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The international of kindness
A UK region 2 DVD review of THE COMMISSAR / KOMISSAR by Slarek
 

In the early 1960s, young Muscovite Aleksandr Askoldov learned a valuable lesson about life, that art is more fulfilling than duty or comfort. Working for the Ministry of Culture, he was sent to investigate a revolutionary production of Sidor Shtok's play Anchor Square, which was being staged in Leningrad by renowned actor-director Rolan Bykov. The ministry were looking to have Bykov replaced, but Askoldov was captivated by the production and instead of filing the expected negative report he sided with the director. Not long after, he quit his job and its comfortable salary and successfully applied to become a film director.

Askoldov had no artistic axe to grind, despite losing both parents in the Stalinist purge. But he was, in his own words, a little naïve, some might say idealistic. Recalling the kindness shown to him by a Jewish family when his parents were taken from him, he chose for his first feature an adaptation of Vasily Grossman's short story In the Town of Berdichev, whose plot in some key aspects mirrored Askoldov's own childhood experiences. All seemed to be going well, but on viewing the finished film the authorities were aghast. The work was instantly confiscated and subjected to an indefinite ban and Askoldov was expelled from the Communist Party, prosecuted for squandering state funds, and forbidden to engage in further film work.

Twenty years later, in the time of perestroika and the release of previously suppressed films, the ban on The Commissar [Komissar] was re-examined and surprisingly re-enforced. On July 9th 1987 at the 15th Moscow International Film festival, a question from a Brazilian journalist about the release of previously shelved Russian films prompted Askoldov to leap to the podium and demand that the 20-year-ban on his own film be finally lifted. With Soviet bureaucracy now under the enquiring gaze of the international media, they finally capitulated and a battered print was screened to an audience of filmmakers from around the world. Their reaction was very positive. The film was subsequently screened at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival, where it won four prizes, including the Silver Bear Special Jury Prize. It went on to win nine other international awards and even received a gala screening in the US Congress. To this date the film has never been shown in any Russian film festival, nor received any awards on its home turf.

So what was it, exactly, that so enraged the Soviet authorities about The Commissar? Too much sex and nudity? Morally suspect undercurrents? No, The Commissar did something much more dangerous: it suggested that maybe the revolution had not been so great for everyone caught up in it, that anti-Semitism was probably not a good thing, and that it might by a nice idea if instead of fighting we all tried to understand each other and learn to live in peace.

The Commissar of the title is Klavdia Vavilova, a female Red Army officer stationed in the Ukraine during the Russian revolution and who is heavily pregnant by an unspecified father. She's hiding it well under her winter clothing, but with the time of birth approaching she confides in her commanding officer, who arranges for her to be billeted with a poor local Jewish family until the baby is born. With their small, ramshackle home already cramped by six children and a grandmother, the father Yefim protests loudly, while his wife Maria has a kinder attitude to their sullen guest, quickly realising her condition and empathising with what she is soon to experience. Over time, even Yefim warms to Klavdia, whose stony exterior begins to soften with the birth of her child. But with the arrival of anti-Communist forces in the area, Klavdia has a difficult decision to make.

There is a disarming economy to the manner in which Askoldov sets up the story, establishing Klavdia's authority, character and condition in three short scenes – the arrival of the garrison in a Ukrainian town, the capture and surrealistic execution of a deserter, and the telling conversation with her Commander – and twenty minutes in she is billeted with the Mahazannik family, where she will remain for the pretty much the rest of the film. This is a story of revolution and battle only in how it is perceived by those on the fringes of its idealistic crossfire.

The two parties initially appear to be polar opposites. The well-fed Klavdia is sternly committed to her cause and regards her accidental pregnancy as a tiresome inconvenience (her request for a termination coming too late and falling on deaf medical ears), while the Mahazanniks openly celebrate life and adore the children they can barely afford to feed. Their positive outlook is perfectly captured on the morning following Klavdia's arrival at the Mahazannik home, as the still irritable Yefim emerges from his house and seems to take a delight from the air and the light around him, lost in the music of a traditional song and moving in dance steps, until the reality of the day ahead brings him back down to earth.

