KinoKultura: Issue 69 (2020)

Aleksei German’s Historical Representations of Realities of the War in Trial on the Road and Twenty Days Without War

By Assiya Issemberdiyeva 

When Russia and the former Soviet republics commemorate the anniversary of the end of World War II and the victory in the Great Patriotic War, TV channels habitually display war films, old and new, celebrating Russian/Soviet military prowess and glorifying jingoism and human sacrifice in the name of the Motherland. The majority of these films admittedly offers a cliched representation of the war and faceless heroes. Only a few films offer a truthful depiction of historical time and human psyche; Aleksei Iu. German’s Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh, 1971) and Twenty Days Without War (Dvadtsat’ dnei bez voiny, 1976) are among them.

Aleksei Iur’evich German (1938-2013) was one of the most prominent Russian filmmakers; some critics considered him as “Tarkovsky’s artistic equal” (Maguire 2015), others defined him as “a progressive modernist” (Sicinski 2015). His films are regarded as the most mature statements of the turning points of Soviet/Russian history (Anemone 2007, 203). However, his dissent from official ideology and the grip of Soviet censorship have prevented his works from reaching an audience; hence his popularity hardly reached beyond Russian film circles. German’s debut, co-directed with Grigorii Aronov, The Seventh Fellow Traveler (Sed’moi sputnik, 1968) revisited the wake of the Soviet era. It coincided with the Stagnation, “a period in the USSR the least appropriate for films emphasizing reflection over action” (Youngblood 2007, 107). The film was banned, as well as German’s first individual directorial experience, Trial on the Road. Made in 1971, the latter remained shelved for fifteen years “for its alienating depiction of Soviet soldiers” (Sicinski 2015). German’s next work Twenty Days Without War was released with difficulties and did not enjoy success with audiences either. Nor did his later works My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Moi drug Ivan Lapshin, 1984, released 1986), Khrustalev, My Car! (Khrustalev, mashinu!, 1998) and Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt’ bogom, 2013), which nevertheless won him a reputation as one of the most complicated filmmakers. The degree of stylistic complexity of his works admittedly increased with each film and reached its climax in Hard to Be a God. His later works, accordingly, are more popular with scholars (Rifkin 1992; Iampol’skii 1999; Berezovchuck 2005; Maguire 2015; Levchenko 2015).

trial on the roadThis essay will focus on his earlier films Trial on the Road and Twenty Days Without War. They are rarely analyzed (Iampol’skii 2010), but are significant in that they carry German’s sensitivity to time, memory, historical representation and film language. Both films are devoted to the Great Patriotic War, but they deal with the subject in a manner that rather deviates from Soviet war film conventions: their language challenges Soviet war films, questioning Soviet values in the subtext.

German’s sensitivity to historical reality became his hallmark (Anemone 2007; Sicinski 2015). The prominent film historian Evgenii Margolit compared German’s films to a snapshot, which is being reviewed several decades later: “what is crucial is the sense of personal connection to the past that the director aspires to convey” (quoted in Levchenko 2015). This “connection to the past” possibly derives from the filmmaker’s father’s influence: the prominent Soviet writer, Iurii German. German’s films are based on either his father’s works (Trial on the Road, My Friend Ivan Lapshin), or on texts of his father’s contemporaries (Twenty Days Without War and Hard to Be a God are based on Konstantin Simonov’s and the Strugatski Brothers’ works respectively), or on his childhood memories of his father’s life (Khrustalev, My Car!). Thus, thematically he maintained a link with the spiritual experience of the generation of the 1930s: he held that present Russia “is not interesting” (German 1999). By conveying this generation’s picture of historical understanding (Berezovchuck 2005), the filmmaker reflected on the vast historical shifts of the tragedies of twentieth-century Russia (Anemone 2007, 204).

Cinema’s ability to represent history should be addressed here. However realistic they seem, films “capture only the appearance of things, their mere image. Images of reality are not the reality, and may very well misrepresent, or even systematically conceal, reality” (Falzon 2015). German was very aware of the limitations of film as a medium and its existing language. Likewise, he was concerned about Soviet cinema’s representation of war. This led the director to search for new ways of expression, and he became more attentive to backgrounds, thereby capturing palpable “fabrics of reality” on screen. This is the focus of this essay, which outlines Soviet war film conventions along with the cinematic language and subtexts of Trial on the Road and Twenty Days Without War. Also, I attempt to look at German’s statements regarding war films, time, memory, and pictorial depiction of reality in general as exemplified in Twenty Days Without War.

