Written by Emil Braginskiy, Eldar Ryazanov
Directed by Eldar Ryazanov
Soviet Union, 1979
Is it possible to turn the fate of a most unlucky person into a tender comedy? How does one present the absurdity of chance to public amusement? In 1979, legendary Russian director Eldar Ryazanov poignantly approached these questions through the release of Soviet cult film The Garage, which would soon come to defy all borders of time, politics, and personal culture. Through the lens of a workers’ co-operative and the ludicrous bureaucracy of Soviet Russia, The Garage challenges your personal politics and conceptions of morality with the iconic warmth of spirit, timeless wit, and extraordinary symbolism that makes for classic cinema.
The Garage is at first an innocuous situational comedy that propels an irreconcilably disparate group of biologists and archivists into an awkward standstill when they are locked into their natural history museum for one tumultuous night. With the construction of a new garage for the museum’s staff which lacks the handful of spots that are needed to suffice everyone, the co-operative has no choice but to cut a few members out of a parking spot. The meeting is extended into ridiculous hours of the early morning when indignation turns to protest, files are confiscated, and keys held for ransom.
Naturally, furious dilemmas arise when it comes time to compromise, since nobody is particularly burning with the desire to give up their rightful place in the garage. Non-members of the museum co-op are given spots and declared as having been the most active. Comradery is shattered in negotiations, personal affairs are pitched like spit to spite another, and everything occurs under the silent watchfulness of stuffed Sumatran macaques and leopards. The common good is, of course, the priority for everyone, as it is so aptly put by one half of the co-op directors, “We don’t have the right to act upon our own will. Everything we do must be in accordance with everyone in the co-op!” As every character is swept away in a mad rush to restore order, we cannot help but launch ourselves into their frenzy, sharing the laughs, tears, and frustrations that any person would experience in a similar situation of involuntary captivity.
Most importantly, we experience this satire through Ryazanov’s keen direction and the resolutely enduring script. The juxtaposition of wild animals in silent museum exhibits with humans struggling under the consequences of civilization is hilariously exploited under the moody groans of the trombonist and accompanying piranha installation. Political commentary shrewdly peppers the screen in varying degrees, from fleeting glances at dubious fascist salutes to cluttered attempts at consensus. A tune far too familiar for comfort rings true with exclamations of “I’m from the majority! Everything depends on people like me!” A script bristling with accessible notions and eloquence captures every aspect of treacherous formality and its bearing upon personal relationships.
Given the historic context of the film, it is without a doubt one of the most astute satires of its kind to explore the practice and idealism of socialist workers’ co-operatives. Returning to The Garage today is often a gentle indulgence in nostalgia for those already familiar with the film, however new generations discovering this Soviet classic will find greater relevance in the universal tragicomedies that occur in any community faced with the questions of democracy, authority, privilege, and sacrifice. In the end, the process of decision making is obstructed by the simple fact that someone must give up their parking spot. Whether this is done through consensus, election, or assignment makes no real difference to the injustice that perseveres in the rumpled museum co-op’s conundrum.
Concluding with an ominous scene of jubilant parking-spot proprietors shuffling into a ring around the most unlucky of them all, The Garage shields nothing and no-one. The man bearing the weight of failed projects and systems is the man who was least involved in the riotous exploits of the night. Those who spent a majority of the film proclaiming the co-operative’s injustices are now perfectly at ease to gleefully watch as fortune turns on another. In an instrumentation of exceptional script, cinematography, and perfectly executed acting, this Soviet classic gently affirms a universal human tendency when it comes to compromise– no-one is really willing to give up their own.
– Lital Khaikin
This review is part of a weekly series divulging the secrets of Soviet era cinema to audiences around the world! From legendary directors and actors, some of the finest cinematic creations are now exposed in all their timeless glory. Indulge, comrade.