Both Klavdia and Yefim have their preconceptions to overcome and it is the non-judgemental Maria who acts as a catalyst for the gradual bonding that transpires. It happens in almost invisible steps – later in the story one of the Mahazannik children asks a question of 'Aunt Klavdia', a seemingly natural step in the process of mutual acceptance. The performances of the three leads (Nonna Mordyukova, Rolan Bykov – the actor-director whose play Askoldov had earlier defended – and Raisa Nedashkovskaya, as Klavdia, Yefilm and Maria respectively) are crucial to making this work as well as it does, but there is a persuasive intimacy to Askoldov's use of editing and the scope frame, the handheld drifts and smooth dolly shots of Valeri Ginzburg's frequently mobile camera giving some scenes an almost neo-realist feel. Later the camera is used to strikingly expressionistic effect, as when it glides gracefully and repeatedly between the two mothers in seperate rooms, simultaneously suggesting both the bond and the still-existing gulf between the Klavdia and her adoptive family.

This combination of assured technical handling, well-judged performances and finely observed character detail proves increasingly involving. But it's in the final half-hour, by when your engagement with the characters and their situation is complete, that the film delivers its real emotional clout and its most cinematically extraordinary scene. As the family shelter in the cellar and the shells of battle begin to fall, Yefim breaks into song and dance and encourages his scared and crying children to participate, the camera tilting up into the dark and back down onto each joyously distracted family member. Only Klavdia fails to participate – watching the family dance in the face of fear, she is suddenly hit by a startlingly realised vision of their possible future fate as they are herded into a Nazi death camp, while all she can do is follow and watch with dazed disbelief. It's a stunning sequence and one whose power comes almost entirely from its cinematic presentation, as perfectly realised a scene as you'll find anywhere in modern Soviet cinema. From here on in, the grip never loosens.

There are clear and deliberate religious elements to the story and the detail, from the meagre shelter offered for the mother-to-be to the touching scene in which Yefim declares his love for Maria by washing her feet (a favourite sequence of just about everyone involved in the production), but no God is needed to validate the film's humanist message. The Commissar is remarkable, multi-layered cinema, whose confidence of handling and vision is all the more astonishing for it being a first feature. That it was to be Asdolkov's only film is a shameful comment on a system that encouraged and enabled considerable creativity that it also had the power to ideologically throttle. Times have changed, of course, but it would be foolish to pigeonhole such stories as examples of old school Soviet oppression, as the many victims of the McCarthy blacklist will doubtless testify. Creative freedom is constantly being challenged, and it is perhaps ironic that the very religion that so influenced Asdolkov has just this week flexed its muscle to ensure the removal of an artwork by Cosmic Cavallaro from the Roger Smith Hotel gallery in New York on the basis that it offends their own particular restrictive ideology.

sound and vision

OK, there are a fair few imperfections here and I'll deal with them first. Contrast is a little variable and black levels are sometimes weak, there is occasional digital shimmering on some areas of fine detail and the odd bit of flickering, and sharpness is good rather than great. But according to the interview with Asdolkov on this very DVD, half of the original negative was destroyed and the few surviving prints were in anything but sparkling condition. With that in mind the transfer here is probably as good as you could hope for, and for the most part the print actually looks better than the film's turbulent history would suggest it should. The framing is 2.35:1 and the print is anamorphically enhanced. Almost all traces of dust and dirt have been removed.

The original Russian mono is joined by a new 5.1 remix that is something of a mixed blessing. It shines in the reproduction of location atmospherics, the thundering of horses hooves (a memorably thrilling tracking shot) and the approaching explosions of battle, but there are plenty of times when the mono track feels more, well, right for the film. There are some fearsomely rumbles on the 5.1 track that, although very effective, just weren't there at all on the original mono. There's also an English language track – it's not a dub in the usual sense, but the original soundtrack with a Russian-accented voice translating everything, including the signs.

extra features

This 2-disc set is one of Artificial Eye's Russian Cinema Council licences – the extra features have presumably been included in the package, the majority of which appear on disc 2.