Film has been regarded as a source of history, or historiography, fairly recently (Chapman 2013, 74-78). Historian Robert Rosenstone (2006, xvii) arguably claimed that film—despite its representational character—is equal to written history. It is undeniable that films are “increasingly important in our understanding of history” (Rosenstone 2006, 3). The fact that Soviet films, war films being no exception, were subject to a high degree of manipulation (Taylor 1979, 15) raises questions of their credibility as historical sources. Soviet war film has undergone several stages of development and the war has been assessed from different viewpoints over time (Lawton 1992, 5). According to Denise J. Youngblood (2007), the most noticeable patterns of wartime cinema can be classified as the call for a sacrifice for the Motherland at the beginning of the war; hero-centered inspirational films towards the end of the war; and films that show gratitude to father Stalin for the victory after the war.

20 daysUnder the circumstances in which the USSR met the war—unprepared and therefore suffering enormous losses—the “realistic depiction of the carnage at the front was out of the question” (Youngblood 2007, 58). At the outbreak of the war, the inhumanity of German soldiers, the strength of the Soviet people, and women’s role in the war were highlighted: Our Girls (Nashi devushki, 1942), She Defends the Motherland (Ona zashchishaet rodinu, 1943), The Rainbow (Raduga, 1943), Dark is the Night (Odnazhdy noch’iu, 1944), Zoya (1944).Women characters had to embody and promote the readiness to die in the name of the Motherland. Films set at the home front dealt with “good women who wait” (Wait for Me [Zhdi menia, 1943])and children deprived of childhood(Once There Was a Girl [Zhila-byla devushka, 1944]).

Once it became clear that the Soviets could actually win the war, filmmakers turned to male characters, depicting them as steadfast men of courage. Some films were concerned with soldiers’ brotherhood, such as Two Warriors (Dva boitsa, 1943) and Moscow Skies (Nebo Moskvy, 1944); others with the need for society to embrace disabled veterans, emphasizing the spiritual over the physical, such as Six o’clock in the Evening After War (V shest’ chasov vechera posle voiny, 1944). If all the characters were devout patriots at the outset of war, the presence of some collaborators was gradually acknowledged, even if still in black and white contrasts: the latter were considered traitors with no chance for forgiveness, as seen in The Regional Party Secretary (Sekretar’ raikoma, 1944) and Invasion (Nashestvie 1944).

From 1948 onwards politics changed, highlighting the only hero: Stalin. Ordinary men and women “vanished from screen” (Woll 2000, xii), with the focus shifting to the Great Leader. If up to this point war films implied that “Soviet people are great,” from the late forties onward the message became: “Stalin is great,” as in The Third Blow (Tretii udar, 1948), The Battle of Stalingrad (Stalingradskaia bitva, 1949),and The Fall of Berlin (Padenie Berlina, 1949).

The fact that 20 million Soviet citizens were killed during the war (much more than any other participating country, including Germany) demonstrates the huge losses suffered in every household. Stalinist cinema, therefore, tried to deconstruct the memory about the war, obliterate the extensive human loss, and compensate by offering screen experiences of the victorious war. This underlying ideology runs through all the films up to the Thaw, as the “strictly two-dimensional approach to the war” persisted (Gillespie 2003, 137).

After Stalin’s death and Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech (1956), destalinization marked the Thaw period. Youngblood (2007, 107-108) called this “a quiet cultural revolution” and defined its main features as “humanism” and “reflective questioning of received canons”. From this point of view, the victory was explained not only by the military prowess of comrade Stalin, but also by the humanism and kindness of the Soviet people at large. Soviet cinema regained its international reputation with Mikhail Kalatozov’s  The Cranes Are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957), Grigorii Chukhrai’s The Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, 1959), Sergei Bondarchuk’s The Fate of a Man (Sud’ba cheloveka, 1959), and Andrei Tarkovskii’ Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962).

