In this age of Netflix, streaming video and burn-on-demand DVDs, it can be all too tempting—comforting, even—to think that there is no more cinematic terra incognita left to be discovered, that all of the treasures of world moviemaking are simply lying in wait for us to dial up in our living rooms. And yet there is the case of Aleksei Guerman, who is indisputably one of the greatest filmmakers alive in the world today, but whose work has, until now, been nearly impossible to see, little distributed outside of his native Russia (with the exception of the French co-production Khrustalyov, My Car!) and wholly unavailable on any home video format in the English-speaking world.

To be fair, Guerman’s films—five features to date, all shot in stunning black-and-white and staged in complex, obsessively detailed tracking shots that rank with the best of Scorsese and De Palma—have long been championed by a small but enthusiastic cult of admirers, including the programmers of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, who selected My Friend Ivan Lapshin for the 1987 edition of New Directors/New Films (somewhat ironically, in that it was already Guerman’s fourth feature) and Khrustalyov for the 1998 New York Film Festival. (Both were savaged by their respective reviewers for The New York Times.) But today, even the savvy art-film goer is unlikely to have heard of Guerman, let alone seen any of his work–a dilemma for which this retrospective represents one small corrective.

Guerman was born in 1938 in Leningrad into something like Soviet cultural royalty, the son of author, playwright, reporter and screenwriter Yuri Guerman, a man who dined with Stalin and Gorky and whose writing would directly or indirectly inform many of his son’s films. The younger German also studied both theater and film, the latter under the great Grigory Kozintsev (known for his masterful film versions of Hamlet and King Lear) and began as an apprentice in the then-prosperous Soviet studio system. But almost from the start, Guerman proved to be a troublesome cog in that well-oiled machine, clashing with co-director Grigori Aronov over authorship of The Seventh Companion and running so afoul of the authorities on his next picture, the masterpiece Trial on the Road, that the film was suppressed for the next 15 years. 

Though Guerman—together with his wife and regular screenwriting partner Svetlana Karmalita—has continued to work in the decades since, his projects have been subject to variously long production delays, owing to everything from the collapse of funding to (in the case of Khrustalyov) the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Well, that and Guerman’s refusal to cast an American movie star as Stalin.) Yet Guerman has, rather like one of his own wizened, war-weary protagonists, soldiered forth, creating one of the most profoundly human and richly cinematic bodies of work in modern movies. As he nears the completion of work on his decades-in-the-making sixth feature, an adaptation of the brothers Arkady and Boris Sturgatsky’s sci-fi novel Hard to Be a God (rumored to be premiering at Cannes 2012), we are delighted to present the first complete North American retrospective of Guerman’s work, including new, English-subtitled 35mm prints of The Seventh Companion and Trial on the Road. Series programmed by Scott Foundas.