Khrustalyov, My Car! (Khrustalyov, mashinu!)

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KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! (1998) -- Macresarf1's Unknown Masterpiece #1

Apr 28, 2004 (Updated Oct 6, 2004)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

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Pros:Stunning "Wellsian" black and white cinematography, long takes and editing. A mesmerizing parable of Power.

Cons:Like most Welles' films, several versions exist. Copies hard find. See end of review.

The Bottom Line: Russian Director Aleksei German's nightmarish labor of love, KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! slowly is being recognized as one of the greatest films ever made. Little seen here or in Europe.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

Have you ever seen a film which reminded you of being in a nightmare? You are part of the most fantastic and terrible mis-en-scene; yet you feel warm and safe: there but not QUITE there, if you know what I mean. You fancy yourself entirely in command but unable to alter the illogical events. KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! takes that experience one step further (if you allow it) -- you literally sink into the nightmare until the lights come up. The nightmare is the last days of Stalinism in Russia.

You are in one of those worlds where nothing can be counted on to be what it appears.

As in a nightmare, let us leap to the center of this cool/warm horror. It is March 5, 1953. You are Surgeon General Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo), a bald, bullet-headed Army officer, a bit like Telly Savalas (you think?), an expert brain surgeon, who not long ago was in charge of psychiatric services for the Moscow district. You are looking down at a shrunken old man in a bed, who has just fouled himself. He is Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili -- Koba to his old friends (now mostly dead). Joseph Stalin is hated by a billion people, idolized by a billion more: one of the most powerful men on Earth. "Then," as The March of Time might still have been saying in 1953, "Death came to Joseph Stalin."

The men around the bed are afraid of two things: 1) that "Koba" won't recover; 2) that "Stalin" will. They ask you nervously if an operation can save the 73 year-old "Little Father." You doubt it. Suddenly, a commanding, contemptuous-seeming man sweeps in with an entourage. It is Lavrenty Beria, head of Soviet Secret Police Services (GPU). He glances at you, pushes you out of the way (with some respect), and presses violently down on the old man's chest. Stalin chokes, gives a rattling wheeze, and sinks back. Beria has you pronounce the old dictator dead, and then, he shouts to a scarcely-seen functionary, "Khrustalyov, my car!" He departs with his companions, and shortly, you are back home with your chaotic Russian family, balancing a wine glass on your head.

But, like most dreams and nightmares, this superb, absolutely brilliant picture (one Orson Welles, if Russian, might call his own) begins differently.

It begins in February 1953, very early on a wintry cold morning, in Moscow. A little man, a master baker, perhaps, bustles out of his flat, past the lights and music emanating from the flat next door. He walks toward his car through the snow drifts, the street lamp playing light and dark on his face. A large black car moves up behind him. Several men in astrakhans and great coats jump out, seize him and throw him in the trunk.

Meanwhile, in the other flat, Colonel Klensky (you, yet not), a glass of tea on your bald head, is getting ready to go to work. Your wife (Nina Ruslanova) is giving you hell over a Finnish reporter (Juri Javet), who wants to interview you. As you pass through the warren-like rooms, you are accosted by her relatives (and your relatives), and by your snotty son (Mikhail Dementyev). You are, after all, Colonel Klensky, a well-off man, important and powerful, in your own right. But this is a Russian family, and a Russian family in the last days of Stalinism.

All is chaos.

You stop to check up on your Jewish cousins, a pair of Lithuanian twins, whom you are hiding in a closet; for, a month earlier Premier Stalin has announced that a cabal of nine doctors, six of them Jewish, have murdered important Soviet leaders, such A.A. Zdhanov and A.S. Shcherbakov. (Actually, most of these leaders have been done in at the paranoid Stalin's orders.) A familiar, rather traditional wave of Russian Anti-Semitism has begun. All of the "nomencultura" who have Jewish relatives are losing them, and are in danger themselves. (Stalin, earlier, could not very well put the Jewish wife of Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov on trial; he just had her thrown in jail. The wife of another aide, Aleksander Poskrebyshev, he had shot, and got security services to provide the man a new spouse.) But, not to worry, after some bracing breakfast vodka, you, the confident Colonel Klensky, depart for work.