The artistically fruitful Thaw was followed by the period of Stagnation. The General Secretary, Leonid Brezhnev, decided to remind filmmakers of the duty to promote patriotism and foster pride for the country, especially among the younger generation. The Stalin cult of the late 1940s was replaced by a cult of Great Patriotic War (Youngblood 2007, 106). In this period, light and popular films dominated the screen: Retribution (Vozmezdie, 1967), Shield and Sword (Shchit i mech, 1967–1968), Liberation (Osvobozhdenie, 1968–1971), And the Dawns Are Quiet Here (A zori zdes’ tikhie, 1972), They Fought for the Motherland (Oni srazhalis’ za rodinu, 1975).By the mid-seventies, the war cult was ubiquitous.

Realistic depiction of war events or artistic prowess were not the main concern: especially at the end of the 1960s, with the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution approaching, films were particularly checked by the Party in terms of ideological clarity. Liberally-minded directors were prevented from making films or found their works banned. In this disadvantageous period, German’s Trial on the Road was made. The film depicts Lazarev (Aleksandr Zamanskii) who served the Germans and returned to the Soviet side. Despite the suspicious and hostile reception of his compatriots, he eventually proves his loyalty by his death. In the Soviet context, even creating an unhappy hero demanded some bravery from filmmakers (Dallet 1992, 305). German went further, creating a traitor hero: “How could a Lazarev be allowed this heroic death?” (Youngblood 2007, 177) the censors would proclaim.

German was of course not the first filmmaker to investigate the fate of such “enemies of the people.” A decade earlier, Bondarchuk portrayed in The Fate of a Man the character Sergei Sokolov, an escaped prisoner of war. This was possible only because Khrushchev openly accused Stalin of sending POWs to the Gulag. Yet Sokolov is not an ordinary prisoner: he brings in a German major, adopts an orphan child, and adapts to the new reality. In doing so, he embodies “the inner strength and fortitude of the Soviet man” (Gillespie 2003, 137). The other film addressing this theme is Grigorii Chukhrai’s Clear Skies (Chistoe nebo, 1961). The protagonist Astakhov is a pilot who is captured by Germans, survives camps and finally returns home. He has a woman waiting, and a son whom he meets for the first time, but he suffers from social alienation. In the final sequence, Stalin’s death is announced and he wins his medal back, and with it society’s approval as well. As suggested earlier, films with such doubtful ideologies were released only thanks to the possibilities of Thaw. The Stagnation era was different, and least beneficial for such a theme. Lazarev’s acceptance by the state apparatus is quite impossible, because— unlike Sokolov and Astakhov—he wears a German uniform. Whereas Sokolov and Astakhov had no chance but to surrender, it is suggested that he chose the German side in order to stay alive.

trialHowever, by the time he appears, Lazarev has realized his true self. He has answered all the questions and is ready to take any risk to restore his Soviet identity. Lazarev’s firm behavior leaves no doubt about his veracity. Rather, it is Petushkov (Anatolii Solonitsyn), an eager adherent of official ideology, whose correctness is being tested. If he had appeared in a more conventional film, Petushkov could be portrayed positively: he is a typical Soviet war hero who chooses the collective over the individual without hesitation. His logocentric fever is suggested to be the consequence of his personal loss. But in the sequence where Lokotkov (Rolan Bykov) does not blow up the Germans along with a ship loaded with Soviet prisoners, he gets angry. His “callous disregard for life” (Gillespie 2003, 138) in this scene shows how humane sensibilities are numbed when the ideology of hatred takes over. As Gillespie (2003, 138) puts it: “It asks uncomfortable questions about […] the dehumanizing impact of ideology.” In contrast to Petushkov’s neurotic behavior or “paranoia” (Beumers 2007, 204), Lazarev is portrayed as a decent man. He never argues, but pointedly keeps silence. He never gives a sign of fear, he is uncomfortable to make excuses, but he claims the right to be mistaken—a luxury in the USSR. Soviet society had only white and black choices, where this film acknowledges other colors; so does the more balanced protagonist Lokotkov. In the confrontation of these two forms of patriotism, Lokotkov’s quiet humanism stays a winner.

