Tag Archives: Totalitarianism

READER RECOMMENDATION: KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! (1998)

Reader recommendation by Giles Edwards

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey German

FEATURING: Yuriy Tsuliro, Nina Ruslanova, Mickhail Dementyev

PLOT: General Klensky, the head of a prestigious Moscow mental hospital in 1950s Soviet Russia, tries to evade KGB agents before he’s captured and forced to help the authorities in their last ditch effort to save a dying Josef Stalin.

Still from Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With each cluttered frame stuffed with inky blacks and smoky whites, the nightmarish reality of Stalin’s last “Terror” makes for uneasy viewing as a nightmarish hellscape seeps ever more into the cruelty of the tragically mundane. This reality is made both more real and more unpleasant by the inclusion of the dissonant sound track.

COMMENTS: It took nearly a decade for Aleksey German to put together this ordeal of a movie about the last of Stalin’s great purges just before the demise of the Soviet Union’s ruthless dictator. The nightmare of pursuit lasts three days for the heavy-handed but sympathetic General Kensky, who rules like a benevolent counterpart to “Uncle Joe,” presiding over his medical facility in a cognac-fueled display of ordered madness. Surrounded by the grotesque (be it in the chaos of his hospital or the sinister order provided by the black-sedan riding apparatchiks), Kensky uncovers a plot to stage his fall from grace before fleeing to the home of a sympathetic former nurse. Disappearing at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen and being spirited away in the back of a “Soviet Champagne” truck, he meets with the bed-ridden, stroke-afflicted leader before his own disappearance is arranged for good.

The entire atmosphere of the film is made of deeply black blacks and sodium-light bright whites. Steam and disorder fill the interiors, while outside the tainted white of snow and dark sheen of the KGB’s cars make for an incongruous combination of the harshest of whites and darkest of blacks. Innocents are randomly round up (one unfortunate, in the wrong place and the wrong time, is unceremoniously dumped into the trunk of one of the ever-present black cars), and a fearful citizenry makes itself complicit with the state sponsored terror, hoping their compliance will direct the authorities’ suspicion and ire elsewhere.

What makes this movie weird is how it manages to capture society at its most grotesque. There are other movies that have individual images that are more troubling, but this film’s continuous streak of casual violence, cruel misfortune, and unsettling monotony of sadism in a fearful society grinds on for well over two hours of hyper-realism.

The soundtrack consists of oblique conversations continually interspersed with the sound of spitting, sneezing, blowing noses, grunts and all manner of human-noise unpleasantness. While no doubt this is realistic, the constant reminder of people’s bodily sounds makes the soundtrack seem more of a heightened reality: we see (and, more so, hear) humanity in all its discourteous glory.

German was a contemporary of (of Andrei Rublev and Stalker fame). But whereas Tarkovsky saw the grittiness of reality and transformed it into a primordial poetry that bordered on spiritual, German takes the opposite route and ground his films so thoroughly in the depths of the hellishly mundane, it is almost as if one is seeing and hearing Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, but without the “Delight” (or even, for that matter, the “Garden”).

This movie was finished just before the Putin era began: made between the early and late ’90s, along with a number of other introspective post-Soviet Films. One becomes weary in the soul watching the hell this doctor and patriarch goes through in the name of the grisly interpretation of Soviet idealism that was Joseph Stalin’s Russia. The ostensibly uplifting movement of Soviet Realism in film is given a punch to the gut in this vision of nightmare turned into real-life.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the most disturbing Russian films of all time, Khrustalyov, mashuni (Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998) provides the audience with a firsthand experience of the madness, paranoia and absurdity that pervaded Moscow during the final days of Stalin’s regime.”–Greg Dolgopolov, Senses of Cinema

115. A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND GUESTS (1966)

O slavnosti a hostech

“When one lives in a society that is essentially not free, it is the obligation of every thinking person to attack obstacles to freedom in every way at his disposal.”–Jan Nemec

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ivan Vyskocil,

PLOT: Seven people are pleasantly picnicking by a stream when they see a festive bridal party in the distance; they wonder if they can join in the celebration. Later, walking through the woods, a gang of men accosts them and takes them to a clearing where the leader interrogates them without explaining why. The bully’s adoptive father shows up, apologizes for the son’s crude behavior, and invites the party to the outdoor bridal banquet; the older man becomes upset, however, when one of the invitees decides to leave the party and strike off on his own…

Still from A Report on the Party and Guests (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Even under the relatively liberal 1967 Czechoslovakian regime, The Party and Guests was banned (at the same time as ‘s Daisies) because it had “nothing in common with our republic, socialism, and the ideas of Communism.” The movie was briefly exhibited during the Prague spring of 1968 then banned again after the Soviet invasion. In the second round of censorship, hardline President Antonín Novotný honored Party and Guests by naming it one of four films that were “banned forever” in the dictatorship.
  • The movie was filmed quietly and quickly in five weeks because director Jan Nemec was afraid that authorities would shut down the production.
  • Party and Guests was accepted in competition for the 1968 Cannes film festival, but the festival was cancelled that tumultuous year out of solidarity with striking French workers and students.
  • The common English translation of the title O Slavnosti a Hostech adds a pun on “party” (both a celebration and a political association) that wasn’t present in the original Czech. The American title also adds the word “report” (the British released it as simply The Party and the Guests).
  • None of the cast were professional actors; most were artists and intellectuals who held “counter-revolutionary” political views. Jan Klusák (who makes quite an impression as the bullying Rudolph) was a composer who scored many of the Czech New Wave movies (including Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), and later made music to accompany Jan Svankmajer shorts. Director Evald Schorm (“House of Joy“) plays the guest who decides to leave the party. This bit of casting suggested to the authorities that the film was a protest of their decision to ban one of Schrom’s previous films.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The idea of a functionary sitting behind a desk, your fate in his hands and an enigmatic grin on his face, is the preeminent vision of bureaucratic totalitarianism from the 20th century. The incongruous twist A Report on the Party and Guests puts on this disquieting picture is to set up that desk in the middle of an open forest glade, with birds chirping merrily in the background.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When discussing A Report on the Party and Guests, every critic is required to use two words: “allegorical” and “Kafkaesque.” The second descriptor explains why this quietly disturbing examination of senseless conformity earns its place on the List of the best weird movies ever made. After watching this quietly absurd totalitarian nightmare, I can pretty much guarantee you will scratch Report on the Party and Guests off your list of possible wedding themes.


Short clip from A Report on the Party and Guests

COMMENTS: Understated to the point of madness, A Report on the Party and Guests slips Continue reading 115. A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND GUESTS (1966)