We watch you visit your main psychiatric center, where you treat a number of patients (hot and cold alternating baths), in an attempt to bring them back to . . . well . . . normality, into "the real world." You spend some time with a man you affectionately regard as "the idiot" (Aleksandr Bashirov). After planning a delicate brain operation, you return home for a quite nosy interview by "the Finnish journalist," and then you go see your slatternly mistress at the separate accommodation you maintain for her. You drink more vodka, have sex and fall asleep.

Returning to your home early in the morning, a large black car pulls up behind you. Several men in astrakhans and great coats jump out, seize you and throw you in the trunk. The next thing you know, you are in the back of an odd little truck bumping along a frozen road toward a Gulag in Siberia. Several scruffy men take turns raping you, and you are thrown out in the snow in front of your box-like new home in the tundra, where your roommate is the little baker, who used to be your next door neighbor.

Anyway, KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR goes something like that, you think? After all, it's a nightmare, right?

On March 4, 1953, however, when you were snatched from your frozen hole in the ground and brought back to Moscow, it was lucky for you that someone remembered you are a skilled brain surgeon, don't you think?

Very Russian.


Photographed in ravishing black and white by Vladimir Ilyin, delusionally edited by Irina Gorikhhvskaya, written from a story by Russian-born (New York-based) Joseph Brodsky ("A Room and a Half) by the director and his wife, with the music of Andrei Petrov, KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! is Director Aleksei German's finest masterpiece, so far. When it was shown in Cannes in 1998, at 150 minutes, most of the critics walked out. When it played the New York Film Festival the same year, New York Times Critic Stephen Holden called it, "virtually indecipherable." When it showed in Russia, and in limited release in the rest of Europe (as with most Orson Welles' films in America), fifty minutes were cut out of it. Director German, a pudgy sixtyish man, who had been fired by every Russian film company he ever worked for, fought to have it restored to 137 minutes. Last year the French decided, after all, KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! was pretty good.

They listed it as one of the Fifty Best Films Ever Made!

German, who always works with his wife, Svetlana Karmelita, labors slowly (even when not fired), spending months to find just the right car or the perfect actor, often casting amateurs in important roles. His legendary camera technique stresses long takes, characters who walk into the camera frame, out of the frame, in front of the action, directly toward the camera lens, etc. In a nearly 50 year career, German has managed to make six films. Yet some critics say he is one of the very greatest living directors, and that four of the films are masterpieces. Besides KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! only his war film, PROVERKA NA DOROGAKH (CHECK-UP ON THE ROADS; or ROAD TEST), has been released in the West.

Director German, like his late colleague, Elim Klimov (*COME AND SEE, 1985) is a true maverick, unhappy in both the Soviet Union and the New Russia, uneasy with the West.

When the dour German was interviewed at The San Francisco International Film Festival two years ago, he was his evidently usual pessimistic self. He speaks only Russian, so his wife Svetlana translated into French, and another woman told us what he said, in English. It was a laborious process, especially when two factions in the audience, shaking their fists at each other -- and at the stage -- began to argue loudly, in separate Eastern European languages. Testy, he finally said that he was not surprised, observing that a reporter in New York, two years before, had asked him who the old man in the bed was. German said, "It was supposed to be Joseph Stalin," and he claimed the reporter then wondered with a bewildered air, "Who's that?"

Lost in translation, if true, I suppose, and in the mists of our American sense of History.

On the IMDb, only one professional critic has bothered to review the picture, the redoubtable Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, who compares it to Welles' THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Only one of the Newsgroup gang, who are usually on to everything, looked at it: "Any member of the audience who can sit through this 137 minute disaster should be awarded the Order of Lenin." says Harvey S. Karten, Ph.D. He is displaying an appalling lapse of observation and knowledge, of the kind Director German complained of; evidently, not only does Doctor Karten not understand KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! but he thinks it is a pro -Soviet film!