Scholars have argued that Trial on the Road is a rather traditional war film. Mikhail Iampol’skii (1999) admitted the presence of “scholastic rules of Soviet genre dramaturgy” in the film; Buttafava (1992, 278) was disappointed that “courage hasn’t hit upon its form;” and Sicinski (2015) concluded that “it remains within Soviet film narrative.” Whilst agreeing with these opinions, it could nonetheless be argued that signs of new ways of structuring the narrative are already noticeable here.

trialAnemone (2007, 204) argues that Trial on the Road “became the prototype of a more honest and less ideological war movie.” This honesty comes from the filming, mise-en-scene, dialogue and acting and, most important, German’s attention to the background. The film opens with a silent scene on a rainy day, showing a man with a nosebleed in a medium shot. The next medium shot presents another sad-looking man. The following shots introduce the German soldiers pouring liquid on a pile of potatoes on the ground; one of them turns back and gets a cigarette. Then, an extreme long shot accommodates all of them. At this point, a voiceover starts the narration. This is the speech of an ordinary woman, a commoner, not of an actress. Its characteristic pronunciation gives credibility to the ongoing action. According to the voiceover, the Germans forced the people to dig up potatoes they had hidden, and then poured kerosene over the piles. Several villagers had subsequently eaten potatoes and died. While the voiceover proceeds, the sequence introduces the German soldiers taking away the peasants’ livestock. They load provisions into wagons and mark them. An extreme long shot opens onto an array of wagons along the railway, as the Germans continuing their job, and a watch-over in the deep focus. The film title comes to the fore: Trial on the Road. It is later recognized as the location of the critical “trial.” Contrary to expectations, the old people in prologue never appear again in the frame, nor does the owner of the anonymous voiceover. Conventionally, voiceover is used to unite components of film, but in Trial on the Road,it is needed to construct a realistic image of the war as if it was a documentary narration.

trialAleksei German’s often crowded background scenes are carefully composed: they form a fabric of reality. Traditionally, war films isolate characters and extract them from routines. In Trial on the Road people carry on worrying about prosaic affairs, regardless of the war. When attacking the Germans, one of the elderly partisans recognizes his cow and runs after it while bullets are flying around. When the German troops approach the village, an elderly woman collects her laundry regardless of bombs exploding around. While rushing to leave the village, one woman shuts the window, and an old woman carries an icon. Even Lokotkov, a petty officer, warms his feet in a bowl of hot water. Conventional films were concerned about how the war had changed everything and people forgot about their daily chores, but Aleksei German is more attentive to the human psyche.

German embraced a new way of filming: no pathos, no big words, merely the ordinary discourse of ordinary people. Trial on the Road is attentive to simple human needs, such as feeding and staying alive. There is an emphasis on the destitution of the Soviet side: malnourished partisans greedily observe the well-fed German soldiers, and a peasant woman (Maya Bulgakova) is not happy to see the partisans: “I will denounce on you, at least the fascists may give me food,” she says. Underlying hunger is decisive to the film’s context. While earlier war films had portrayed the Soviets as almost flawless machines feeding themselves on Stalinist ideas, Aleksei German reminds us of the people’s physiological needs. He opposes hunger to Lazarev’s decision to come back, thus highlighting that physiological needs come first, but in essence metaphysical suffering takes over.

Anemone (2007, 204) asserts that after Andrei Tarkovsky, German was the first Soviet filmmaker to deconstruct the Soviet war film. Whether German was the only director in a time period between him and Tarkovsky in that endeavor is arguable, but the fact that he deconstructed this genre is hard to deny.

20 daysGerman’s next film, Twenty Days Without War, rejects a linear narrative and the heroism of the previous film, and therefore marks a turning point in his filmography (Buttafava 1992, 278). The main character, Lopatin (Iurii Nikulin), is a military correspondent, whose writings are going to be filmed; for assistance with the filming has a holiday of twenty days in Tashkent. During these twenty days, he experiences wartime life away from the front and has a short affair with Nina Nikolaevna (Liudmila Gurchenko). If Trial on the Road is a deconstruction of front’s depiction, this is a de-heroization of life at the home front.

Aleksei German noted: “Elevating, embellishing, romanticizing someone is embarrassing. […] One deserves attention, without a fear of being disappointed” (German 2001). The film historian Iurii Khaniutin commented: “Lopatin is not an antihero but a not-a-hero” (cited in Youngblood 2007, 178). During the film shoot, the director comments: “I imagined you as a hero, with a big mustache.” Indeed, Nikulin’s Lopatin does not match the common picture of a frontline hero. He confesses that he had fired only three times during his frontline service, and is unlikely to kill anyone. Likewise, he fails at the home front: his wife divorced him while he was at the front and married another man. He is unable to express either positive or negative emotions, and is an unenthusiastic “spectator, not an activist” (Youngblood 2007, 178). In the famous scene where a fellow traveler shares with him his family troubles, Lopatin remains a passive listener. When he delivers Rubtsov’s belongings to his wife, she expels him with a cry: Lopatin imperatively leaves. When his ex-wife wants to sort out their relationship, Lopatin also retreats.

