Left: Aleksei Guerman, My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1984, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Right: Aleksei Guerman and Grigori Aronov, The Seventh Companion, 1967, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 89 minutes.

AMONG THE MOST IMPORTANT RETROSPECTIVES IN YEARS, “War and Remembrance: The Films of Aleksei Guerman” is also a bracing, deeply satisfying cinematic experience. Though the Russian director’s output is small, his track record is flawless. All five of his features are being screened in this, his first retrospective in North America, along with The Fall of Otrar (1991, directed by Ardak Amirkulov), a curious, almost minimalist epic about Genghis Khan, which Guerman produced and cowrote in the lull between My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), his first international success, and Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), an exhilarating comic masterpiece and one of the great films of the 1990s.

The series is an instructive journey through the Stalinist period of Soviet history as well as an illuminating chronicle of a filmmaker whose work, often plagued by forced delays and loss of funding, has been overshadowed, perhaps unfairly, by such masterful stylists as Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sokurov. While those filmmakers often tended toward the metaphysical, Guerman’s reflections on war and ideology are grounded in a concrete social and political reality. Still, the stylistic shift from his first four films to Khrustalyov, My Car! is dazzling—like stumbling upon Fellini’s wildly dreamlike 8 1/2 (1963) after having seen his Neorealist films. Though all five of Guerman’s features warrant attention, space permits focus only on three.

While Guerman can be sardonic, his lack of rancor places him among the finest filmmaker-commentators on the human condition. This is evident in his parabolic first feature, The Seventh Companion (1967, codirected by Grigori Aronov), whose protagonist, retired general and lawyer Adamov (Andrei Popov), questions his role in czarist Russia when he is arrested by the Reds. Though Adamov is released when his captors learn that he acted in the proper revolutionary spirit in an incident of 1905, he finds himself ousted from his apartment by a proletarian housing committee. After visiting colleagues from the old days, he offers his services to the Bolsheviks, but this proves untenable when he witnesses violations of military law. The essence of Adamov’s moral plight in an ideologically driven, ethically confused society is poetically captured when, sitting astride a white horse, Red Army cap atop his head, he and the amiable partisan he has befriended journey unwittingly into the enemy’s camp. A displaced Don Quixote accompanied by his Sancho Panza, he refuses to explain his dilemma to an obtuse White officer and is summarily executed along with his comrade.

Ambivalence also haunts Lazarev (Vladimir Zamanskiy), the protagonist of Trial on the Road. (Although made in 1971, the film went unreleased until 1984 because of political objections.) Set during the Second World War, it begins when Lazarev, a partisan officer who deserted to the Germans for reasons never made clear, returns to become a prisoner in his own army. A man of few words, like Adamov, he declares, “I didn’t make the choice—the path chose me.” Guerman pits hard-line Soviets against compassionate ones. The same officer who refuses to blow up a bridge while a train of prisoners is crossing it entrusts Lazarev with missions, while a senior officer orders Lazarev to be executed as a traitor. Lazarev reaches a breaking point, botches a suicide attempt, and, in a final mission to derail enemy trains, is driven to an outburst of violence that vents his psychological torment while it perversely proves his “loyalty” to the revolution. Bravura filmmaking at its best, the final sequence exhibits Guerman’s command of perspective and orchestration of action, and an instinctive balance between cutting and long takes—all the time registering the maniacal state of his protagonist.

Aleksei Guerman, Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 150 minutes.

None of the earlier work prepares us for Khrustalyov, My Car!, Guerman’s phantasmagoric satire, conjuring a bizarre, nightmarish Moscow in 1953. Fleeting allusions to the “Doctors’ Plot”—a conspiracy, contrived by Stalin, accusing Jewish doctors of poisoning and misdiagnosing illnesses of high officials—account for the paranoia that pervades the atmosphere: Busts of the dictator are everywhere. Ultimately, it triggers the climactic fantasy in which the protagonist, Surgeon General Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo), is solicited to save the dying Stalin. With its relentless pace and myriad details, its farcical tone and brilliant camerawork, the film is impossible to digest in one viewing. Guerman narrates intermittently, shouting, “That’s me” as young Aleksei materializes just before the title. It’s a self-conscious gesture linked to occasional glances at the camera by several characters. Klensky, Aleksei’s father, is head of a hospital-cum-madhouse, where “unauthorized death is prohibited.” He’s a man who works on open skulls, and whose inspection tour of the maze of misfits and mishaps does not preclude pausing for a blow job from an idolizing staff member—eliciting Klensky’s bemused stare into the camera, as we glimpse the “great father” on a pedestal to the left.

While the camera’s incessant mobility strains to encompass the dizzying array of people, incidents, and places—moving about cluttered apartments as if they were mere extensions of hospital, bathhouse, and bar—there is more method than madness here. The Steadicam’s rush down corridors, off of which lie hidden rooms and secret spaces, constitutes a motif that culminates in a sequence in which Klensky—having absconded, only to be attacked by hooligans and raped by prisoners in a truck—is rescued, forced back into his Doctor/General mode, and led, circuitously and clandestinely, from car to car and place to place until, down a corridor past many rooms, he is ushered into the one where Stalin lies dying. At the heart of the film’s grand but frenetic architectural design, then—as of the society it depicts—is the body of its heartless tyrant. Clueless to his identity, Klensky asks the man in the room (another doctor?) if the patient is his father. “Father? That’s well said,” the fellow remarks. After the leader expires, the man thanks Klensky, declares that “a star has fallen,” and departs, shouting the mundane order that gives the film its title, “Khrustalyov, my car!”

The narrator tells us that when Stalin’s death was announced, his father’s name did not appear among those arrested or killed. But we last see Klensky, atop a train, amusing fellow prisoners on the way to a camp with acrobatic tricks—a role finally compatible with the circus that has been his life. His last words—or the narrator’s—are “Fuck it all!” Given the range of Guerman’s work and the unflagging inventiveness of Khrustalyov, one eagerly anticipates his new film, reportedly premiering at Cannes this spring.

Tony Pipolo

“War and Remembrance: The Films of Aleksei Guerman” runs Wednesday, March 14–Tuesday, March 20 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.