Arrow Video: Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998) - Reviewed

With exception to his final film Hard to Be a God, a fantastical science-fiction nightmare about another planet trapped in the Middle Ages, much of the late cantankerous and visually overpowering provocateur Aleksei German’s tragically short lived filmography (only 6 features over the course of nearly 50 years) took place at either the height of Stalinism or in the case of Khrustalyov, My Car!, the tail end of it.  

Less focused on laying the groundwork for a straightforward narrative than trying to immerse and/or mire the viewer in suffocating depravity, filth and violent mayhem in a way of life gone frighteningly mad, German fought an ongoing uphill battle against the Soviet Union to bring his uncompromising visions of Russia as a kind of Medieval Hellscape both horrific and peculiarly darkly humorous. 

Not many filmmakers can hit all the bases from intelligent to insipid, glorious and gross, awful and whimsical simultaneously in a kind of berserk two-and-a-half-hour jaunt and come away leaving a smirk on the viewer’s face as their nearly recycled dinner resettles into their stomach.  Which brings us to the meticulous and frequently painstaking writer-director’s fifth and arguably most Fellini-esque transgressor, the hallucinatory and phantasmagorical tragicomic nightmare Khrustalyov, My Car! 

Deriving its name from Soviet security chief Lavrentiy Beria’s famous declaration upon Stalin’s deathbed, Khrustalyov, My Car! is a near-radioactive dose of unbridled insanity and frontal assault on the viewer’s senses with so much nonstop unrelenting visual information you feel the need to come up for air.  Loosely chronicling the waning days of the Stalinist military dictatorship, the coarse and caustic high-contrast black-and-white 1.33:1 feature leaps about the snow covered nighttime streets of Moscow, 1953 before settling on brain surgeon General Yuri Georgievich Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo) who is in hiding evading the so-called anti-Semitic “Doctor’s Plot” targeting Jewish doctors. 

When we first meet the tall and stocky General Klensky, with his bald cap, bristling moustache and thick shoulders as he swills yet another hard drink, Klensky is something of an imposing figure of power.  Over the course of the film however in a series of increasingly surreal vignettes and chance encounters during the doctor’s escape plan, the once intimidating Klensky’s powers are stripped away one by one until he’s as helpless and vulnerable as the rest of society.  Though the viewer may or may not have a grasp on German’s bonkers and seemingly spontaneous narrative, it is plain as day Klensky’s stature as a military-medical service general is slowly coming apart.

Something like as imagined by Gillo Pontecorvo, Khrustalyov, My Car! is as difficult and taxing of a viewing chore to sit through as it was for its writer-director to bring it to the silver screen.  Co-produced by a French company, the film was beset by problems over its seven-year gestation period including financing and production being stalled outright by the Soviet Union more than once coupled with the filmmaker’s painstaking attention to detail.  Throughout the film is a recurring motif of black automobiles careening down the snow covered streets of Moscow at night, a series of fleeting moments scattered about which in actuality took the filmmaker roughly a year to track down and gather for his film.

Visually the film’s Academy Ratio black-and-white cinematography by Hard to Be a God director-of-photography Vladimir Ilin looks something like Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev if it were shot by Robert Richardson.  With hard and hot lights illuminating the shoulders and accentuating the white areas on the image to give a soft, radiating glow, the first impression one gets watching German’s film is that of magical realism.  We’re wading through some ugly realities as the film bores on but its photographed and lit in such a way that we feel as though we’re sleepwalking, not entirely sure if we’re asleep or reaching a waking state.

Performances in the film are strong with a palpable sense of discomfort, sweat and heavy stench streaked across every actors’ face with much of the heavy lifting on Yuri Tsurilo’s shoulders whose hapless Doctor Klensky goes through every emotion from formidable heavyweight to meek everyman and back to being as gleefully happy as a pig in shit.  As a warning, there are some unspeakable horrors ahead for Klensky and actor Tsurilo who would return for the writer-director’s final film goes the full distance without looking back. 

That said, Khrustalyov, My Car! is first and foremost an auteur driven piece with so many carefully placed objects and figures coming right into the claustrophobic and cramped space of the camera frame.  You look to the center of the shot and things are constantly coming into the shot from off to the sides unexpectedly, rarely leaving you with a single image to focus on which invariably adds to the disorienting effect.  Specific sound effects become deliberately reused in places where they shouldn’t exist and to top things off, Aleksei German freely mixes fantasy with reality to play around with the facts for farcical, satirical effect though some of the subtler gags pertaining to Stalinism will likely go over western viewers’ heads.

After a long and arduous journey bringing Khrustalyov, My Car! to the screen, the film suffered another setback with its disastrous 1998 world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.  Though Aleksei German wasn’t in attendance, the film was savaged and dogged with numerous walkouts of equal parts bewildered and disgusted patrons.  Many dubbed it incoherent or impenetrable when it wasn’t being crude and occasionally ultraviolent.  But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Mr. German’s picture which enjoyed the support of the Cannes Film Festival jury president Martin Scorsese who championed it as the number one film of 1998. 

In the years since its release and after seeing the director’s final film Hard to Be a God, the film’s stature as a radical, dangerous and in its own perverse manner oddly delightful shock-treatment has only grown with time.  Seen now, it has lost none of its ability to confound, infuriate, sicken and tickle pink.  As with his final film, Khrustalyov, My Car! isn’t for all tastes and only really comes recommended for the staunch and adventurous cinephiles.  But for those eager to not simply settle for whatever fits nicely and tidily into the box and dares to transgress into uncharted and uncomfortable territories, Khrustalyov, My Car! promises many sweet and unexpected rewards you never thought you’d need or want in your life.

- Andrew Kotwicki