20 daysHis least visible, but most important feature is his alienation from those who surround him. He does not share their romanticized views about the war front. In a dinner scene, one of the actors asks Lopatin: “Do you feel enjoyment when you kill people?” He replies that this cannot be pleasing. One can guess that these characters, like the majority of Soviet citizens, were products of ideology. Lopatin cannot accept it, in the same way as Lokotkov could not do so in Trial on the Road: this is an ideology of hatred when every schoolboy dreams of killing a Nazi. Aleksei German’s protagonists stand for a more humane perspective. This is highlighted in the prologue, where an old soldier reflects: “Even Hitler, the dog, does not want to be killed. What to do: you have to kill, or you will be killed.”

Even the depiction of the war is different from conventional battle scenes. This is not a confrontation of courageous soldiers as present in many Soviet films, but one of mighty machines and vulnerable people. This was not the first occasion of such a portrayal of the war in Soviet cinema. The Ballad of a Soldier, for example, could be seen as a predecessor of this approach, as it literally opens with a sequence of a tank chasing a young soldier. In Twenty Days Without War, however, Lopatin’s perception of war resembles the perception of a sudden natural disaster, such as a tornado. The war has only limited screen time, portrayed briefly in the prologue and epilogue, as well as in the flashbacks. All of these are similar in structure: it was a quiet day (morning), nothing foretold troubles. An unexpected air attack or bombing caused chaos. Soldiers were rendered incapable of fighting, they can only hide in the soil. This explains Lopatin’s passivity, as well as his reflections on the nature of war. When military technology is involved in warfare, troops are dependent on the technical might of their armies. And the Soviets suffered from a lack of ammunition, which made individuals vulnerable. In this regard, Lopatin’s passivity could be interpreted as a comment on the mindset of Soviet military in general.

20 daysThe sense of reality that the film conveys derives from low-key lighting, a meticulous recreation of the locations, little use of non-diegetic music and other techniques each worth investigating in their own right. The degree of reality on screen that the filmmaker sought, however, was first and foremost facilitated by filming in a novel and uncommon way. His cinematographer Valerii Fedosov used unusually long takes. The famous scene with the actor Alexei Petrenko was shot in a single 11-minute take. German preferred black-and-white filmstock, insisting that historical reality can be expressed only in this mode: “True memories do not have color,” he maintained (German 2001).

Iampol’skii (2010, 171) has insisted on the “consciousness of the camera” in this film. He used as example a sequence in the train where the camera picks up “a random” subject and watches over it for some time, then it “gets bored” and picks up another subject. Across the entirety of this film the camera behaves unpredictably: it observes attentively the pilot’s sentiments; it follows Lopatin and Nina’s stroll while keeping its distance from them; it stops at some points and rests: occasional characters may pass across the frame in such proximity as if they were not aware of the presence of the camera. At some points, the camera is personalized, insomuch as casual characters look directly at it. In these cases, a viewer-voyeur is interrupted and surprised. German (2011) maintained that the “direct gaze” was necessary to enhance a sense of reality.

20 daysHistorical realism in Twenty Days Without War is woven from the minute details and nuances of everyday life. It is also evident in its use of sounds, voices, and dialogs. Jan Levchenko (2015) has pointed out that the characters experience difficulties when expressing their innermost desires or thoughts, since real events are indescribable, even unspeakable. In Twenty Days Without War,the characters are inept at verbal communication. Dialogues are not fully developed in the sense that conversations can end halfway, resembling a natural conversation. German provides everyone in the recorded space with a microphone. When filming the crowd, conventional filmmaking emphasizes the protagonists’ speech and the rest is turned into an unimportant buzz. Twenty Days Without War opens with an anonymous cough. When Lopatin waits for Nina Nikolaevna, the chat of a passing old man and woman can be heard. This approach is used several times when the protagonist is in public spaces; scraps of passersby’s conversations reach the viewer. They are justified, because the protagonist exists in this space and experiences it. German provides insights into his characters by paying careful attention to their surroundings. When Lopatin leaves the film set while saying goodbye to the director, a woman yells in the background: “I will not give these boxes to anyone, I am responsible for them.” Again, an underscored background contributes to the sense of reality that the film conveys: in ordinary life people are not highlighted, they are surrounded by equally important individuals, who would not cease to speak when the protagonist exits the scene.

