There are plenty of candidates, but Alexei German Sr. might be the globe’s greatest living unknown filmmaker, the author of only five movies in a 30-year career that traded enraged spittle with every manner of Soviet and post-Soviet authority entity. (His festival-favorite son, Alexei Jr., is having an easier time.) This rarely-seen 1984 saga, based on stories from German’s father Yuri, chronicles (semi-autobiographically?) life in a remote northern village at the onset of the Stalin era in the 30s, where the dad and young son lived in a crowded apartment with, among others, a modest, taciturn, yet fearless police captain. “This will be a sad tale,” German’s narration begins, and he’s right about the sad part, but it’s not a tale so much as an act of time-travel. The restless, hungry camera is let loose on its own recognizance, roaming through that flat, around the frozen landscape and around the characters with less a thought toward cohesion than a passion for this life’s intimate textures, as it might be pieced together by a kid. Sudden deaths, mismanaged romances, memories of war, attempted suicides, drunken woes — all of it caught out of the corner of our eye, down hallways and amid drunken bustle, where Lapshin himself (Andrei Boltnev) is rarely singled out as the key figure. The sense is palpable that life under Stalin was compressed into a resonant communality. Reportedly revered by Russian critics, Lapshin doesn’t look like any other film (natural light is trusted to a disarming degree), and the respect it affords its beleaguered characters is Renoirian, if Renoir were a New Wave modernist who’d endured almost a half-century of Soviet stress.
My Friend Ivan Lapshin screens at 7pm Friday and 4:15pm Sunday at Anthology Film Archives, as part of their “Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema” series, which begins today.