, well-made war film.

Guerman co-wrote many of his films with his wife, screenwriter Svetlana Karmalita. How does his position as writer and director affect his films, for better or for worse?
The fact that Guerman has written or co-written the scripts for most of his films reinforces his auteur status. As I’ve suggested, his films are uniquely his own, and even when he has taken a work by someone else (for instance his father, a celebrated Soviet writer), he has always made it uniquely his own by diverging from the script and advocating image over plot. Guerman merges images and dialogue in such a rigorous fashion that it seems strange to even think about him making a film that isn’t entirely Guerman’s. If there is any downside to Guerman writing or co-writing the scripts for his film it’s that the process of writing has slowed down Guerman’s work rate and is thus partially responsible for the low number of films he has directed.
Thank you, Professor Harte! View the complete series schedule and find information about the films here.

Devin Wachs is the Public Relations Manager for Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She joined BMFI in 2005, following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College. If you send BMFI a message on Facebook or Twitter or are interested in onscreen sponsorships, she's the one who'll be in touch!

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