Last night at our socialist film club we showed the 1967 Russian film, “The Commissar” by Alexander Askoldov. This is a truly great piece of art, but is perhaps slightly inaccessible for those more used to the Hollywood conventions of film making.
The film was a political disaster for Askoldov, being made both on the 50th anniversary of the October revolution, and also completed immediately after the six day war in the Middle East. He was never allowed to make another film, expelled from the Communist party (CPSU), and exiled from Moscow.
Instead of an heroic piece of “Soviet Socialist Realism”, the movie about a Red Cavalry unit during the civil war shows them in a very unglamorous light. What is more it is very sympathetic to the interpretation that the Soviet Union failed the Jews - a politically unacceptable message to the CPSU after Russia's allies in the Middle East had just lost a war to Israel.
Top Russian star, Nonna Mordyukova, plays Klavdia Vavilova a Cavalry Commissar who is pregnant by her lover, another soldier who has been killed in action. Because she has been in the saddle for the last three months, the doctors have told her she is too late for an abortion, so while she has the baby she is billeted on the family of a poor Jewish tailor, played by the brilliant Rolan Bykov.
Suddenly she is taken out of the energetic maelstrom of war, and finds herself in a family leading a slow paced small town life. The movie does not shy away from the fact that the Red Army commandeers a private room for her, as an officer, although this means that three adults and several children of the Jewish family have to share one room.
Slowly she becomes acclimatized to family life, and has the baby – the child birth scenes are especially brilliant and certainly this must be the most imaginative use of cavalry and field artillery in cinema! In her civilian clothes and with her baby she is ashamed to meet her former comrades.
But then the Red Army pulls out of the town, and she must stay behind with the family while they await the advancing white army: the Jews fear a pogrom. As they huddle in the cellar the family keeps their spirits up with the simple pleasures of singing and dancing. But as Bykov asks whether the Jews will ever be safe in the world and can their be an “international of kindness”, Mordyukova replies that the important thing is not the “international of kindness” but a workers’ international that will free humanity not through kindness but through steel determination and discipline. Her words seem like a foreign language to the family.
We then have a flash forward to the holocaust, as the Jews of the town are herded together, and we have a vision of Jews in the uniforms of the Nazi death camps.
Later, the Commissar watches the white armies entering the town, and in a desperately moving scene she abandons her baby so she can rejoin her regiment to stop this rising tide of fascism. The film ends with the Red army advancing across the battlefield, but the abiding memory are the words of the Jewish mother, when they find that the Commissar has abandoned her baby: “What sort of people are they?”
This is not a good film to watch if you want easy reassurance about the Russian revolution, but is a fantastic celebration of the human spirit and parental love. It also shows that war is unspeakable, even when it is just.
It is also worth mentioning the extraordinary score by Alfred Schnittke.
The paradox of the Soviet Union is that such challenging and intelligent cinema came from Russia during this period, but also that the Communist Party would ban such a humane artistic work for being off message.