trialHistorical time is portrayed by sounds, voices, and noises. In the prologue, when soldiers assemble around a dead lieutenant, a conversation in Russian is intermingled with foreign languages. In the train sequence, a song is heard in the background, sung by one of the passengers. This is not an Uzbek song, as some scholars have suggested (Levchenko 2015), but a Kazakh one: “Aittym Salem Kalamkas” is a song by Kazakh poet and composer Abai Kunanbaiuly, not randomly chosen. Originally called “Letter from a Young Man,” it expresses the longing for the beloved in epistolary form. In the context when Lopatin writes a letter on behalf of the pilot to his wife, this sounds relevant. There are national politics involved as well: most Soviet war films not only concentrated on Russian characters, but excluded non-Russians from the war, which bewildered the Soviet nationalities. By using sounds and voices only, German puts his characters into a multinational context. This is, admittedly, in accordance with historical facts, but unusual for cinema.

Meanwhile, the film does not claim that it offers the historical reality intact. It is self-consciously fiction. It opens and closes with a voiceover, which is not by the protagonist, but the author Konstantin Simonov talking about Lopatin. German’s characteristic techniques, such as the use of separate voiceover, emphasized background noises, black-and-white filming that have been discussed above were established in these two films and further developed in his later works.

trialIn Twenty Days Without War German reflected on such modes of capturing reality as film and photography, which contributes to the understanding of his sense of reality and his stylistic choices. Sicinski (2015) states that Twenty Days Without War is German’s “most direct statement about how the Soviet Union and cinema more generally, narrated itself,” noting that Soviet ideology tended to “treat complexities as if they were unproblematic.”

There are two episodes in the film concerned with filmmaking. Both emphasize the provisional artificiality of cinematic reconstruction of the period: studio sets with a great deal of lighting, clean walls and clean soldiers in clean outfits. All of this is unobtrusively contrasted with the apparent authenticity of Twenty Days Without War. While not pretending to offer the exhaustive truth of the time, the film nevertheless is more aware of reality and quietly makes a statement about conventional war films.

When on the set for the first time, Lopatin briefly notes: “There were fewer lamps, no tapchans, we were sleeping on boxes. But generally, it looks similar.” The director orders the crew to get rid of the tapchans. Next time Lopatin appears in the studio he is frustrated. “I sense falseness,” he comments. He argues that he had written of a woman who stayed at a cellar during the siege of Stalingrad, suggesting that this is in itself worth filming. Filmmakers, however, demand more drama and active characters. The director explains: “Movies cannot be made without a heroic deed.” This shows the typical understanding of the war film in the Soviet Union. Lopatin also has a brief dispute with the “never-have-been-at-the-front” film consultant, who protests: “Even when photographed, soldiers clean their uniform until it shines. This is a movie after all.” This is THE prevailing attitude to cinema, when a movie is a cleaned-up and comfortable version of life. Lopatin, as much as German himself, expects a more accurate depiction of reality.

trialThere is an astute comment on memory and the visual depiction of time in Lopatin’s flashback. In a medium shot, a soldier rests basking in the sun and talking; there is no sound, only the motif of the song “Nadya, Nadenka.” The camera turns around, passing a close-up of another soldier, and opening a medium long shot of a third soldier eating whilst perched on the crack of the ruined building. The next is a medium shot of Lopatin and Rubtsov, who chat while resting and looking aside. The following cut opens an extreme long shot of ruins in a deep focus. There are several soldiers, and an old lady accompanied by a girl, a goat, and children entering the frame. The camera comes back to Lopatin and Rubtsov, the latter handing his camera to the former, and leaving the frame. Lopatin lazily opens his eyes, takes the camera and sits down. A medium long shot of ruins follows, Rubtsov assembles the old lady, the girl, two children, and the goat for a photograph. An occasional passerby with two buckets of water hurries to leave the frame. For the first time in the sequence, a human voice is heard: “The shutter is tight, press harder!” yells Rubtsov. The old lady removes her headscarf, puts on a beret, the girl toys with her scarf, and the rest wait. A sudden whistle of a bomb interrupts this idle moment, everyone in frame hits the ground, Rubtsov taking a boy by the scuff of the neck, then another, screaming. The next shot reveals the wall falling in slow motion, leaving only dust behind. 

