this over-long text was written last winter, at a time when i was attempting to distract myself from a pretty shit period of windowless work. i’ve made a few attempts to edit it, and to give it some vague tracery of organs and bones. it is by no means ‘finished.’ sorry.
'the remarkable, indeed, unprecedented fusion of private bodies and state ideology'
- Keith Livers
‘from our ugliness will grow the soul of the world.’
- Andrei Platonov
The image itself has become iconic, though for ill-fated reasons. Taken sometime before April 1939, the photograph depicts Josef Stalin — then leader of the Soviet Union — leaning the bland thickness of his body toward the right-hand side of the frame, pivoting toward a scrum of washed-out space—white, and grey; with the accent of moving water. Behind him stand other bodies, concentrating our attention not on the USSR’s leader but on the space he does not occupy—an emptiness at the right of the frame. Of course, an earlier version of the photo—the original—tells a different story. In it, a uniformed political officer (Nikolai Yezhov, then commissar for water transport) stands, smiling, at Stalin’s side, filling what, in the secondary image, is but white space—emptiness, an absence.
When Yezhov fell from grace, and was eventually purged—murdered by the state on February 4, 1940—it was ‘necessary’ to obliterate not only the man, but to erase his image from the visual culture of the Soviet Union itself. As a former head of the NKVD, Yezhov had been responsible for the increased acceleration and brutality of the same ‘organs’ that would ultimately destroy him. The snake swallowed its own tail - and then choked on it.
In many ways, Soviet-era art was obsessed with the evacuation and disappearance of real, physical bodies, and the leveraging of imaginary bodies that would take their place—mirroring the political mechanisms that made it possible to render a thing once present to become ‘gone.’ Any number of accounts of the Great Terror (which reached its malignant peak in 1937, under the aforementioned Yezhov) reference how people—as soul-filled bodies—were taken away in the middle of the night; their disappearance signalled by the arrival of ‘Black Marias’ (the NKVD’s signature oil-dark cars) that would come for them. Driverless, riderless mobilities. The action of footsteps—the runners never seen—pounding up and down the stairs of communal apartments, doing the work of reduction that would see targeted individuals taken out, removed, and brought to ‘rest’ within the walls of Lubyanka prison, or else further afield—in the gulags. Solzhenitsyn speaks of persons handed the sentence of ‘Ten Years Without Correspondence.’ It is a kind of double-talk, implying, or standing-in-for, execution (which is another form of subtraction - this time from the body politic). The dead cannot write. The dead are animated, made invisible, and have their hands taken away from them. This, the story of bodies made transparent, evacuated, denied; as if they never existed in the first place.
All of this comes to a head with the recent remastering of Aleksei German’s 1998 film Khrustalyov, My Car! Released originally eight years after the fall of the Soviet Union, German’s sprawling and chaotic project gorges itself on the historical and experiential absurdities of the Great Terror, and does—what it was free to do, in that post-bolsh vacuum—the work of restoring previously absent bodies to the Russian past. If everything before 1990-91 had been about evacuating the Soviet imaginary of unwanted physical detritus, and of asserting a preferred mass corporeality—think the muscle-bound Stakhanovite, or Shock Worker—then the period after those images had been flushed away allowed German to crawl back inside the putrefying corpse of Stakhanov in order to wrestle with its (by this point inhuman) guts. German, in everything he did, wanted nothing more than to embody Soviet Gore. So let’s talk about Soviet Gore.
German’s films are characterized by their immediacy; by which I mean, the proximity and combineedness of bodies, and the foregrounding of their being-corporeal (by which I mean, assertively, unmistakably, of the body). Imagine 17th c French baroque painter Pouisson’s canvases brought to life on film—where multitudes of bodies are seen to clamber, thicket-like, over one another; stuffing the frame. Characters frequently break the fourth wall, staring directly into the camera; incidental figures waltz onto set, the camera only obliquely capturing their actions. The centre of gravity—the centre of the frame—is rarely the most privileged or most important area. We’re made aware that events are continually happening off-screen, and that the camera is an Eye (in the truest sense of Vertov), which is merely attempting its best to sop up everything it can. It is both total and incomplete; we are seeing everything of life, but only capturing glimpses and wayward elements of it.
“I thought in a film that the most important thing was who was looking where.” This is how Aleksei German describes his methodology in a 1998 interview in Kinoeye, as conducted by Ronald Holloway. It is a sprawling conversation, marked by its unusually Russian quality of being about people—that is, about German’s father (the author and reporter, Yuri German), and about the people he worked with, trained under, assisted for. Hit stop, think about this. “Who,” and “where.” German’s films are always about people looking, even if that in itself is a redundant observation (film is, after all, the act of looking-at—the eye, sensu Vertov, being coincident with the camera’s lens), but there’s a particular ferocity to this looking—to the frequency with which his characters so defiantly break the fourth wall, looking down the maw of the lens, at us, looking at them. And it’s not frequent, or privileged; ancillary, entirely irrelevant background characters may wander into view—chewing, mouths slack, laughing—to stare us down. Others may be entirely oblivious to our being there. So much is going on, after all.