Six of the seven "user reviews" at IMDb are favorable, but one opines:

"Anyone who with a taste for life or art should avoid it.

"Terrible." -- concludes one "Richard Longman," who saw KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! with his girlfriend, in Paris.

Or you can believe me.


In a week when our Marines were given inevitably impossible tasks in Iraq; when the Supreme Court began serious debate over whether or not two American citizens can be just put away by Attorney General Ashcroft indefinitely, without being charged with a crime; when at Westminster College (where Churchill gave his "Iron Curtain Speech"), the Vice President made fatuous comparisons of the rag-tag insurgents in Iraq to the Soviet Red Army during the Cold War; and when our President was telling us God directs his decisions, it would be wise to meditate on the Soviet Union.

It was a regime which began in revolution against a despotic ruler, and offered its "good news" of freedom and cooperation to the entire World. Russia then had a civil war, and afterwards the winners affirmed civil rights for all the minorities who had been previously persecuted. They set up an elaborate legislative system, with a congress, courts and representative bodies down to the village level. "The Soviet Constitution of 1936" was perhaps the most idealistic document of its kind every written.

But the interim leader of the new nation, Joseph Stalin, came to see that jealous enemies all over the World were ringed around the Soviet Union. Russia must become an industrial behemoth and create a defense establishment second to none, ready to catch or kill "agents provocateurs," within or without. The freedoms, Stalin and his advisors in the Politburo guaranteed in their Constitution, had to be curtailed for the survival of the Mother land, until after the Evil Capitalists had been crushed. The Congress became a "rubber stamp," surrendering its constitutional prerogatives for the common good.

Stalin built an intelligence apparatus unrivaled for its need of secrecy, and for extra-legal methods in dealing with "enemies of the people," setting up a system of prison/work camps or gulags, in which "enemies," designated by administrative courts, lost all rights. [It is estimated, before Stalin's rule ended with his death in March 1953, Russia had become a de facto (if vigorously contained empire), and methods like those listed may have cost the lives of 30,000,000 citizens.] From a backward province in the South, Stalin did not recognize, perhaps, that the natural suspicion he possessed as an outsider was deepening into paranoia, which he could not control, had he wanted to; neither did the other Soviet leaders until --

Not to suggest that our President is a counterpart of Joseph Stalin, nor that his advisors are a politburo or that the Congress has become the Supreme Soviet, but the arc of empires is clear and depressingly similar; only the methods and excuses differ, in detail. And consider that idealistic little Joe Stalin was once a student for the priesthood.

Aleksei German's KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! is an unknown masterpiece of nightmarish and psychological reality, but where you could find it, either in a theater or on a cassette, I cannot tell you. Polygram Films distributes the picture in the United States. (It opened in Italy only last Christmas.)


And Oh! You ask me, What did the title mean? Damned if I know. My hunch is that it is one of many inside jokes in the film, which possibly a non-Russian cannot fully understand. I would guess that Lavrenty Beria, who according to V.M. Molotov's memoirs, boasted that he poisoned the old tyrant, Stalin, had forgotten, didn't bother to pronounce correctly, or used the nickname of one of his little Ukrainian henchmen. Beria, a sort of super Homeland Security Chief, with his own army, navy and air force, figured he was going to take over Russia, upon Stalin's death. But in the confusion of the power vacuum, Beria was arrested, tried and executed, and a troika was formed to run the country. Eventually, the little henchman, who never even went to grade school, Nikita Khrushchev, ended up Premier of Russia. Despite his brutal past, he proved something of an improvement on what Stalin was, or Beria would have been. Khrushchev is my candidate for "Khrustalyov."

In other words, as Surgeon General Klensky found, you can never be sure what tomorrow will bring.


The cocksure and the sparrow fall the same way.

(That sounds like a Russian proverb, but I just made it up.)




