Aleksei German Junior: Garpastum, 2005

reviewed by Tony Anemone© 2006

Garpastum: A Russian Field of Dreams

The second feature film of talented young filmmaker Aleksei German, Jr. is as stark and challenging as his award-wining 2004 debut film The Last Train (see Birgit Beumers’s review in KinoKultura 3). While The Last Train was set in the waning days of World War II, the action of Garpastum takes place at another critical moment in twentieth-century Russian history, the period between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and the Revolution of 1917. Although profoundly marked by the influence of the director’s father, Aleksei German, Sr., Garpastum is the work of a mature, independent artist.

Garpastum (Latin for a ball game played by the ancient Romans) is a tale of two middle-class brothers, who, completely oblivious to the storm clouds gathering all around them, spend their days obsessed with soccer and girls. Nikolai (Danila Kozlovskii) is the dark-haired, serious, and responsible one, while Andrei (Evgenii Pronin) is blond, irresponsible, self-centered, and a genius at soccer. They live with their uncle (Pavel Romanov), aunt, and invalid father; apparently their mother’s recent death has unhinged their father, who is mostly confined to his bed. Along with two young friends, Shust (Dmitrii Vladimirov) and Misha, nicknamed “Tolstyi” (Aleksandr Bykovskii), the brothers devote themselves to playing soccer and much of the film revolves around their efforts to raise money to purchase a field for a stadium of their own. When not playing soccer matches for money with factory toughs, Orthodox seminarians, or young boys in the streets and fields of a fog-draped St. Petersburg, Nikolai works in a pharmacy (perhaps he will follow the family tradition and become a doctor), while Andrei spends his evenings being initiated into slightly kinky sex by Anitsa (Chulpan Khamatova), an attractive and unstable young widow and Silver Age salon hostess. Although the leading literary lights of the period—including Akhmatova, Gumilev, Mandelstam, Khodasevich, and Blok—gather at Anitsa’s salon, Andrei shows no interest in them, only occasionally feeling jealous of Blok, whom Anitsa calls a friend and “perhaps, a great poet.” The calamitous events of the world beyond the family apartment, Anitsa’s salon and bedroom, and the soccer field are briefly mentioned by characters who quickly pass through the camera’s field of view: a man on the train reads out loud a newspaper account of the assassination of the Archduke, random people discuss rumors about soldiers being drafted or the latest military news from the front, a soccer-playing acquaintance of our heroes who had deserted from the army is taken into custody. But throughout it all, our heroes’ attention stays firmly focused on their own personal field of dreams.

Although the violence of world war and revolution is kept at a distance, suggested but never shown, the action of Garpastum is punctuated by random acts of violence in the lives of its characters. Violence in the film escalates from a slap to the face of a lover to rough play on the soccer field, from a sudden fistfight in the crowd of soccer players hoping to try out with a visiting team from England to brutal multiple murders by a band of criminals. In all cases, the violence is sudden, casual, and, ultimately, meaningless.

No sooner have the brothers succeeded in raising the money for the soccer field, than Shust and Anista’s sister are robbed and murdered. At this point, the characters go their separate ways—Anitsa to her native Belgrade, Nikolai into the army, Andrei remains in Petersburg, marries and has a child—as the city quietly descends into the chaos and deprivation of 1917. In an epilog of sorts, Nikolai returns from the army to a changed Petersburg, which is in the grip of Revolution. In the film’s last scene, he and Andrei return to the field where they had dreamt of building a soccer field. They realize that after all life has taken away from them, the one thing that remains is soccer, and they start kicking the ball ecstatically as the screen goes black and the final credits roll.

Filmed in a beautiful sepia-tone palate redolent of belle époque photographs, every shot meticulously framed, Garpastum is a brilliant historical recreation of the look and feel of pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg. Less mannered and stylized than Aleksei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i liudei, 1998), but with more of an aesthetic sheen than his father’s My Friend, Ivan Lapshin (Moi drug, Ivan Lapshin, 1984), Garpastum is one of the more beautiful Russian films of recent years. German Jr.’s film combines exquisite cinematography with a script composed of bits and pieces taken from newspapers, medical textbooks, “Chekhovian” miscommunications, decidedly everyday conversations with all its stops and starts, non sequiturs, and obscure private communications and silences preserved. Although German Jr. uses the non-diegetic soundtrack in more or less traditional ways, he uses overlapping and overheard dialog and street noise to complicate the diegetic soundtrack in ways reminiscent of his father’s films. Both father and son are concerned, above all, with ordinary people trying to live their private lives in times of momentous historical calamities that are far beyond their comprehension and control. For the German family filmmakers, history means, essentially, the monstrous violence that disrupts and destroys the lives and dreams of ordinary people.

