My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Aleksei German, 1984)

by Smart

The technique of switching between colour and black and white from one scene to the next has always fascinated me. It is such an effective stylistic tool for quickly creating atmosphere and striking a contrast. It is also a powerful way to jolt the viewer into a dialogue with the film. My Friend Ivan Lapshin begins in colour, with a long handheld tracking shot that examines various objects and people as it searches carefully through a quiet house. This is the only time we will experience such ultra-personal camera work, as the film soon jumps back 50 years to the mid 1930s, now in a mesmerising black and white. Our narrator continues speaking from his present time, reflecting through memory on his experiences as a child living in a small town in Soviet Russia just before the Great Purge. It is essential to keep this time period in mind to fully appreciate the contradictions and ultimate decline that the film explores. The parties, the music and laughter, the joking and pranks, all mislead and clash with the depressing situation that engulfs the town, expressed elegantly through the constant thick fog.

Editing is used sparingly, placing value on the natural progression of time. Long tracking shots quickly become familiar as they fluently create a circling world which is able to encompass expansive outdoor locations as easily as it manages confined indoor spaces. Haphazard jumps between scenes often occur without any causal reasoning, resulting in a level of chaos and confusion that reflects the social and political context. For the most part the narrative works as a stream of consciousness, and this allows for dramatic shifts in mood and importance whenever necessary. There is still a plot, and even a few subplots, but these fall secondary to the precise study of life, which is exemplified in a number of near silent moments that watch characters from a distance as they go about routine daily tasks.  Such scenes are contrasted with loud, grandiose street marches, and then again with serious, dramatic instances of desperation. Clever uses of light, snow and night photography create images of exquisite beauty out of ugliness. As the world declines into darkness the use of colour also disappears, leaving us to pessimistically contemplate the bleak future ahead.