Alexei German's My Friend Ivan Lapshin is the first film in post-Stalin cinema that is entirely dedicated to the 1930s. He does not talk about terror and the cult of personality - about what made the 1930s almost inaccessible to depiction in late Soviet cinema. Herman works with the very difficulty of storytelling: the lack of a language to describe the past becomes a way for him to break through to this past.
If you take all the Soviet post-Stalin cinema with all its masterpieces and trinkets and look at how the history of the country is presented in this heterogeneous array, you will notice a curious thing. The normal course of history reaches somewhere before 1930, before the first five-year plan, and resumes again around 1940 - on the eve of the great war. The decade between them passes like in fast-forward. The 1930s appear on the screen only on the condition that the action takes several decades: the characters grow up, grow old, converge, disperse - part of this process falls into a dubious decade. This is a page on which you can stay a little longer or a little less, but which you need to turn over: yes, it was, but then life moved on. As a rule, during these five, 10, 30 minutes, the heroes wear white clothes, sing songs, worry about the fate of the warring Spain, build a subway, make some discoveries. Sometimes people are imprisoned there, but this also happens in a hurry, almost casually.
The Great Terror was an inevitable major association with the 1930s. Touching on this decade, it was impossible to remain silent about the repressions, but it was impossible to even talk about it. In the era of Khrushchev's semi-publicity, the theme of the cult of personality appeared in films often, but always in an extremely toned down version - in order to provoke condemnation without horror; like it was all a mistake, but not a disaster. By the early 1970s, even this compromise was almost impossible, and filmmakers' confusion about the 1930s was even more palpable. The most famous violation of the taboo on terror in stagnant cinema is the typographical episode "Mirrors". Tarkovsky also takes the 1930s as part of a large canvas of Soviet history, a moment that causes the strongest affect (the intensification of which is the fabric of his film) - fear. He is interested in the very burning power of silence, the frightening energy that has accumulated in an era half-displaced by cinema.
The director, who decided to look this time in the face, was Alexei German. Filmed in the late 1970s, completed in 1982, and released after a long ordeal in 1985, My Friend Ivan Lapshin was the first film in late Soviet cinema whose entire action (with the exception of the opening three and one final minute) took place in 1930. th years.
Paradoxically, this was a direct order. According to German’s memoirs, the police almost imposed on him a film adaptation of his father’s works about the head of the task force Lapshin (Yuri German was the author of numerous books about security officers and criminal investigation officers; representatives of these professions adored the writer and favored his obstinate son - in contrast to film officials who hated Herman). Lapshin is the hero of three works by German Sr.: two stories written in the 1930s and the novel One Year, published in 1960, a reworking of early texts, cleaned of lyrical rubbish and turned into a normal detective story. German was expected to make a film version of the latter, but he cheated and instead decided to stage the story Lapshin (this kind of juggling was the most important skill of any Soviet director).
This book, written exactly in 1937, is a rather strange text. Her hero is an ideal socialist realist Chekist, discharged according to all the canons, but his exploits, his work to catch criminals, are deeply on the periphery of attention. In the center is the story of a stupid unrequited love for a provincial actress. This is a thing filled with absolutely Chekhovian melancholy, a heap of ridiculous trifles. The obvious inadequacy of the tone of the hero seems here to be an indirect way of saying that something is not quite right in the well-organized Stalinist world. A couple of slips hint at the same thing - so deliberate that you really don’t believe them (“I’ll ask you not to induce terror,” Lapshinsky’s friend Okoshkin shouts to his mother-in-law at the end of the story).
What Herman does as a director is to some extent already incorporated into the text of Herman as a writer. Only he twists the knobs all the way, drowning the uncomplicated plot of his father's book in a chaos of superfluous words, unfunny witticisms, awkward movements and unnecessary things. The film radicalizes the hidden setting of the story: it is impossible to tell the truth about this time. Not because they are being shot for it, not only because censorship interferes, but also because there simply was no language for this truth.