UPDATE: May 3, 2004 -- I am indebted to colleague stpatrick, who set me on a search which came up with these excerpts from an article in THE BBC NEWS:

Last Updated: Monday, 24 February, 2003, The mystery of Stalin's death

By Leonida Krushelnycky

Millions came to say farewell to Stalin. Fifty years ago, on 5 March 1953, the Soviet leader Josef Stalin died.
His political life as a dictator who dominated millions has been minutely dissected over the decades.
But his last days continue to provoke speculation and argument . . . .

Unusual order
The night of 28 February began in the usual manner for Stalin and his closest political circle, Lavrenty Beria, Nikita Khrushchev, Nikolai Bulganin and Georgi Malenkov.

We were glad when we got this order, and went off to bed without thinking twice
By the early hours of 1 March, Stalin's guests had gone back to their homes in Moscow.
What happened next was out of the ordinary for a man as obsessed with security as Stalin. He gave an order for his guards to retire for the night - he was not to be disturbed.

This change to Stalin's normal behaviour intrigued Russian historian Edvard Radzinski, and a few years ago he tracked down one of the guards on duty that night, Pyotr Lozgachev.

Guards worried
It was Lozgachev's testimony of that night that led Radzinski to speculate about what might really have happened.

The guards slept late the following morning, and so, it seemed, did Stalin - 12 o'clock, one, two o'clock came and no Stalin
The guard confirmed that it was not Stalin who gave the guards the order to go to bed, rather the order was conveyed by the main guard Khrustalev.

"Stalin would taunt the guards by saying 'Want to go to bed?' and stare into our eyes," Lozgachev said. "As if we'd dare! So of course we were glad when we got this order, and went off to bed without thinking twice."

The guards slept late the following morning, and so, it seemed, did Stalin. Twelve o'clock, one, two o'clock came and no Stalin . . . .

At 6.30 a light came on in Stalin's rooms, and the guards relaxed a little. But by the time 10 o'clock had chimed they were petrified. Lozgachev was finally sent in to check on Stalin.

"I hurried up to him and said 'Comrade Stalin, what's wrong?' He'd, you know, wet himself while he was lying there. He made some incoherent noise, like "Dz dz". His pocketwatch and copy of Pravda were lying on the floor. The watch showed 6.30. That's when it must have happened to him."

'World War III'
The guards rushed to call Stalin's drinking companions, the Politburo. It was their tardiness in responding and calling for medical help that put questions of doubt in Radzinski's mind.

Beria may have been behind Stalin's death. Did they already know too much and so did not need to hurry to the "old man's" side?

Mr Radzinski says Yes. He asserts that Stalin was injected with poison by the guard Khrustalev, under the orders of his master, KGB chief Lavrenty Beria. And what was the reason Stalin was killed?

"All the people who surrounded Stalin understood that Stalin wanted war - the future World War III - and he decided to prepare the country for this war," Mr Radzinski says . . . .


The article goes on to speculate that "The Doctors Plot" was a prologue to a projected March 1953 roundup of Jewish people in the Moscow area for resettlement in Kazakstan (where they would no doubt have been dealt with harshly). This pretext, according to the author, would have forced the hand of the United States, and nuclear war would likely have ensued.

So I may have had the right interpretation but the wrong henchman. Many thanks, again, to stpatrick.


UPDATE: AUGUST 13, 2004 -- New Epinionator ambrosewhite informs me that KHRUSTALYOV, MASHINU can be ordered on Video from Russia's --

BUT, as you will see, you may have to be able to read and write Russian, as well as navigating a quite bizarre website. It would be worth it.

[Enroll to take lessons.]

Thank you, ambrosewhite. May you have an illustrious career at Epinions!



The indefatigable ambrosewhite has now found out how to order a copy of KHRUSTALYOV, MASHINU for about $10 American. He will do so for you, and invites you to contact him at:

Hip-Hip, Hurrah!

Recommend this product? Yes

Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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