German’s final film, Hard to be a God, would remain uncompleted at his death (the project eventually being finished by his son). Numbingly long, physically disorienting, and violent in the extreme, the project stands testament to the unique visual world the auteur created since his arrival to Soviet cinema in 1967. Based, loosely, on a novel by the infamous Strugatsky brothers (recall, they authored the novel that inspired Tarkovsky’s own Stalker), the film concerns a group of scientists who go undercover on a planet where a medieval, humanoid society has emerged. Posing as princes and priests, the scientists confront the absurdities and painful survivalism needed to get by in a world dominated by religious mania, appaling violence, poverty, and social collapse. One particular scientist—fulfilling the role of a local baron, Don Renata—loses all sense of sense and proportion, diving headfirst—mouth stretching open—into this world of prodigious and abundant extremism. In a languorous and deadly pursuit of an ‘intellectual’ (a man of brute science, who subsequently turns out to be a disappointing fool), Renata will go on to commit an act of astonishing genocide against an ‘enemy’ city. The shocking cynicism of the film—where nothing can drag itself out of the muck in which it stands—remains one of its most painful messages.
Amongst the churning chaos of sound and vision in Hard to be a God, it can be difficult to extract what stands of its narrative. In many ways, we’re launched into an intentionally ambiguous environment—abducting us from the narrative norms of more conventional and linear films. We are, in this way, inserted into the mele itself; as confused as those characters who wander, uncertain, poised on the fringes of death, into the camera’s disoriented frame.
It’s no exaggeration to say that with his films German was mirroring some of the chaos that had defined the Soviet experience itself—particularly the terrifying miasma of the Great Terror (an era with which he remained fascinated). The extreme vulnerability of bodies within this landscape has its own parallels with dissident Soviet authorship; not least in the novels of Andrei Platonov, who survived—albeit witnessing—the years of the terror. In his novels, bodies are weak and fatally redundant in the face of the machinery of the Soviet state. Entropy—disintegration, falling apartness, exposure—finds voice in the crawling, absorbing atmosphere that defines his worlds. In Kotlovan (The Foundation Pit), we witness the construction of a new ‘house of the proletariat’ in a rural landscape. Drained of hope, strength, and will, the builders toil in the sucking maw of the structure’s foundation—digging a pit that will, eventually, become their grave, and will never—ultimately—reach completion. There’s a mucky elusiveness to this, where the house of the proletariat is also, literally, raised over their bodies.
Emigre poet Joseph Brodsky would have something of an impact on German, particularly via his essay ‘A room and a half.’ In this stifling and candid ode to mid-century Soviet living, Brodsky talked openly about the cramped, labyrinthine environments in which his fellow citizens lived—of communal apartments (once aristocratic town-houses) now crammed to the walls with factory workers, clerks, drivers, domestic workers, and others. The carving-up of the aristocratic house was an ultimately abject experience, in so far as the neat internal order of the property was rendered chaotic and intermingled - made to be un-property (un-owned), while tussling with the very mundane problem of inner-city urban overcrowding. It is why, come the 1960s, the Soviet Union and its many satellites were building vast concrete cities to tackle this problem head-on. It’s the reason behind Kiev’s sprawling estates, or else the panelaky of Prague.
Platonov - I think you can’t talk about German and not talk about Andrei - also captures this mood in his ironically titled Happy Moscow, where the protagonist (a ‘shock worker’ also named Moscow) listens to the sounds of the building’s amateur plumbing as it drags together the collective effluence of its residents—a sound of absolute and mundane horror that breaks apart the formerly neat divisions between the clean and the unclean. Moscow, herself, is broken down (made abject) in a grievous industrial accident (she works on the construction of the new Moscow metro), where—plummeting into the collapsing earth—her leg becomes broken and infected with the raw sewage and filthy earth of the Chthonic underworld. Her limb, once a cleanly and cheerily unbroken pillar of the Soviet imagination, is infested with the deranged rot of confused physicality. It is removed. She becomes less than whole. This, of course, makes her body coincident with the actual body of her contemporary Moscow. Travelling to the city’s less than radiant outskirts, she encounters a flea market selling only parts of clothing; sleeves, legless trousers, appallingly empty coats. What is being sold are the spaces that bodies no longer occupy. Platonov is talking not only about those people who were cast aside from the asinine and radiant anthropology of the USSR, but of the countless who had been ‘removed’ from Soviet life for political reasons.
