Director: Alexander Askoldov
Production: Gorky Studios; colour, Cinemascope; running time: 108 minutes. Not released until 1988, following an unscheduled screening at the Moscow Film Festival.
Producers: V. Levin, V. Grigorev, L. Prilutzkaya; screenplay: Alexander Askoldov, based on the novel In the Town of Berdichev by Vasily Grossman; photography: Valery Ginsburg; editors: V. Isayeva, N. Loginova, S. Lyashinskaya; assistant directors: B. Dokuchaev, G. Balinskaya; art director: Sergei Serebrennikov; music: Alfred Shnittke; sound: V. Sharoy, E. Bazanov, L. Benevolskaya.
Cast: Nonna Mordyukova (Claudia Vavilova); Rolan Bykov (Yefim); Raisa Niedashkovskaya (Maria); Vasily Shuskin (Commander).
Awards: Silver Bear, Berlin 1988.
Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost, Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton, ed., Cambridge, 1994.
Variety (New York), 5 August 1987.
Wolf, W., and A. Williamson, "Askoldov!," in Film Comment (New York), May-June 1988.
Carlisle, O. A., American Film (Washington D.C), June 1988.
Reynaud, B., and F. Strauss, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1988.
Johnson, Brian D., "Glasnost on Screen," in Maclean's (Toronto), 26 September 1988.
Navailh, F., in Cinéma (Paris), October 1988.
Delmas, G., in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), November-December 1988.
Derobert, J., in Positif (Paris), December 1988.
Brub, R.-C., in Séquences (Montreal), January 1989.
Menashe, Louis, in Cineaste (New York), 1989.
Glaessner, V., in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), May 1989.
Sherwood, Pippa, "The Russian Restitution," in Films and Filming, no. 415, May 1989.
Batchan, A., Cineaste (New York), 1989.
Stishova, E., "Passions over Commissar" in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), October 1990.
Navailh, F., "Le drapeau rouge et les gants blancs," in Cahiers duCinématheque (Perpignan, France), no. 67, December 1997.
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When director Alexsandr Askoldov completed his first and only feature, The Commissar, in 1967, it was immediately banned and he was blacklisted as a film director. In December of 1987, in an atmosphere of glasnost, The Commissar was permitted a showing in Moscow and soon received international attention and critical praise. The film, based on the story "In the Town of Berdichev" by Vasily Grossman, is about love, war, maternity and betrayal, and presents a frightening foreshadowing of the Holocaust.
The pregnant commissar of a Red Army unit, Klavdia Vavilova, enters the town of Berdichev at the head of her battalion in 1922 and shoots a deserter who had escaped home to his wife. While occupying the town, this hard-edged, dedicated Bolshevik must tell her second-in-command that she must leave the Army because she is pregnant. The home of a Jewish tinsmith and his wife, mother-in-law and six children is commandeered for her confinement, and the commissar and her baby become assimilated into this family. A friendship develops between Klavdia and Raisa, the tinsmith's wife, and both begin to adopt characteristics of the other. After her baby is born, the commissar becomes nurturing, gentle, and protective of her child, while, Raisa, the tinsmith's wife, begins to assert her individuality. Realizing the fragility of new life and responsibilities of motherhood, Klavdia questions whether the consequences of war are too costly for her to return to battle. She finally decides to resume her duties as commissar and leaves her infant with the Jewish family.
The film has elements of warmth and humor as the tough commissar clashes with the gentle tinker, and as they eventually develop a strong bond. The large loving family represents a nurturing Jewish ethic, which Askoldov contrasts with the uncompromising Russian will to conquer in the name of universal justice. The Jewish family is treated sympathetically, but as William Wolf asserts in Film Comment, "Paying special attention to the persecution of Jews has long conflicted with the Soviet policy of downplaying Jewish identity."
The film was banned due to tension derived from the Soviet Union's troubled history with Jews and Askoldov's refusal to change or remove any part of the film which exposes anti-Semitism and portrays the military unfavorably. Anne Williamson stated in Film Comment (May/June 1988): "In 1967, just as Israel had triumphed in the Six Day War, Askoldov was finishing the edit on The Commissar, which sympathetically portrays a Jewish family. Soviet censors realized that scenes like the commissar's vision of the future Holocaust and of the Magazanik family being led to the gas chambers hinted darkly at a connection between Nazism and Russian anti-Semitism and could possibly remind audiences of Stalin's appeasement of Hitler." In addition to the powerful flash forward of the family members trudging along to their impending terrifying demise, the film includes a disturbing child's fantasy of a pogrom. As Louis Menashe suggests in Cineaste, 1989, "What appears to be Askoldov's preference for humanism over Bolshevism probably contributed to official wrath toward the film."
The Commissar was produced at the Gorky Studio, which rejected the finished product as its "greatest political and esthetic failure." Askoldov was fired for incompetence and the film was destroyed. But Gorbachev's policy of glasnost led to a revolution in Russia's film industry and many blacklisted films reemerged. In May, 1986, conservatives were ousted from the leadership of the Soviet Filmmakers Union and control over the movie industry shifted from the state bureaucracy to the union's new leaders—directors whose films had been shelved in the past. Askoldov was given permission to search for his film in the state archives, and he found a print in a damp cellar. The black-and-white film had been partially destroyed, but Askoldov restored it by piecing together various copies.
The Commissar is visually striking and incorporates features of Askoldov's great predecessors. Williamson identifies a brilliant metaphor in the cross-cutting of soldiers and sees Vsevolod Pudovkin's sense of realism as Klavdia struggles to push a cannon up a hill of sand and in the birth sequence. The rhythm and energy of Sergei Eisenstein are evoked in the scene of the caravan in which the commissar's revolutionary lover dies a gallant death. Brian Johnson notes in his article in Maclean's (26 September 1988): "Askoldov broke the fetters of the socialist realism that prevailed at the time of the film's release with fluid camerawork and dreamlike scenes of cavalry horses galloping riderless across a battlefield." The clarity of the images and varying pace of editing offers moments enhanced by an excited tempo as well as those reserved for reflection and contemplation.