But what is truth? It is a way of selecting facts from the confusion of the past. The feigned welter of Lapshin, thought out to the smallest detail, simulates the moment when such a selection did not take place. The truth has not yet emerged. She is not open.
For us, those who came after, the truth of this era is described in one word. This is death. Herman said in every interview: "Lapshin" is a film about people who will die soon; none of the main characters will survive the 37th year. There are no hints of this fate in the film itself, but we feel it very well. In many ways, precisely because we are being prepared by a tradition that Herman interrupts: if after the 1930s they do not show the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, then that’s it. This is where it all ended.
Signs of death are scattered throughout the film: frozen corpses in the basement, a fox that ate a rooster in a living corner. But Lapshin is not a metaphor for terror (like, say, Abuladze's Repentance, which came out two years later). Rather, if we are to use literary terms, it is an ellipsis, a gap. The film is about what it does not show, does not even touch, but the shadow - or light - of this invisible lies on everything that we see. This is felt in the very texture of Lapshin: his characters emerge from the darkness and drown in bright light; they seem like shadows about to disappear. The flickering suspends the dense, excessive materiality of the German film, casts doubt on its authenticity.
Tiny episodes from the present at the beginning and at the end of the picture are needed by Herman to show how great is the distance between the time of the story and the time of action. Is it possible to stretch a hand through this flesh of time and touch the past, learn something about the disappeared people, open their world from the ashes of history?
Answer: definitely not. The sense of authenticity that mesmerized the first audience of Lapshin and captivates to this day is carefully constructed. Dirty streets and faces, dusty objects instead of Deineka's paintings coming to life - all this does not recreate the reality of the mid-1930s, but only changes the scenery. The performance that unfolds against its background is also not at all the real life of the era. We see too well that plasticity, facial expressions, the speech of heroes, their manner of joking, flirting and scandalous - these are the habits of people in the 1970s. Presenting a story from the past, we always fill it with gestures and intonations of the present.
In the German film, the theater puts on a mediocre play from camp life. This is a mocking mise en abyme, Hamlet's "The Mousetrap", demonstrating the futility of art in its attempts to show a terrible reality. What then is Lapshin's bet?
In classic articles on Herman's cinematography, the philosopher and film critic Mikhail Yampolsky wrote about how the director destroys the logic of art in his films - storytelling - by contrasting it with a different way of dealing with the past. In many ways, this is the logic of memory with its clinging to random things, Proustian madeleines.
We can develop this idea a bit. For Herman, who was born in 1938, as well as for any person of the late Soviet era, the 1930s is something that is no longer possible to remember, and at the same time something that needs to be remembered. Partly because of loyalty to fathers who didn’t tell, partly because this oblivion gapes at the very heart of culture. But memory also always lies. She herself plays out the narratives and sets up the scenes. The power of art is that it can make this lie explicit. It becomes honest when it presents its madeness, artificiality.
Hence the strange autonomy of the camera from the narrative, which Yampolsky also analyzed, and the paradoxical editing tricks that are so numerous in Lapshin. The wandering gaze with which we see the events of Lapshin is a gaze that has no place in the past. He tries to find it and fails, gets lost. He wants to remember, but in fact he imagines the reality of the past, creates it from ancillary material. Authenticity is another picture, a montage in the most literal sense, a gluing together of the rubbish of the time that came to hand: peppy marches, tram clang, burnt pies, iron balls from the bed.
Another feature of Lapshin, which critics also often wrote about: the characters here are constantly looking at the camera. This is a violation of cinematic etiquette: looking at the viewer is a strong gesture that requires strong reasons. Herman doesn't seem to have them. This or that hero, important to the story or unremarkable, looks at us and turns away. Contact is made and immediately lost. In this series of meetings, perhaps the main event of the film. The gaze of Herman is a bit of the gaze of Orpheus. Each character, even a simple passerby, is a little Eurydice for him. The author tries to catch the past in his eyes, to wrest it from the hell of oblivion. The task is doomed, because the artist builds this hell himself. But in this thirst and in this doom lies the meaning of Germanic art. It is impossible to show the murdered past, but it is possible to show the movement of memory in all its ethical force.
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