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Recently top 50 national critics (in Russian edition of Empire magazine) have named the top 100 best films in Russia/USSR history. Not many cinephils have argued about the 1st place, with Alexei German's "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" taking the top spot. Another two of his films also took their place in the rating ("Check-up on the Roads" - arguably the best Russian film about WWII, and "Khrustalyov, My Car!"). Shamefully not so famous outside Russia, Alexei German is certainly one of the brightest (and pretty much hated by soviet ideologists) directors in his homeland, sharing pantheon with the likes of Dziga Vertov, Sergey Eisenstein, Marlen Huciev, Iosif Kheifits, Andrey Tarkovsky and many more wonderful names.
"My friend Ivan Lapshin" is not an easy film to watch. It's dark atmosphere of early Stalin years, one might call it soviet film noir. But in contrast to classical American noirs, "Lapshin" adds much more realistic tones; shot in black and white with hand cameras it sometimes looks like half-documentary, making it closer to french Nouvelle Vogue. Still, New Wave directors had so many poetry in their works, you can hardly find some in German's movies. German shows life as it is, without any adorns. In this sense, maybe Italian neorealism is the closest cinematographic example you can find when looking for comparisons. But still you can't find any exact compares because German creates cinematic structures out of time and any particular school. He doesn't follow any genres' principles and cinematic rules.
"Lapshin" concentrates on a very short period of life of police detective Ivan Lapshin. Plot story takes place in a small Russian provincial town, in the middle of the 1930ies, the beginning of the horrible era of Stalin's political repressions. The story is told by an adult man who was a boy at that time and who remembers Ivan Lapshin in the light of childhood's memories. You won't find any particular political message here, although film has been banned right after the end of shooting and German received many official warnings. It is very hard to distinguish the true meaning of the movie, because every single motive, every idea is hiding in communication between characters. Police investigation is just an external part of the script which softly covers existentialistic relations. Deep emotions are hiding in outwardly bleak and unfriendly world that we see on the screen. These people are just living their usual lives and are very mixed up. They seem to be lost in time and space, and simply don't understand that they are part of emotionless system that eats their souls, system that corrupts people's being - and camera catches this atmosphere without excess words, just like child's memories sometimes can't be described with them. But even so it can't destroy the very essence of a man. People are brave, and not because they act bravely, but because they are protecting human relations, don't let them roll into madness, which is hiding in every corner. It's a strange and beautiful film. Every single actor (even Andrey Mironov who was already on pick of his fame at the moment) played his career's best role.
Just like "Berlin Alexanderplatz" helps to understand the existentialistic being of post-war Germans, "Lapshin" helps to understand the core of the strange Russian soul that suffered so much during the age of horror, of the people who got so many psychological traumas, but who fought for their right to live a normal life.
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