The scrum-mentality that dominates German’s heavily cloistered aesthetic (there is something akin to Henry VIII’s bullish annihilation of the English monasteries, here) is designed to impart a sense of total suffocation. There is no real possibility for agoraphobia. We’re dealing, exclusively, in the territory of claustrophobia. In this instance, the claustrophobia of German is both literal and figurative. The space in which his characters flounder, piss, spit, and die, is a political and social space of absolute proximity. The fate of this collective society is also collective. But they are also undisclosed and undeclared.
With the coining of the term Terrain Vague, Ignasi de Solà-Morales is interested in the form of absence in the contemporary metropolis. This interest focuses on abandoned areas, on obsolete and unproductive spaces and buildings, often undefined and without specific limits, places to which he applies the French term terrain vague. Regarding the generalized tendency to "reincorporate" these places to the productive logic of the city by transforming them into reconstructed spaces, Solà-Morales insists on the value of their state of ruin and lack of productivity. Only in this way can these strange urban spaces manifest themselves as spaces of freedom that are an alternative to the lucrative reality prevailing in the late capitalist city. They represent an anonymous reality.
Martin Kessler has spoken already about the physical suffocation of Hard to be a God—of its appalling claustrophobia. Characters are constantly made busy with swatting away materials and objects that hang in front of their faces; meat slung on hooks; damp fabric blocking doorways and windows. The audio mix is packed with the shifting metallic movement of objects against objects; plates and armour clashing against one another; fists punching through rotted wood. Don Renata moves through this space with the squat indifference of a blinded bull. He is Minotaur, imprisoned in the heart of a preposterous maze. The same proximity is conveyed in Khrustalyov, with the Doctor similarly immersed, neck-deep, in a dense and always too-close physical environment. Space, we’re told, is a premium. We cannot avoid, or forget, or negate, the body.
German understood this. In Khrustalyov, My Car! the main communal apartment is a disorganized and chaotic sprawl; where the symbolic order of sleeping and living spaces are fatally commingled. In one scene, toward the end of the film, the residents argue over the single toilet and ferociously guard their own, personal toilet seats. One new family are without a ceramic ring of their own, and attempt to steal those of their fellow housemates. Residents walk around the apartment with their rings defensively looped over their shoulders, dragging the bathroom—that most unpleasant of evacuative spaces—literally into the otherwise ‘clean’ domestic order. It’s an easy metaphor, but a good one: the toilet is everywhere. Shit is everywhere.
But, in Khrustalyov, bodies are negated. Or, put another way, they are ‘removed.’ Principally, the body of the Doctor himself who is unceremoniously carted away to a gulag. His escape his engineered by Stalin’s own aides, who require his skills - as an experienced surgeon - to step in to save their leader’s then-ailing life. Or, alternatively, to function as an unwitting scapegoat. In this instance, the Doctor’s place in the gulag is taken by a body double who bears an amazing resemblance to himself. We were first introduced to the double at the very beginning of the film. Identities, ‘souls,’ pass between physical bodies. Entire people are able to become not themselves, to be removed. You are not permanent. Your life is not your own.
Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of the rhizome is sufficiently well enough known to trot out without unpacking it. Fine. The spatial and architectural manifestation of bodily evacuation or negation (the un-goring of Soviet dissent) in German’s films depends on a web of interlinked structures. The communal flat; the civic building (the hospital, for example); the street (which is highly visible, and frequently overrun); the interior of a car; the car itself; the prison yard. These spaces also map onto the goring of Soviet dissent - the reintroduction of blood and guts into the critical aesthetics of German. The Black Maria darts between each of these locations; a poison that shoots through the veins of the body politic, searching its way toward the heart. The Soviet police state relied on removing bodies physically via coherent, impenetrable architectures and the slick (night-lit) routes between them. The Lubyanka was a black hole. People fell into it and did not fall out of it. German, in contrast, physically guts the architecture of the malicious polis - dragging its wild gore into public space. But more importantly, the lens - the camera’s lens - is his surgical instrument, albeit a blunt one. A blade that snags on bone, and prowls among mounds of viscera. To put it another way, the lens - his lens - traverses inside of these otherwise coherent, contained spaces.
I heard somebody explain that the phrase, ‘Khrustalyov, My Car!’ also happens to be the final line of the film. I don’t remember where I heard this. An article, a conversation overheard in the cinema’s small bar? After three hours of squirming in my uncomfortable chair, I was - I realised - acutely listening out for this sentence as a kind of stress relief; seeing as it would mark the end of my increasing discomfort. The phrase came and went, and the film carried on. These bodies continued over the possible lip of their own - what I had presumed to be - disappearance. There’s something appropriate but also trite in recognising your own physical discomfort in the same breath as a film that exactly, visually opines on the return of the body. It might mean nothing. It might mean everything.