Stalin’s ghost in perestroika cinema: My Friend Ivan Lapshin

‘Stalin’s ghost in perestroika cinema’ is a series of articles that explores  the ways in which late Soviet cinema engaged with history and past, and in particular focuses on how the Stalinist years were portrayed in perestroika cinema.

>> Read the foreword

lapshinMoi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1984) is a film by Aleksei German that is loosely based on several literary works of his father, Iurii German, mainly on his 1938 novel Lapshin. In terms of its historical context, the film exists at the intersection between Brezhnev’s stagnation and Gorbachev’s reforms. Moi drug Ivan Lapshin was completed in the early 1980s, but was not perceived positively at its pre-screening at Lenfilm and was shelved. However, having made several changes to the film, German managed to secure its release few years later, when the political climate began to change. The film was released shortly prior to the Fifth Congress of the Union of Cinematographers, but nevertheless, is always conventionally considered a perestroika film and part of the cinematic new wave that was represented by the new films seeking to address taboo subjects and those films that were unshelved and released for public consumption after the decades of oblivion.

German’s treatment of his father’s novel Lapshin and his wish to re-examine the time period it portrays have resulted in a unique cinematic style that does not conform to audiovisual codes of the conventional historical feature film. German combines recognizable elements of documentary code — long takes with a hand-held camera, wide angles, natural sound,  avoidance of shot/reverse-shot editing, anticipatory narration with the features emphasizing fictional qualities of the film that are sound-image discontinuity, image distortion, interruption of natural time, and color sequences.

The film starts with the prologue, set in the present time and shot in colour, in which the camera is travelling through a room glancing over various objects, and the narrator’s voice addresses the viewer:

This happened long ago. Some things I remember myself, some were told to me by my father. I’m beginning to forget it all. … Memory obligingly conjures up forgotten faces, scraps of conversation. …  It’s my declaration of love for the people I lived with as a child, just a five-minute walk from here and half a century ago’.

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The film then switches to black and white and thus the second timeline is introduced. Set in 1935, it starts with the narrator as a little boy looking directly into the camera. The film’s prologue determines the narrator’s gaze as being directed from the present into the past; thus the film renders the past in the form of the narrator’s memory. The image track of the film is largely dominated by long duration shots in which the camera is often in motion, and these long travelling shots can be quite disorientating for the viewer, especially given the lack of establishing shots. The editing is also quite unconventional, and the film frequently cuts from one scene to another without any narrative coherence, thus episodes seem to be connected with each other by association rather than logic. These features of the image track of the film resemble the narrative mechanisms of a dream or human memory.

So the 1935 timeline of the film does not adhere to the classic narrative structure and can be loosely described as revolving around the attempts of the police brigade, headed by Ivan Lapshin, to capture a criminal gang. By adopting a narrative strategy that subverts the conventions of the socialist-realist text, Moi drug Ivan Lapshin produces a meaning that is in conflict with the interpretation of history typically provided by socialist-realist texts and thus re-evaluates the history of the period it depicts. Here, it is important to mention that Aleksei German’s father, Iurii German, was an orthodox communist and pro-establishment writer. The character of his novels, Ivan Lapshin, features in a number of German’s detective stories from the 1930s that are considered to be classics of socialist-realist literature. The novels depict Lapshin as a devoted communist who is passionate about his job, and the didactic political messages of the texts are easily decipherable. Iurii German’s sympathy for his main protagonist is unambiguous. However, the narrative strategy of Aleksei German’s film challenges the version of reality portrayed in his father’s novels and re-examines the history of the portrayed period.

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Iurii German’s novel Lapshin, true to the canons of the 1930s, is future-oriented, and its characters are striving to build communism and enter the glorious new world. The characters of Moi drug Ivan Lapshin are also full of hopes for the bright future. Lapshin remarks several times in the course of the film: ‘We’ll cleanse the earth and plant an orchard, and still be around to enjoy it’. However, the diegetic narrator, the audience, and — above all — the author of the film (Aleksei German) are all positioned outside the 1935 timeline and thus endowed with a superior knowledge about the future of the characters. Thus, it can be argued that the perspective of the author is ironic, considering the fact that the main characters of the film cannot be aware of what is to come (historically). At the same time, the author and the audience perfectly know that the year 1935 is two years before the beginning of Stalin’s Great Purge. Thus, the film denies these politically enthusiastic characters the bright future they hope for, embedding various omens of the looming terror throughout the narrative.

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Bearing in mind the time period the film is set in, the irritations and tensions between characters acquire a second meaning. An ominous subtext is created when Lapshin’s beloved, the actress Adashova, jokingly asks him to arrest her neighbours for bothering her, or when the housekeeper Patrikeevna threatens to denounce Lapshin’s subordinate and flatmate Okoshkin for consuming too much sugar. The film as if suggests the easiness with which these characters will be able to report on each other once the Great Terror is unleashed.

Another grim subtext is created by evoking the Soviet famine of 1932-1933, a result of the government’s forced collectivization. Two episodes in the film implicitly suggest that the gang Lapshin is after is smuggling in human meat: the sequence in which frozen bodies are removed from an underground cellar by Lapshin and his associates and the sequence in which a local butcher is interrogated (the dialogue suggests that he helped the gang to dismember the bodies). This grim everyday reality is in stark contrast with Lapshin’s vision of the new world he wants to build.

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The grim reality is also juxtaposed to the idealized world of a play which is being staged in the local theatre. By having a theatre troupe staging Nikolai Pogodin’s Aristokraty (The Aristocrats, 1934), a socialist-realist play about the rehabilitation and coming to political consciousness of criminals working on the White Sea canal, German polemicizes with the rose-tinted view of reality offered by socialist-realism and contrasts this widely accepted vision of the 1930s with the diegetic world of his own film. Thus, Moi drug Ivan Lapshin became one of the first cinematic visions that not only dared to deconstruct the myth that surrounded the Stalin’s years, but also challenged the way the period was commonly represented in the socialist-realist cultural output.

>> Read the next article Fantasy: Mirror for the Hero

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