Commissar is based on Vasilii Grossman's "In the Town of Berdichev"
(1934), a story of a female commissar who gives up her baby to a Jewish family
during the Polish-Soviet War in order to return to the front. While Grossman's
story was praised, including by Maksim Gor'kii, Askol'dov's Commissar (1967)
was "shelved" and stored in the Gosfil'mofond archives for twenty
years. Made to honor the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, Commissar
was finally released shortly after the 15th Moscow International Film Festival
in 1987. The film received several unpublicized screenings in the Soviet Union,
but was an enormous success at international film festivals the following
Commissar's depiction of Jews focuses on one family, in which the father, Efim, advocates an "International of kindness" instead of any form of Bolshevism. Rolan Bykov, Raisa Nedashkovskaia, and Liudmila Volynskaia give masterful performances as Jews, whose "otherness" is reinforced by Nonna Mordiukova's portrayal of the commissar. Language and song play a major role in shaping each character's Jewishness: Volynskaia, who plays Efim's mother, speaks in Yiddish throughout the film; Bykov's almost theatrical dance and song performances unexpectedly emerge in several scenes, placing Jewish folk culture alongside more serious questions of life and death in the film.
Commissar's treatment of Jewishness allows Askol'dov to explore topics other than the individual's relationship to the state. The film comments on the plight of the Jews under the Russians, Soviets, and later under the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War, a topic that was rarely addressed in film. Vavilova's visions of Efim and his family marching into a concentration camp do not portray the family as Soviets, but as Jews, all wearing the Star of David. They are separate from Vavilova, who stands holding her child and can only bear witness to the scene.
Aleksandr Askol'dov was never allowed to direct another film. Commissar's legacy is strongly tied with the director's struggle to have the film released. The film makes extensive use of vivid flashbacks and flashforwards, all captured by violent camera movement and point of view shots. Askol'dov relies on asynchronous sound during flashback scenes to link events together, most notably during Vavilova's labor in the childbirth scene, where her cries are heard over the action of numerous intercut flashbacks.
Commissar's exploration of Jewish and Soviet identities universalizes human experience. The film seeks to focus the viewer's attention on the value of human life, rather than on the differences between two world views. Although Commissar may not take a neutral stance in this task, the film seeks to move beyond Soviet and Jewish questions: questions that censors could not ignore at the time of the film's release.
Commissar (released 1987)