My Friend Ivan Lapshin

English Title: My Friend Ivan Lapshin

Original Title: Moi drug Ivan Lapshin

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Lenfilm

Director: Aleksei German

Screenplay: Eduard Volodarskii, Iurii German

Cinematographer: Valerii Fedosov

Editor: Leda Semenova

Runtime: 100 minutes

Genre: Historical

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Andrei Dudarenko, Anatolii Slivnikov, Valerii Filonov, Iurii Kuznetsov, Aleksandr Filippenko, Zinaida Adamovich, Aleksei Zharkov, Andrei Mironov, Nina Ruslanova, Andrei Boltnev

Year: 1984

Volume: Russian

The film is set in the years 1935–1936, at the onset of Stalinist terror. A young boy, Alexander, lives together with his father, Zanadvorov, in the provincial town of Unchansk. They live in a communal apartment with Ivan Lapshin and Vasili Okoshkin, both policemen, and Patrikeevna, a housekeeper. Lapshin and his team are trying to track down a criminal, Soloviev. Meanwhile, Lapshin’s best friend, the writer Khanin, arrives in Unchansk. He is grieving from his wife’s sudden death from diphtheria. A company of actors arrives in Unchansk to perform an agitprop theatre piece. One of them, the actress Natasha Adashova, enlists Lapshin’s help to find a real prostitute so that she can give a better performance in her role as a prostitute. Lapshin falls in love with Adashova, but she falls in love with Khanin. Because Khanin has recently lost his wife, he rebuffs Adashova. Some months later, Lapshin finds Solov’ev. He kills him even though the criminal asked for and is promised mercy. Khanin leaves town and Adashova and Lapshin go their separate ways.

My Friend Ivan Lapshin can be considered as one of the most important films of late Soviet cinema. German subverted the official interpretation of history by showing the harsh life of Soviet citizens at the onset of Stalinist terror. Moreover, German sets aside conventional structure, making it difficult for the viewer to determine the sequence of events and situations depicted. My Friend Ivan Lapshin, therefore, was challenging both in content and style. After the first screening, the film was immediately attacked from within Lenfilm. Goskino, the State Committee for Cinematography, told German to reshoot half of the film, which German refused to do. After a two-year skirmish with Goskino, the film was released in 1985, at the very beginning of Gorbachev’s glasnost.

The film is based on a novel written by Aleksei German’s father, Iurii German (1910–1967). The film’s frame is set in 1983 and consists of a prologue and epilogue. This frame determines the narration’s point of view of Aleksandr, who tries to remember the events set in his childhood. German evokes the atmosphere of provincial life on both the figurative level by using a documentary style and on the narrative level through a focus on ordinary life. He created Aleksandr’s memories by ignoring conventional techniques. The long travelling shots and the subjective camera are somewhat disorientating to the viewer, especially given the lack of establishing shots and shot-reverse shots. The dialogue is frequently drowned out by chatter and screaming. At first sight, there is no explicit mention of the Stalinist terror in My Friend Ivan Lapshin. The year 1935, after Kirov was assassinated, was the last moment before the outbreak of the Great Terror. By means of omens, the director helps the viewer to imagine the dark future of the story’s characters after the ending of the film. There are clear premonitions of a dark future when a mirror is shattered and Zanadvorov says: ‘This is a bad omen. And by the way, for all of us’. Near the end of the film Lapshin is about to leave town for a ‘refresher course’. He seems to have no idea of the dark fate that awaits him. The detective story and love triangle overshadow these omens, which in turn inform the viewer that many of the film’s characters will soon become victims of the Great Terror. Communist idealism is ultimately represented as a lost dream.

The film reached Soviet audiences only in 1986, when it was shown on television, and became the subject of heated debate. At once exciting and disturbing, it offered a glimpse of a sensitive period in Soviet history. Yet it proved to be quite disturbing simply because it was too soon for the general public to take in what it was seeing. German’s film marked the beginning of the cinematic investigation into one of the blank spots of Soviet history, the Stalinist terror. My Friend Ivan Lapshin therefore contributed to the debunking of Stalinist myth.

Author of this review: Jasmijn Van Gorp