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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Film World Hails 'Khrustalyov, My Car!'

ST. PETERSBURG -- "You all watch the movie while I run away, because I am scared of answering your questions afterwards," said director Alexei German before the first Russian screening of his latest film, "Khrustalyov, Mashinu!" ("Khrustalyov, My Car!").

His anxiety was understandable: The film bombed at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival to the extent that half the audience walked out in the middle.

But this time, German need not have worried, for the invitation-only audience that piled into the Avrora cinema last Friday hailed the film with excited applause.

"It's one of the best films ever made," critic Mikhail Trofimenkov said. "It's a reminder to Russian cinema of certain standards that need to be maintained, and which all too often aren't."

"Khrustalyov, Mashinu!" lasts 140 minutes and follows the fortunes of an army medical general at the time of the "Doctors' Plot," Stalin's final flurry of paranoia before he died in March 1953.

The film perfectly conveys the macabre atmosphere of the last days of Stalinist Russia, with all the attendant atmosphere of fear and not a little absurdity.

The general, played by Yury Tsurilo - a fairly obscure theater actor from Novgorod - falls prey to the purge, is arrested, gang-raped in a prison truck by a group of convicts (probably the most naturalistic and revolting scene in Russian cinema to date) and brought the very next day to Stalin's dacha in order to examine the dying leader. The title of the film refers to secret police chief Lavrenty Beria's command to his chauffeur, after he had made sure that the tyrant was really dead.

"The cruelty is so intricate and so fanatical," Trofimenkov said. "Poor Tsurilo ... They all but shove a spade handle up his backside, they beat his ears with boots for real and put him naked in icy water for real. They didn't even let him grease his bald patch first [to keep out the cold]."

Apart from the main plot, there are plenty of subplots and a plethora of memorable characters, who find themselves in various situations in Moscow's dark, snowy streets and huge, maze-like kommunalki.

Authentic down to the last detail, at times the film inconspicuously slips into the realm of the surreal.

"There are different forms of art: There is Beckett, there is Kharms, there is Goya - and all of them are realists," German said. "Believe me, Fellini is much more of a realist than any of our 'great realists.' We live in a fantastic, phantasmagoric world. ... The depiction of a man going somewhere, dropping by a bakery, returning home and going to bed is not realism at all. [If] someone was to relate the circumstances of his life, they would all be phantasmagoric."

After the Cannes disaster, "Khrustalyov, Mashinu!" became a cult movie when it was subsequently released in France, and received rave reviews from the same papers that had earlier attacked it.

"Liberation gave me a front-page apology," German said.

"The more demanding a director is, the easier it is to work with him," said Alexander Bashirov, who acts in the film. "Of course, it was hard physically, but as a creative act it was a slow ascent into ecstasy."

"Khrustalyov" is German's fifth film. His most famous movies are the still hugely popular "Proverka na Dorogakh" or "Traffic Stop" (made in 1971, but banned until 1986) and "Moi Drug Ivan Lapshin" or "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" (shot in 1982, released in 1985).

German prefers to dispense with color and, true to form, he shot "Khrustalyov" on black and white Kodak film.

"I think cinema was wrong when it switched from black and white to color, because it hadn't reached the limits of black and white cinema."

"Don't think that this is a gloomy, scary, anti-Russian movie," said the director. "Some day it will be funny. This movie was done with love ... We were just trying to emulate the genius of Gogol and Beckett."