Soviet Dissident Director Aleksei Guerman Dies: Last Movie Nearly Finished

Soviet Dissident Director Aleksei Guerman Dies: Last Movie Nearly Finished
Going to the Gulag: Yuriy Tsurilo in Guerman's "Khrustalyov, My Car!" (1998)
(© Canal+)

Aleksei Guerman, whose five completed films as a director constituted a scathing critique of life in the former Soviet Union, has died at the age of 74. According to the Associated Press, his son, Aleksei Guerman, Jr., wrote in a blog post on the Ekho Mosky radio website that Guerman succumbed to heart failure in his hometown of St. Petersburg. He had nearly finished his sixth film (see below).

Guerman was the son of Yuri Guerman (1910-67), the novelist, playwright, and World War II correspondent for TASS and the Soviet Information Bureau. The father’s screenplays included those for “Pirogov” (1947) and “Belinsky” (1951), both directed by Grigori Kozintsev. Aleksei Guerman was apprenticed to Kozintsev in 1960.


After working in theater, he joined Lenfilm, the state-owned production unit, as an assistant director. In time, he would adapt two of his father’s novels into movies, “Trial on the Road” (completed 1971) and “My Friend Ivan Lapshin” (completed 1982).

“Trial on the Road,” his second film, was banned from theaters until 1986 when perestroika sanctioned its screening and led to its acclaim. “Ivan Lapshin” was begun in 1979 but denounced as “disgusting” by Lenfilm’s studio paper. According to Tony Wood, writing for New Left Review in 2001, Guerman was ordered to reshoot half of the movie, and when he asked, “Which half?,” he was told: “‘Either. Leave half of your crap and do half as we want you to.” Nothing was reshot, however, and the film was released in 1984.

Both films were adapted by Edouard Volodarksy, a writer who unflinchingly departed from the Soviet Union’s official history of World War II. Volodarksy’s death at 71 preceded Guerman’s by just four months.

Guerman was a formidable visual stylist, a director as noted for his bleakly poetic handling of exteriors as much for his claustrophobic interior compositions. “Khrustalyov, My Car!” was his masterpiece – a grotesque, hallucinatory satire of the paranoia and resulting anti-Semitic persecution that characterized the last years of Stalin’s dictatorship. It’s channeled through the downfall of a distinguished army general who, arrested as a conspirator in the 1952-53 “Doctor’s Plot,” is raped on his way to the Gulag. Seven years in the making, it was re-shot and re-edited before being released in 1998. A Palme d’Or nominee, in 1999 it was voted Best Film by the Russian Guild of Film Critics.

With his wife Svetlana Karmalita (who contributed to the script of “Khrustalyov”), Guerman co-wrote the 1991 Kazahk  epic “The Fall of Otrar” (1991), directed by Ardak Armirkulov. It’s not only the most brutal film about Genghis Khan, but a persuasive allegory of Stalinism.

Guerman's son (himself a director) noted in his blog that his father’s swansong is nearly complete:

“The film ‘It Is Hard to Be a God’ is in effect finished,” he wrote. “All that remains is the audio dubbing. Everything else is finished. It will  be completed in the foreseeable future. 

"The making of the film was long and painful,” he added, referring to his father’s physical decline. “It was made without government money.”

AP says that the film “has generated a lot of public expectations and intense discussion, with some seeing it as a stinging satire on President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, full of grim predictions for the future.”  

As well as his son, Guerman is survived by Karmalita. His funeral will take place in St. Petersburg on Sunday.

I wrote on the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s March 2012 retrospective of Guerman’s work for artinfo here. My colleague J. Hoberman's 1999 essay on “Khrustalyov, My Car!” was republished in Film Comment here. Read the magazine’s 2012 essay on Guerman by Anton Dolin, film critic for Moskovskie Novosti, here.