Aleksei Gherman’s legendary My Friend, Ivan Lapshin (Moj drug Ivan Lapshin) has been called by Andrei Tarkovsky and many Russian critics, both Soviet and post-Soviet, the greatest Soviet film ever made. Its complex, stormy vision of drab provincial life in Soviet Russia has the visual elan to drug, and the power to sweep away, the viewer. I am sorry to say that the film left me cold. There’s no question that the film is great. There is some question, though, whether anyone needs to see it. It doesn’t strike me as essential, as did, for instance, Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Autumn (1960), which I left the same sick bed to go see at the movies the night before. Dazzlingly brilliant, My Friend nonetheless afforded scarcely a moment of pleasure to justify my years of anticipation of one of cinema’s most heralded accomplishments.
The film is set in a fictional provincial town, Unchansk, in 1935, that is, shortly before the Stalinist purges. The titular and main character is police investigator Ivan Lapshin, who shares his communal flat with several others, including the boy who (as an adult voiceover) remembers and narrates, who lived there with his father, presumably Gherman’s own father, Yuri, upon whose stories of the time his son’s film is based. (In actuality, the filmmaker wasn’t born until 1938.) But the narrative plays with time, and in fact we see the film, alternately, both in the 1930s and the 1980s, between which times too little has changed. Most of the film is in black and white (and, I might add, different kinds, different exposures, of black and white), but the present—the 1980s—sometimes is signaled by gorgeous, dark, richly evocative color inserts in panoramic long shots. (The cinematographer is Valeri Fedosov.) For those who cherish keeping their moorings, a warning: the black-and-white material itself traverses the alternative points of temporal inquiry. If you start off with a fever, as I did, you end up certain it’s a brain tumor.
Gherman may be playing with time, but he isn’t playing games with his audience. The confusions are to the point since one of the film’s themes is the psychology of memory. In this instance, memory is hampered not only by the passage of time but also by the persistence of harsh socioeconomic conditions over time, thus eliminating, by implication, the points of normal reference that might better distinguish one time from another. Formally, it’s a sophisticated procedure that Gherman employs, and had I been a tad healthier I might have been fit to meet its challenges. As it is, at times the film’s parallel universes of different times made me hanker for the clarity of the parallel universes in the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix (1999).
There are three principal aspects to the action, in all of which Lapshin is central. One, along the lines of a play by Chekhov, Gorky or O’Neill, is the social interaction of the inhabitants in Lapshin’s flat. The most trenchant character in this environment, who is magnificently played by an actor whose name I wish I could give you, is Khanin, Lapshin’s friend who is half out of his mind following the death of his wife from typhus. (The actor playing this role, one of you kind readers has informed me, is Andrei Mironov.) Khanin is to this film what Romanych Chebutykin is to The Three Sisters or Harry Hope is to The Iceman Cometh: a touchstone for the artist’s take on the human condition. Khanin is also involved in another aspect of the action. Natasha Adashova, a young member of the troupe that’s in town to play in the local theater, falls in love with Khanin; but Lapshin has fallen in love with Natasha, and his courting her lends the film some comedy. In this frame of reference, Lapshin is gentle and likeable, but he is also, recall, a member of Stalin’s police, and he is anything but gentle in the third principal aspect of action in the film: Lapshin at work. On the job, he is a cold, brutal man whose current assignment is to track down a gang of hoodlums that’s trading in human meat. When, wounded by Lapshin’s gunshot, one of the gang members finally gives himself up pleading “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” Dirty Ivan shoots him dead. Lapshin could pull up a chair in the barroom that’s America.
Critics are divided as to what this all means about Ivan Lapshin. Is Gherman whitewashing the Soviet police by not showing them going after ordinary citizens, or is he demonstrating by metaphor state police brutality? But more is involved here than metaphor, for the gangsters are, on the one hand, driven to their viciousness by the dire nature of Soviet economic conditions and, on the other, hunted down and murdered by the police for their viciousness. It’s a losing state of affairs.
Still, Gherman hedges his bets formally. The climactic gunfight at the U.S.S.R. Corral includes extraordinary tracking shots; but their effectiveness would have been that much greater had Gherman earlier not overused his tracking camera, thus robbing the shots of their unique character when they finally arrive at a real purpose and point. Gherman, earlier, tracks simply because he can, and his showiness costs him points at the end. Nor am I as impressed as are others by all the times a tracking camera follows the characters just to reiterate a child’s point of view. There’s a lot of formal messiness in the film before Gherman “pulls it all together.”
Andrei Boltnev is sturdy as Ivan Lapshin. Now, someone tell me, please, who plays Khanin, for he’s the actor who steals the show by giving it a human heart.