DISC 1

V. Grossman
A textual biography of Vasily Grossman, writer of the short story on which the film is based.

Filmographies
Textual biographies for director Aleksandr Askoldov, cameraman Valeri Ginzburg, production designer Sergei Serebrennikov, composer Alfred Shnitke, actors Rolan Bykov, Otar Koberidze and Vasili Shukshin, and actresses Nonna Mordyukova and Raisa Nedashkovskaya.

Photo Gallery (1:56)
A rolling gallery of photos, set to music from the film. The pictures fill the widescreen frame, are anamorphically enhanced, and are of excellent quality.

Stills From the Film (1:22)
As above.

DISC 2

Some of the titles here have menus, and a couple of those are sub-divided further.

A. Askoldov

Interview (39:22)
A consistently fascinating interview with the film's director, Aleksandr Askoldov, who talks about his childhood and "the cruelty of Stalinism," his early career, the genesis of the film, the changes made to Grossman's original story and the sequence of events that followed the films release, amongst other things. There's some great stuff here – the post-completion fight for the film is particularly compelling.

From the Archives
This contains three archive interviews, all of VHS quality. Actress Nonna Mordyukova (4:40) talks of her admiration for Askoldov and berates him for never making another film. Raisa Nedashkovskaya (3:32) sings the family song from the film and adds her support for the director, suggesting that the problem the authorities had was that he "called things by their real name." This sound on this interview is out of sync with the picture by a good second. Rolan Bykov (17:03) talks about his initial reluctance to play the role (he was fed up with the idea that all film Jews were always automatically good people), and his development of the character and improvisation of some elements. Like the others, he feels that what Askoldov went through was dreadful. Intriguingly he talks of a new Askoldov film project that has yet to come to fruition, and cites Wim Wenders as one of those raising investment money. This is also out of sync, but by less than the first interview. It's immediately followed by a separate archive interview with the Bykov (11:22) in which he talks about his favourite scenes, playing the role of Yefim and the post-completion impact.

Filmography
The same textual biography of Askoldov as on disc 1.

Letters
A textual translation of two letters, the first condemning Askoldov and his behaviour, claiming that in the film "the revolution was presented as a blind and unrestrained force, depriving man of hope, ideals and happiness." It also accuses the director of "unprofessionalism." The second, addressed to the General Secretary of the Communist Party, defends him and his character, and is signed by by Alexander Shtein, Leonid Zorin and Alexander Borshchagovsky.

Documents
Reproductions of two of the actual documents that sealed Askoldov's artistic fate following the condemnation of The Commissar.

Interview with R. Nedashkovskaya (15:01)
From the start the actress expresses her fondness for the film and the role of Maria, and talks about the film, her character and the film's global message. She understandably describes Askoldov's expulsion from the film industry as a terrible loss. An intriguing aside tells us how they got one of the children to cry so effectively.

Press (2:40)
Press clips from the 1988 release, reproduced on screen read out in Russian, with optional English subtitles.

Awards
A textual list of awards the film has won.

Photo Album 'Recognition' (4:49)
Photos, international film posters and film festival posters from the eventual release.

summary

The Commissar arrives on UK DVD on the back of some impressive acclaim, but it really is justified. A very reasonable job has been done of the restoration, and some of the extra features here, notably the excellent interview with Asoldov himself, are really worth that second disc. Devotees of world cinema, of great, humanist cinema, owe it to themselves to see this film. Warmly recommended.

The Commissar
Komissar

Soviet Union 1967
104 mins
director
Aleksandr Askoldov
starring
Nonna Mordyukova
Rolan Bykov
Raisa Nedashkovskaya
Lyudmila Volynskaya
Vasili Shukshin
Lyuba Kats
Pavlik Levin

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 1.0 mono
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Russian
English
subtitles .
English
extras
Biographies
Photo galleries
Interview with Aleksandr Askoldov
Archive interviews
Letters and documents
Interview with Raisa Nedashkovskaya
Posters
Awards listing
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
26 March 2007
review posted
2 April 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews