The only male soldier in Aleksandr Askoldov’s Commissar who shows up ready for a fight as the Russian Civil War lurches on is a child. The opening scenes of this monumental film are chock-a-block with bedraggled soldiers of a defeated White army, hauling themselves and their rickety cannons from another time through a grey and barren landscape. The soldiers wearily avoid a stark religious statue whose hands of stone cradle a burning candle. They trudge as if each step might be their last. As the boy soldier rides into Berdichev, the setting for Askoldov’s first and only film (and the Vasili Grossman short story upon which it is based), he surveys his latest conquest as the camera spirals forcefully upward to the tops of the three houses of worship in the town: Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Jewish. He radiates an energy and vitality possessed only by the very young. With an assured and graceful touch, Askoldov’s cinematographer, Valery Ginzberg, gives us the first of many memorable shots in this extraordinary – and extraordinarily troubled – black-and-white film made by a passionate victim of the cruelties of Communist Party politics. Commissar – and its writer and director – would be shelved for some 20 years after its creation because it did not hew to the noble vision of Soviet life in war and its aftermath (including the Soviet Union’s role in the Holocaust, a role captured in a haunting dream sequence toward the end of the film) that party officials wanted the world to see.
Even more ready for a fight than the plucky youth in the opening scenes is the Red Army commissar, Klavdiya Vavilova, played with a heroic lyricism by Nonna Mordyukova (1). Early on she shows what she is made of by shooting a deserter with as much concern as if she was chasing a fly from a piece of bread. Her brutally calm self-possession extends to her immediate predicament: she is pregnant and due to deliver her baby any day. True to the motherland, she encamps in the ramshackle house of Yefim Magazannik, played with a combination of impish charm and a melodramatic absurdity by Rolan Bykov. As cannon fire thunders nearby, she delivers her baby, only to face more of the hard realities that Askoldov empties onto the screen like so many dice: Will she be a true mother or will she return to the life of a soldier? Askoldov’s scenes featuring Vavilova as she parades her son through the town are among the film’s most lyrical. She is lit with reverence. She smiles. She becomes part of the Magazannik family. She becomes human, a woman, a mother.
If Vavilova’s decisions are sharply etched, colossal and vital, those facing Yefim’s wife, Maria (Raissa Nedashkovskaya), are more mundane, but no less enduring. Her brood of seven children must be fed, their clothes washed and they must all face the war – daily. Her tinker husband earns little. He complains about eating potatoes again with a shrug. Ginzberg’s caressing camera captures the tender essence of family life as he slowly pans over the sleeping children and their parents, huddled together on surfaces hard and soft, the sounds of the war far off. Just getting through the day in Berdichev is exhausting. War taints the adults, but it infects the children. The younger ones gang up on the oldest girl, call her “Yid” (the family is Jewish) and tie her to a swing where she sways back and forth, back and forth, crying for her mama. Where does this behavior come from? Yefim demands as they hide in the cellar, troops marching overhead. The war is in the air they breathe every day. Only in René Clément’s Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952) does a film portray more searingly the damage war does to children.
Alfred Schnittke’s devastating and enthralling music (it is hardly a score in the traditional sense) reflects the pathos of war with its dissonant, metallic stabs of strings, brass and percussion. Yet there are pastoral moments to be found as well, and traditional lullabies (2). In one scene, the fragmented sounds of clanging bells and blaring trumpets accompany a caisson as it trundles by the Magazannik house and Ginzberg’s camera peers through the legs of horses and the caisson to spy on three of the children, naked and vulnerable. Schnittke’s grim, unforgiving music does for Askoldov’s film what Toru Takemitsu’s music does for the films of Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Teshigahara: stark images are given an added muscularity that comes only when the ear joins the eye. But Commissar is a triumph foremost because the filmmaker allows Ginzberg’s camera to tell the story, record the characters’ emotions and provide the momentum in so many scenes without dialogue. One can watch the film with the sound turned off and still be moved.
In an interview included in the 2007 American DVD release of Commissar, Askoldov seems to pooh-pooh the idea of telling us what the film is “about”. Still, he cannot resist. “It is about love”, he says. “Love of a woman, of children, of family, of country.” The filmmaker was twice expelled from the Communist Party, and only when he stood up at the 15th Moscow International Film Festival in 1987 to tell the story of Commissar, and reporters followed up with their questions did party officials relent and allow his film to be shown. Askoldov stated that Gabriel García Márquez (author of One Hundred Years of Solitude) spoke to then-Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev about the film and this increased the pressure to release it. It was shown days later in the same hall where Askoldov was expelled from the party 20 years before. Since that screening, it has been exhibited worldwide, but never at a Russian film festival according to Askoldov despite numerous international awards, including a Special Jury Prize, the International Film Critics Award (FIPRESCI) and the Otto Dibelius Film Award at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival in 1988. Askoldov chokes up during the DVD interview, which begins with his assertion that art can transform the world, make it morally purer, more honest, more honorable. But only if the artist has himself been transformed.
Russian film critic Maya Turovskaya, “the Susan Sontag of Soviet aesthetic thought” (3), writes,
It is hard to be human in a world turned upside down. But the director and the cast manage to find various degrees of humanity in their characters without idealising them. That is why the story of a female warrior who becomes pregnant has a tragic tone to it.
While you rejoice that the film, back on the screen after being shelved for twenty years, has lost none of its freshness, spare a thought for the film maker, who had been banned from making films for twenty years. Tragedies, even if they have a happy ending, happen not only on the screen. (4)
I can envision a happier ending: that Aleksandr Askoldov would make another film, then another, sharing his unique visual style, compelling moral perspective and rigorous aesthetic with a world too long denied them all.
- Mordyukova died last year at the age of 82 after a career as one of the Soviet Union’s most distinguished actors.
- Schnittke (1934-1998) scored some 60 films, the last of which was Volker Schlöndorff’s Der Neunte Tag/The Ninth Day (2004).
- Turovskaya in Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton (eds.), Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York and Melbourne, 1994, p. 101.
- Turovskaya in Brashinsky and Horton, p. 100.
Komissar/Commissar (1967 USSR 105 mins)
Prod Co: M. Gorky Film Studio/Mosfilm Dir: Aleksandr Askoldov Scr: Aleksandr Askoldov, based on the short story “In the Town of Berdichev” by Vasili Grossman Phot: Valery Ginzberg Ed: Natalya Loginova, Svetlana Lyashinskaya and Nina Vasilyeva Prod Des: Sergei Serribrennikov Mus: Alfred Schnittke
Cast: Nonna Mordyukova, Rolan Bykov, Raissa Nedashkovskaya, Ludmila Volynskaya, Vassily Shukshin