by Allan Fish
(USSR 1967 108m) DVD1/2
Aka. The Commissar
The trams will never be running
p V.Levin, L.Prilutzkaya d/w Alexander Askoldov novel “In the Town of Berdichev” by Vasily Grossman ph Valery Ginsburg ed V.Isayeva, N.Loginova, S.Lyashinskaya m Alfred Schnittke art Sergei Serebrennikov
Nonna Mordyukova (Klavdia Vavilova), Rolan Bykov (Yefim Mahazannik), Raisa Bedashkovskaya (Maria Mahazannik), Lyudmila Volynskaya (grandmother),
He was only a boy of five when he became an effective orphan. Hard to imagine, having to stand back and watch your mother taken away by officials (and your father, veteran of the eastern front and the Civil War having ‘gone ahead’), and to hear the words “come back for the boy later.” Credit to the boy for having the gumption to realise that he needed to get out of there, even though it’s not yet dawn and dark outside, and make his way to the house of friends of his parents, where he was hidden. The family that were Jewish, and years later they themselves were to disappear in the Holocaust.
Thirty years later that little boy Alexander was making his first film, so it’s more than understandable what events in his life would influence him. He took a propagandist story by Vasily Grossman and transformed it into a film which would prove the most incendiary Soviet work of its generation. It was dismissed, booed, banned and derided upon its first showing, Askoldov himself not only losing his director’s license but being thrown out of the party. He could so easily have been made to ‘disappear’ himself, but he hung in there, amidst the derision.
Then in the late eighties came Glasnost and so many films shelved by the Soviet authorities during the Cold War were given the light of day and a projector – German, Muratova, Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky – and all were enthusiastically received. Yet it wasn’t until a Moscow Film Festival, when Askoldov himself had to witness the lie that all banned films were now liberated, that he spoke up and told the masses of western press and filmmakers that there was one film that wasn’t seen. Finally it would begrudgingly get its day in the sunlight. The day became weeks, months, awards from film festivals and august bodies alike, but still he was never allowed to make another film.
In itself it’s a simple tale, of a Red Army cavalry officer who just happens to be a woman, and a pregnant woman, too. How she came to be pregnant and who by is left to her own delirious dreams in the throes of labour, what’s important is how she comes to stay with a Jewish family and question the very nature of the superiority of an ideology.
There hadn’t been many pictures of real note about the Russian Civil War – the Vasilievs Chapayev, or the romantic slush of Knight Without Armour or Lean’s Doctor Zhivago – so the subject itself is arresting from the start. And what an opening; a boy wandering around a desert town with its Russian Orthodox church in a way to make it look like a Borsch western. Those visuals give way to a style, if not rhythm, that owed more to Jancsó, such as an extended sequence of cavalry horses running past abandoned ploughs to the incessant accompaniment of machine gun fire. In another scene, siblings play at re-enacted pogroms in a way to make the blood turn cold. Yet even that pales beside the sequence when the screen turns red in hue, tinting like in the old silents. The symbolism of blood becomes crystal clear. In what may be a premonition or merely a nightmare, the woman imagines hordes of Jews being shepherded into a narrow gateway. Men in painfully familiar striped pyjamas look down on them. Back to monochrome outside the Jewish family’s house, windows and doors boarded up with crossed planks, images of an earlier culling, of the red crosses of the great plagues of centuries earlier, while her emergence from a shelter underground had undoubted resonance in the Cold War; a nuclear winter for a time when it wasn’t even in the vocabulary. It’s a deeply humanistic film from a society which repudiated it. “There’s so few kind people left in the world”, Yefim says. Somewhere Sydney Greenstreet’s Peters is nodding; “quite right, sir.”