68 min., 11 r., 2998 m., W.s. Dir.- Alexander Askoldov.
Cast: N.Mordukova, R.Bykov, R.Nedashkovskaya, V.Shukshin, L.Volynskaya, O.Koberidze, L.Reutov.
For a filmmaker in the United States, “making a movie” is a relatively straightforward matter of finding a script, hiring some actors and technicians, rustling up some money, and proceeding to shoot. The marketplace–and the marketplace alone–will be the judge, artistically and financially, of the success of the effort.
To a filmmaker in the Soviet Union, however, these seemingly simple activities are only the beginning, as is demonstrated by the experience of Alexandr Askoldov, whose first and only film, Commissar, is beginning to be shown in the West. Although the film was completed in 1967, twenty years and the introduction of glasnost were needed before the film was considered “safe” for release in the USSR and elsewhere. One of the great showpieces of Washington’s annual Filmfest DC this year, Commissar is an eloquent exploration of the conflicts between mother love and revolutionary duty; between the destruction of war and the hope of peace; and, ultimately, between the fundamental rights of the individual and those of the state.
The film is based loosely on the first work of fiction written by Vasily Grossmann (1905-1964), The Town of Berdichev (1934), a novella. Grossmann, a controversial figure himself, was a Soviet writer and war correspondent who covered both the Battle of Stalingrad and the liberation of Treblinka. His long-suppressed epic, which approaches Tolstoyan proportions, was itself only published in the West in 1986, under the title Life and Fate (Harper and Row). Grossmann’s selection of Berdichev, his birthplace in the ancient Jewish Pale, furnished Askoldov with an ideal setting for his film, even though the film is only partly about Russian Jews and the town is not specifically identified in the film. Askoldov and Grossmann never met, although Askoldov did visit Grossmann’s widow to ask permission to adapt the novella for his film.
COMMISSAR, is a Russian film of remarkable beauty. Made by the disgraced director Askoldov, the film’s history points to the fatuity of Soviet arts policy, and to the waste of a great talent, Askoldov. The film was based on a story “In theTown of Berdichev”, by Vasilii Grossman, the author of “Life and Fate”. A story praised by both Babel and Gorky. The story is about the fate of a woman, who being a commissar during the Civil War in Russia and fighting in the Red Army troops, gives birth to a child but later leaves him in charge of the other family and returns to the front. It’s a remarkable film, beautifully shot- and its images of the Russian Civil War are rendered with magnificent feeling. There, the main character has visions, most in a white tonality, one of which shows Jews marching to their death in a concentration camp.
In 1967, caught at the time of its release in the Soviet propaganda campaign against Israel, it is shelved because of its Jewish subject matter and Askoldov forced out of filmmaking. He manages to make two documentaries over the next twenty years. Askoldovs once bright career broken on the back of Soviet policy. It is a Soviet film that shows the fate of the Russian Jews during the Hitler Period and Soviet complicity in that fate. Askoldovs film was, incredibly, seen as both anti Semitic and anti Russian by the Soviet censors. No good deed went unpunished. Askoldov, dismissed from the Gorky Studios, and the Party, was finally told that the single print of the film had been destroyed. It was a tactic clearly intended to break his will.
His career in ruins Askoldov protests for decades, and the film is finally released in the 1980’s, in part because of the director’s intransigence. Like so many of the Soviet victims, the director is destroyed not because he would subvert the system but because he continued to believe in Socialism despite the polices of the state to reduce the idea to nullity.
In 1988 the film was released and was awarded “The Silver Bear” prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. The same year it was awarded four professional prizes “Nika”.