As Susan Sontag (2002, 15; 22) puts it, in a photograph a “precise slice of space as well as time” is frozen, which “testifies to time’s relentless melt.” She also holds that all photographs are memento mori (Sontag 2002, 15). In the photograph-sequence, German depicts an actual memento mori. This sequence is a direct comment on the essence of the pictorial representation of reality, be it a photograph or a film. Time and reality are as fragile as the wall ruined in the sequence. Andre Bazin (2005, 9) wrote about the “mummy complex” of art: “the preservation of life by a representation of life.” This seems to be the whole point of German’s films in general, and this sequence in particular.

As James Chapman (2013, 92) argues: “film is not a reflection but a representation of reality.” Although the camera is objective in itself, when a filmmaker stands behind, it switches to a subjective mode. An author or authors (be it producer, director, cinematographer, or scriptwriter) are re-presenters of the reality. From this perspective, German is a meticulous re-presenter of the period he deals with. The sequence of Rubtsov’s death explains German’s understanding of the fragility of time and the re-presenter’s responsibility towards it. His oeuvre is an attempt to preserve this reality: “When I die, […] the world which surrounds me and which is within me, will cease to exist. The only way of preserving it is to leave it on a piece of film,” he commented (German 1999). By weaving filming and photography into the narrative of the film, German demonstrates his view on the depiction of war and reality in general.

Soviet cinema knows no rivals with regards to the employment of film for ideological and propaganda purposes. Richard Taylor in his book Film Propaganda comments on the issue: Soviet ideology insisted that it was “not merely correct, but uniquely correct” (Taylor 1979, 16), hence anyone deviating from an approved discourse was accused of “suffering from an ailment called false consciousness” (ibid.). This was the prevailing mode, up to perestroika. Such Soviet film realities were not beneficial for maverick artists, but German had the perseverance to make unconventional films. Trial on the Road and Twenty Days Without War established his uncompromising attitude to filmmaking. He refused to contribute to the reckless cult of the war, and the clichéd glorification of jingoism, questioning instead Soviet ideology. His films, even when narratively compliant with the Soviet rules, challenged predominant ideas. Trial on the Road and Twenty Days Without War are less studied than German’s later works, but they are significant with regard to the degree of reality presented. In artistic terms, these films formed his approach and technique that would be further developed in his later works. Moreover, in these films German insisted on his idiosyncratic understanding of the role and the nature of cinema. The significance of these works has been noted by Sicinski (2015), who acknowledges that they are “not simply reflecting, but also helping to create the consciousness necessary to grapple with the contested past.”

Assiya Issemberdiyeva

Works Cited

Anemone, Anthony (2007). “My Friend Ivan Lapshin. Aleksey German, USSR, 1984.” In The Cinema of Russia and the Former Soviet Union ed. by Birgit Beumers, pp. 203-211. London: Wallflower Press.

Bazin, Andre (2004). What Is Cinema? Berkeley: University of California Press.

Berezovchuck, Larisa (2005). “Identifikatsiia vremeni. Ob ekrannim voploshenii istorii, proshlogo i pamiati v filmakh Alekseia Germana ‘Moi drug Ivan Lapshin’ i ‘Khrustalev, mashinu!’ Kinovedcheskie zapiski 76.

Beumers, Birgit, ed. (2007). The Cinema of Russia and the Former Soviet Union. London: Wallflower Press.

Buttafava, Giovanni (1992). “Alexei German, or the Form of Courage.” In The Red Screen: Politics, Society, Art in Soviet Cinema, ed. by Anna Lawton, pp. 264-275. London: Routledge.

Chapman, James (2013). Film and History. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dallet, Sylvie (1992). “Historical Time in Russian, Armenian, Georgian and Kirghiz Cinema.” In The Red Screen: Politics, Society, Art in Soviet Cinema, ed. by Anna Lawton, pp. 303-315. London: Routledge.

Falzon, Christopher (2015). Philosophy Goes to the Movies. An Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Routledge.

German, Aleksei (2001). “Pravda—ne skhodstvo, a otkrytie.” Iskusstvo kino 12.

German, Aleksei (1999). “Izgoniaiushii diavola.” Iskusstvo kino 6.

Gillespie, David (2002). Russian Cinema. New York: Longman.

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Assiya Issemberdiyeva  © 2020

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Updated: 2020