Courtesy: Walter Goodman (July 17th,1988)
LEAD: Add ”Commissar” to the remarkable series of Soviet movies that has been finding its way West after many years in the cinematic gulag. Completed in 1967 and not yet shown in the Soviet Union, it is the first and, as of now, the only movie made by Aleksandr Askoldov. As patrons of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema can at last confirm for themselves, ‘
Add ”Commissar” to the remarkable series of Soviet movies that has been finding its way West after many years in the cinematic gulag. Completed in 1967 and not yet shown in the Soviet Union, it is the first and, as of now, the only movie made by Aleksandr Askoldov. As patrons of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema can at last confirm for themselves, ”Commissar” is a brave, humane and powerful work.
”In the Town of Berdichev,” the story by Vasily Grossman on which Mr. Askoldov based his screenplay, is the least impressive element of a virtuoso demonstration of movie making. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, with the Reds still battling the Whites, a pregnant commissar in need of a home for the weeks before delivery is boarded with a poor Jewish family, the Magazaniks. ”They think I’m Rothschild,” grumbles sweetly cantankerous Yefim, a tinsmith with a beautiful wife on whom he dotes and six cute children.
Soon Klavdia the commissar, whom we first met as she condemned a miserable deserter to death, shows the softening influence of motherhood and proximity to the warm family life of the idealized Magazaniks. The transformation is a touch pat and Klavdia herself, though played with skilled restraint by the full-bodied Nonna Mordukova, never becomes a full-bodied character. Mr. Askoldov plainly had more important things on his mind.
”Commissar” is a requiem for Soviet Jewry, not a popular subject among officially approved Soviet movie makers, writers or scholars. Yefim, who sings and dances away his poverty and his fears, is more a figure out of Sholom Aleichem than a model of the New Soviet Man. For him, in Rolan Bykov’s thoroughly human portrayal, humor jigs hand in hand with misery. When he refers to Klavdia as ”the Russian,” this Jew defines his own position as an outsider in the country he happens to inhabit. He draws no distinctions between the Whites, though he knows they are anti-Semitic, and the Reds. ”One group of rulers leaves,” he says. ”Another arrives.” He cries, in words that were unutterable in the 1960’s and still carry unhappy resonance: ”Maybe some day Jews will live where they want.” Yiddish is spoken here. Ideologically unacceptable.
The movie’s power lies in image after stunning image displaying Mr. Askoldov’s indebtedness to the great early Soviet directors. He can bring life to market days and to household chores, but realism, especially of the socialist sort, is too easy for his powers. Klavdia’s struggles during a difficult delivery become the terrific heavings of a group of soldiers straining to push a ponderous gun wagon through sand. The approach of the White army is signaled by a tremendous hammering as the townsfolk nail up their windows. Although working with only a handful of characters, again and again Mr. Askoldov and his fine cinematographer, Valeri Ginzberg, find ways of dramatizing the turmoil that is shaking their lives.
Two scenes especially will be hard to forget. In one, three of the younger children wage a mock pogrom against their gentle older sister. ”Dirty Yid!” they shriek. Carried away by their game, they tie the frightened girl to a swing, and in slow motion, which the director uses in several sequences to considerable effect, her body swings back and forth, an image of the eternal victim.
The most wrenching scene begins with a lovely interlude of all the Magazaniks dancing together as guns sound in the distance. Suddenly, the moment is transformed; now parents and children wear yellow stars as, followed by many other Jews, they move silently into darkness. We are supposed to be witnessing this grim revelation through Klavdia’s mind, and it is a weakness of ”Commissar” that nothing about the title character has readied us for such an example of compassionate foresight. Yet that seems a small fault in so large-hearted a work. What stays with us is the vision that brought Mr. Askoldov 20 years of silence. The Reds, the Whites And Those in Between COMMISSAR, directed by Aleksandr Askoldov; screenplay (in Russian with English subtitles) by Mr. Askoldov, based on ”In the Town of Berdichev” by Vasily Grossman; camera, Valeri Ginzberg; music by Alfred Schnittke; produced by Gorky Studio. At Lincoln Plaza 3, 63d Street and Broadway. Running time: 105 minutes. This film has no rating. Klavdia … Nonna Mordukova Yefim … Rolan Bykov Maria … Raisa Nedaskovskaya Commander … Vasily Shukshin WITH: Ludmila Volynskaya, Lyuba Katz, Pavlik Levin, Dima Kleinman, Igor Fishman, Marta Bratkova, O. Koveridze, L. Reutov, V. Shakhov.