Garpastum is organized around a set of intersecting crises in the spheres of family, society, and art at the dawn of the modern world. Pervasive family conflicts and dysfunction suggest a dual crisis of values for the intelligentsia and a breakdown of the patriarchal family under the pressure of modern hedonism, liberated sexuality, and the culture of sport. Andrei, the egoist and sexual hedonist who would rather play soccer than study for a profession, is the film’s symbol of the crisis of the traditional intelligentsia’s values of education and service. The dysfunction of the middle-class family is represented through an absent mother, a catatonic father, a sick uncle unable to fulfill the role of the family patriarch, and a generation gap that renders meaningful communication between the brothers and their surrogate parents virtually impossible.

Ultimately, German sees the crisis of the family as a microcosm for an entire society in crisis. His film views the social crisis, as one would expect, obliquely. One of the young soccer buddies, Shust, serves as the guide to the underside of Russian society of the period. As they walk through a working-class neighborhood to meet the Tatar merchant who will sell them the field for their soccer stadium, the brothers, obviously seeing this part of town for the first time, are horrified at the poverty, the filth, and the human degradation. Shust says, significantly, “this is where I come from, but you’ve never thought about it, never noticed it.” German’s point is less the shocking poverty of pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg than the blindness of the middle-class to the reality of the lives of the poor in their midst. The fact that the violence that destroys the brothers’ dreams originates in this world is, of course, not coincidental.

The final crisis of the film concerns the status of art in the modern world. For Andrei, Anitsa’s salon is about the sexual, not artistic, revolution, and his inability to recognize the significance of Blok (Gosha Kutsenko) and the other members of the salon suggests a growing gap between artist and audience. Both Blok and Anitsa, by comparison, recognize that the war represents the end of an era. And Blok goes on to suggest the possibility that his generation’s assumptions about the centrality of art and the intelligentsia are mistaken: if they suddenly were to disappear, would anyone notice? Blok’s final appearance at the very end of the film—destitute, hungry, hopeless, and still unrecognized by the brothers—suggests the truth of his fears. Andrei repeats Blok’s question: “when did the end of the epoch begin?” and, egoist to the end, adds that he doesn’t really care.

In this vision of a Russia marked by poverty and criminality, middle-class apathy towards the poor, the hedonistic cult of sport, the decline of traditional morality and of the prestige of art, and heading towards an unimaginable historical calamity, German has created a double image: not only a snapshot of Russia on the eve of 1917, but an allegory of the contemporary post-Soviet world as well. But German refuses to resolve the central question raised by the film: does the brothers’ attempt to escape from the political problems of the larger society contribute to the tragedies that Russia will experience? Or is private life the only refuge for ordinary people caught up in historical calamities beyond their control? What is clear, however, is German’s consistently tragic sense that life is more about suffering and surviving than about attaining dreams.

Tony Anemone (College of William and Mary)

Garpastum, Russia, 2005
Color, 118 minutes
Director: Aleksei German, Jr.
Screenplay: Oleg Antonov, Aleksandr Vainshtein, with the participation of Aleksei German, Jr.
Cinematography: Oleg Lukichev
Art Director: Georgii Kropachev, Sergei Rakutov
Cast: Evgenii Pronin, Danila Kozlovskii, Dmitrii Vladimirov, Aleksandr Bykovskii, Chulpan Khamatova, Iamze Sukhitashvili, Pavel Romanov, Gosha Kutsenko
Producer: Aleksandr Vainshtein
Production: V.K.—Company, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Aleksei German Junior: Garpastum, 2005

reviewed by Tony Anemone© 2006

Updated: 27 Mar 06