(director/writer: Alexei Guerman; screenwriter: story by Joseph Brodsky/Svetlana Karmalita; cinematographer: Vladimir Ilyne; editor: Irina Gorokhovskaya; music: Andrei Petrov; cast: Yuriy Tsuliro (General Klensky), Nina Ruslanova (Wife), Mickhail Dementyev (Son), P. Myasnikova (General’s Mother), G. Yanovskaya (General’s Sister), A. Bachirov (Idiot boiler repairman), Y. Yarvet (Swedish Reporter); Runtime: 150; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Guy Seligmann/Armen Medvedev/ Alexandre Golutva; Polygram Film Distribution; 1998-France/Russia-in Russian with English subtitles )

“One of the great Russian films about how the Soviet Union works as a police state.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An offbeat drama about life in Moscow in the 1950s, during the last days of Stalin. It’s a powerful visionary nightmare film depicting those turbulent times for the forgotten masses. The pic is shot in black-and-white cinematography, and took seven years to complete. The brilliant Leningrad directorAlexei Guerman(“My Friend Ivan Lapshin”/”Twenty Days Without War”/”Trial on the Road”) shoots an ambitious, hard-biting, brutal, and savagely comical period piece. It’s a political film that might not be all that lucid (its characters are only sketchily identified, its story is told as if a dream, its politics is not explained, its geography is vague), but the impenetrable film is nevertheless one of the great Russian films about how the Soviet Union works as a police state. It’s based on a story by Joseph Brodsky, Guerman co-writes it with Svetlana Karmalita.

In 1953, General Klensky (Yuriy Tsuliro), a former Red general, is a brain surgeon and the chief of Moscow’s premiere mental hospital. He’s a former alcoholic who lives in a chaotic household, which includes his wife (N. Ruslanova) and young son (M. Dementiev), twins, grandma (P. Myasnikova) and servants. He madly runs things as if he were a miniature Stalin, and has many mistresses. In an anti-Semitic purge, the General is arrested by the KGB and sent to the gulag, where he’s brutally gang-raped on the back of a truck taking him to his snow-bound prison. When Stalin is dying in a country house, Klensky’s services as a doctor are needed and he’s transported from the prison to treat the dictator in a last-minute effort to save him. When Stalin dies, his feared successor, Beria, returns the General to his family and his destroyed Moscow home. It finally concludes with the General on a train, seemingly going nowhere and seemingly not learning anything from the past. On the same train is the boiler repairman (A. Bachirov), a nobody who was arrested just prior to Klensky and now also is free but also not able to understand what he experienced.

The provocative film plays out as an anti-socialist realism film from the Soviet period, and in spirit is a mind-boggling free-spirited Fellini film that effectively but weirdly catches how grotesque life was under Stalin.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”