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Blu-ray: Khrustalyov, My Car! | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Khrustalyov, My Car!

Blu-ray: Khrustalyov, My Car!

Alexei German’s 1998 phantasmagoria strikes at the heart of the Stalinist horror

Hallucinatory power: Yury Tsurilo plays Klensky, protagonist of 'Khrustalyov, My Car!'

The title of Khrustalyov, My Car! comes, infamously, from the words uttered by NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria as he departed the scene of Stalin’s death in March 1953, and Alexei German’s film comes as close as cinema can to dissecting the surreal terror of those times, indeed of the Soviet era itself. It's the work of an extreme auteur at the height of his unpredictable powers, shot over the course of some five years in the mid-1990s, the official interference that had dogged German's Soviet-era films a thing of the past. Its hallucinatory power looks as striking as ever in this Arrow Academy restoration, and this release comes with a raft of extras that give essential context to a work that itself offers very little in the way of self-elucidation, its visceral effect achieved through frequently impenetrable aesthetic complexity.

German was a director for whom story as such came a very distant second to cinematic texture, to an onslaught of images that leaves viewers attempting, virtually in vain, to locate plot, never more so than in the opening scenes here. The film’s immediate context is that of the “Doctors’ Plot” of the early 1950s, Stalin’s final (as it turned out) planned assault on Party ranks, an anti-Semitic conspiracy that was set to demonise Jewish physicians. The film’s hero, Klensky (played with bullet-headed determination by Yury Tsurilo, main picture) is one such, a surgeon and Red Army general, who lords it over his hospital with caprices almost as maniacal as that of his ultimate master – Stalin is referred to in the film only as “Him” – in the Kremlin. His unpredictable despotism is equally absolute at home, and it is scenes from that domestic life that open the film, darkly surreal images accompanied by an almost mangled script, its over-layered lines of text becoming almost senseless accumulations of sound; there is a narrative voice there somewhere, that of a son trying to piece together, later in life, his father’s fate, but it offers virtually no guiding direction.

Khrustalyov My Car! coverSensing his own imminent arrest – the presence of the NKVD is felt in the lines of vehicles that career through the snowy night streets of Moscow – Klensky goes on the run. Soon apprehended, he is inducted into the world of the gulag in a horrific rape scene, its sheer repellance exactly the quality that German intended. Then he is unexpectedly recalled, his professional skill required, to be taken to the bedside of the dying dictator. It is a trajectory from which neither he, nor his family, which has in the meantime been through its own hellish journey, can ever recover.

Any such retelling does little or nothing to convey the experience of watching the 150 remorseless minutes that make up Khrustalyov, My Car! “I want to be in history, not above it,” was one of German’s axioms, and his achievement lies in the way that he enforces such total immersion on the viewer. Its contrasted black-and-white world, shot by Vladimir Ilin with a camera that restlessly explores elaborate interiors, in long takes, achieves a Boschian luridity (“A black-and-white image forces your brain to add colour,” the director said typically). Whether such material could ever be truly appreciated outside German’s homeland remains a moot point: those who did not know Russia were at a disadvantage in approaching his films, he admitted – it was like trying to explain felt snow boots to an African. Khrustalyov’s reception in competition at the 1998 Cannes festival was lukewarm, and it came away empty-handed, despite jury president Martin Scorsese being a strong supporter.

Distributor Arrow has treated Alexei German’s legacy handsomely: it gave the director’s final work, Hard to Be a God, a theatrical release back in 2015 – no guaranteed thing in the UK these days for such "demanding" films – and this Khrustalyov restoration had a brief cinema run late last year. There is plentiful extra material here, most notably a long interview with German conducted by film historian Ron Holloway in 1998, in which the director gives an overview of his career to date: it’s good to see him in his (relative) youth, the unfixable energy that fuelled his work coming through infectiously. Critic Eugénie Zvonkine's 26-minute video essay Between Realism and Nightmare is invaluable in elucidating some of the concerns of Khrustalyov, with Jonathan Brent’s Diagnosis Murder giving full context on the Doctors’ Plot. The film’s French producer Guy Séligmann catches German in expansive mode during shooting in the interview German... At Last, and there’s an audio commentary from Daniel Bird, producer of the restoration project. An exemplary package.

Watch the trailer for Khrustalyov, My Car!

It's the work of an extreme auteur at the height of his unpredictable powers

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Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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