• The secret police of My Friend Ivan Lapshin

If it weren’t for Facets Multimedia’s Werner Schroeter series, Twenty Days Without War (1977) and My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1982-5), which screen twice this week in the Siskel Center’s Aleksei Guerman retrospective, would be the most challenging movies in town. Both deal extensively with Soviet history while barely addressing Soviet politics directly; the films plunge the spectator into the past and demand that he fend for himself. Without any background knowledge of the sociopolitical context, these works might seem incomprehensible—and this probably accounts for Guerman’s low profile in the U.S. despite his long-standing prominence in Russian cinema. Yet the films are often breathtaking even if you don’t fully understand what’s happening (and I speak from experience), which makes these rare big-screen revivals especially valuable.

Guerman’s resurrections of the past combine stunning verisimilitude (he claims to spend months researching period costumes and architecture before he begins filming) with unpredictable camera movement, which varies from precise, Kubrickian tracking shots to spontaneous-seeming handheld work. Watching one of his films feels like exploring an alien yet vaguely recognizable environment—a sensation that Paul Thomas Anderson (in describing his own period films There Will Be Blood and The Master) has likened to time travel.