Issue 57 (2017)

Aleksandr Mindadze: My Good Hans (Milyi Khans, dorogoi Petr, 2015)

reviewed by Ellina Sattarova © 2017

hans peterThe winner of the 2015 White Elephant award, Aleksandr Mindadze’s My Good Hans opens with a close-up on a pot of bright-yellow magma, which slowly turns fiery orange as it begins to boil. The opening shot prepares us for an explosion, and the words on screen give us a hint as to what will cause it. My Good Hans, the on-screen text explains, is set in the pre-war Soviet Union, when German scientists came to the USSR to work with their Soviet counterparts as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. As Mindadze himself puts it, itis a film about two enemies, the Russians and the Germans, working together on a project that would help them destroy each other in the imminent war (Zarkhi 2015). Russia’s ministry of culture found the premise “historically inaccurate” and refused to sponsor the film; it did, however, recommend it to the Cinema Fund whose “historical consultants” proposed a few significant changes to the script. The film’s historical “inaccuracies” that deeply vexed the state sponsors were, it seems, of little concern to Mindadze, whose film is preoccupied, above all, with the flaws of human vision that is selective, distortive and inaccurate, inevitably more so if it is refracted through the camera lens.

hans peterMindadze signals the film’s obsession with the limitations of vision already in the first shot. The camera lingers for a few seconds on the near-boiling magma and then begins its slow motion forward and upwards, to reveal a round opening in the wall and the glaring, anxious eye (singular!) watching the lava—and us. Constrained by the size of the opening, “banished” from its object by the glass, the gaze is skewed, ineffectual, desperate. The desperate eye is that of Hans, a German engineer who has come to the Soviet Union with his three colleagues on a mission to develop a high-performance glass lens to be used in vision enhancing devices. The glass, however, stubbornly resists—the German team’s successive failures lead to outbursts of uncontrollable anger among its members. One such outburst proves crucial for the entire project. In a fit of despairing rage, Hans raises the temperature in the furnace, causing an explosion that kills several of the factory workers. What follows is a series of loosely connected nightmarish episodes in which Hans and the Russian worker Petr, the only witness to the accident, develop a toxic bond based on a mutual desire to keep what transpired at the factory a secret. Tormented by fears, Petr and his family will eventually leave town and possibly never find out that the fatal accident led to a breakthrough in the lens creation process. Hans will eventually leave too, only to come back in a military uniform and look at the forlorn industrial town through a pair of binoculars, equipped with that same revolutionary lens that he inadvertently engineered.

hans peterMy Good Hans revels in dualities. The explosion results in several casualties and puts Hans’ and Petr’s lives on the line, yet it proves to be instrumental in the ultimate success of the German team whose failure, the film suggests, could also cost lives. Hans and Petr, brought together by the accident, can’t decide whether they should run towards or away from each other. Each moment of calm in the film is a harbinger of the imminent violent outburst as is evidenced by the quietly boiling magma of the film’s opening sequence. A civilized dinner inevitably turns into a brawl, a respected scientist into a spitting, screaming brute. This propensity for shape-shifting seems, at least at first glance, to be reserved exclusively for the film’s German characters. My Good Hans, shot for the most part in German, revolves around Hans and his German colleagues. Petr, Hans’ counterpart in the original title (Milyi Khans, dorogoi Petr), makes his first appearance only half an hour into the film, and remains at best a secondary character, with Hans and his fellow Germans taking center stage. Compared to the team of visiting engineers, Petr and the few other Russians seem significantly more composed and level-headed. Yet while charges of national stereotyping would not be entirely amiss, Mindadze is, of course, interested in human nature as such, forever torn between civilization and barbarism. In a mesmerizing scene towards the end of the film, the German characters taking the train to the factory see their Russian doubles on a train going in the opposite direction. Germans and Russians not only look the same (besides the double on the train, Hans has another look-alike, Petr); they have similar fears, concerns, and desires. And although the film’s Russian characters initially appear less prone to aggression, they eventually reveal their brute side as well. The film’s closing sequence shows Hans in a barber shop where Petr’s friend, whose romantic advances Hans rejected earlier, is giving Hans a shave. The sexually charged scene reaches its climax when the woman presses the blade against Hans’s neck before the film cuts to closing credits.

hansThe cinematographic “cut” at the end can, of course, be read literally, as an indication that the woman does indeed cut Hans’ throat. Mindadze himself insists in interviews that this is the “correct” interpretation, adding that streams of blood would not have fit with the overall aesthetic of the film: “It would be a very different film, don’t you think?” (Zarkhi 2015). It would indeed. It appears, however, that the streams of blood would not be the only violation of the spectatorial contract. Whether it was Mindadze’s intention or not, the film remains open-ended, leaving us wondering whether we can finally “let go” of Hans. The film’s treatment of the spectator is characterized by the same duality that permeates the storyline—it forces us to identify with “my good Hans,” refusing, however, to give us any good reasons for doing so; it lures us with beautiful cinematography yet alienates us with its often unbearably long takes and incoherent narrative. The film’s “harassment” of the spectator is characteristic of what Nikolaj Lübecker terms “feel-bad films,” films that assault the spectator in an attempt to raise ethical and political questions. To deliver Hans from his torments would mean to relieve the spectators of theirs and thus subvert what seems to be the underlying assumption of the film: that vision (cinematographic or not) cannot give definitive evidence. Just like the revolutionary lens in Hans’ binoculars pointed at the “enemy,” cinema successfully makes objects appear closer or farther away than they really are, but in doing so, it can distort its target to the point of destruction.

Ellina Sattarova
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Lübecker, Nikolaj. 2015. The Feel-Bad Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Zarkhi, Nina. 2015. “Nina Zarkhi – Aleksandr Mindadze. Grotesk i est' pravda.” Iskusstvo kino 8.

My Good Hans, Russia, UK, Germany, Ukraine, 2015
Director: Aleksandr Mindadze
Script: Aleksandr Mindadze
DoP Oleg Mutu
Composer: Valerii Siver
Production Design: Kirill Shuvalov, Ekaterina Khimicheva
Editing: Dasha Danilova
Cast: Jakob Diehl, Birgit Minichmayr, Mark Waschke, Marc Hosemann, Roza Khairullina, Andrius Dariala, Evgenii Sarmont, Angelina Rimashevskaia, Anna Skidanova, Svetlana Kosolapova 
Producers: Aleksandr Mindadze, Liza Antonova, Heino Deckert, Frank Evers. Leonid Blavatnik, Helge Neubronner, Valerii Kharkov, Andrei Annenskii
Production: AI Film, CinePlus, Ma.Ja.De, Passazhir, Sota Cinema

Aleksandr Mindadze: My Good Hans (Milyi Khans, dorogoi Petr, 2015)

reviewed by Ellina Sattarova © 2017