The Commissar Review
The history of how Alexander Askoldov’s 1967 film The Commissar took 20 years to see the light of day is a fascinating one. Not only was the film banned and confiscated by the censors, but the director was expelled from the Communist Party for “slandering the revolution” and even prosecuted for “squandering state funds” by making it. Askoldov consequently never made another film, but petitioned relentlessly for The Commissar to be released. It was only by this personal insistence by the director that the film was recovered and restored by Mosfilm in 1988 and screened at the West Berlin Film Festival, where it was awarded the Silver Bear. You might suspect that the high acclaim for a film once banned by the Communist authorities in a city still divided by the Wall might have been more for political motivations rather than for artistic merit - and indeed it may well have been to some extent – but The Commissar has a strong humanist message that extends beyond its Russian Civil War setting in the nineteen-twenties, its banning by the Communist authorities in the sixties and its rehabilitation in the eighties, and the film still strikes a powerful chord today.
Set in 1920, during the Russian Civil War, the Red Army under the control of Commissar Varilova (Nonna Mordyukova), have just taken the little town of Berdichev. A female officer, Varilova’s pregnancy is starting to become noticeable, so the authorities decide that they have to discreetly deal with the matter and put her into the care of a Jewish family in the town. With a mother, a wife and six children to provide for, the last thing Yefim Magazannik (Rolan Bykov) needs is another person to look after, much less a pregnant woman who is soon going to have a child of her own. It’s not a situation that the Varilova would choose either, the Commissar clearly finding it difficult to come to terms with a condition that prevents her carrying out her duties in the army. As Yefim’s wife Maria (Raisa Nedashkovskaya) prepares her for what lies ahead however, it would seem that fighting a war would have been the easier option. The matter is further complicated however by the changing tide of the war, the White Army making advances and threatening to regain the town. The precariousness of the situation holds great risks for the Red Army Commissar and for the Jewish family housing her, but also causes Varilova a great deal of personal conflict.
As the subject matter indicates, The Commissar is an uncommon film, setting up a unique situation where a female officer, pregnant out of wedlock (the father having been killed in action), has to live with a Jewish family, where she discovers that the ideology she believes in has little relation with the way most people live their lives. It doesn’t exactly paint a rosy picture of the glorious revolution and you can see why the Communist authorities wouldn’t have been too happy with it. Just as uncommon and still less likely to please the authorities, is the extraordinary manner in which Askoldov depicts the Commissar’s interior conflict with lyrical and cinematographic flourishes. Varilova’s childbirth sequence is metaphorically played out on a battlefield and there are other astonishing sequences of a wedding party rushing through the streets, the powerful presence of horses, and most controversially, an ominous premonition of the holocaust - all of which evoke deep personal fears, desires and conflicts beyond the surface. Some might find these sequences a little too poetic and elaborate, but their underlying force and meaning is effectively and sensitively conveyed – no more so than in one apparently innocent game played by the children that suggests something much more sinister.
The authorities who banned the film criticised what they saw as the “pro-Zionist” message that such strong sequences put across, but one suspects that they were far more concerned about the suggestion in The Commissar that there could be any conflict of interest between the ideology of Communism and the practicalities of ordinary people simply trying to live. For Varilova, it’s a complex matter, compounded all the more by the nature of her being a woman, a mother and a Red Army officer. Askoldov depicts this conflict with brilliance and sensitivity, fully understanding and clearly presenting the deep humane issues that arise out of the situation. That message is that somewhere along the line in the quest for ideological correctness the real needs of people have been lost or forgotten, and the ultimate consequence of such a disregard for life is too dark to contemplate.
The Commissar is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The 2-disc set is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
The transfer for this edition has been derived from the Russian Cinema Council’s Ruscico release of the film, which not only means it has a number of unavoidable inherent flaws, but it also retains some of the more eccentric qualities of their releases. The image quality is consequently not strong, but considering that half of the original negative was destroyed and that the remaining elements were hardly likely to have been carefully preserved by the authorities that banned the film, it’s probably as good as could be expected and certainly more than adequate. The tones tend towards the lighter side with flat grey tones and few strong blacks, with occasional signs of light flaring in from the edges. A lot of grain is evident and mosquito noise, which – like the recent Artificial Eye release of Ruscico’s Dersu Uzala - would suggest a lower resolution video source rather than a transfer direct from a print or negative. There is however no real trouble from marks or scratches or any kind of serious print damage and the film’s visual qualities are not greatly compromised.
One of the peculiarities of Ruscico releases is in their remixing of soundtracks, but thankfully, the original mono mix is at least included here and it performs well, with minimal noise and distortion, the voices and sound effects coming across with reasonable clarity and tone. The Russian Dolby Digital 5.1 remix has been heavily re-recorded with additional sounds and, if you are not particularly fussy about the purity of the original, this is audibly most impressive. In reality however, it’s certainly a distortion of the original intentions of the film. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is not a dub, but rather a single narrator translating, or rather reading the English subtitle translation, over all the voices – even a lullaby sung in the film is dryly spoken by the voice. This has to be heard to be believed – in DD 5.1 no less! - but I can’t see anyone seriously considering either of the latter options as a viable alternative for the original Russian mix with subtitles.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and they are optional.
As ever, the Russian Film Council have rooted through their archives and come up with some excellent supplemental material for the film. Disc One contains static material in the form of text and photo galleries. There is biographical information on V. Grossman, the author of the original short story In The Town of Berdichev, Filmographies for the principal cast and crew, a Photo Gallery (1:56) of excellent quality stills in full widescreen (giving perhaps some indication of how incredible the film may once have looked), and Stills From The Film (1:22) which show the director working on the set of the film.
Disc Two contains more substantial material. A recent Interview with Alexander Askoldov (39:22) is compelling stuff, the director talking about his family background, his personal experience of Stalinism (which clearly inspired the sentiments in the film), as well as setting the record straight on the troubled history of the film. Throughout, he maintained an unwavering belief in the film’s power to transform, and that it would eventually see the light of day. He is still bitter however that the film has even today never received due recognition in Russia. There are other archive interviews with Nonna Mordyukova (4:39), Raisa Nedashkovskaya (3:31) and Rolan Bykov (17:02), each of whom have very different views on Askoldov’s stance, but a deep admiration for his genius. Rolan Bykov also talks about his Favourite Scenes (11:21) in the film, going into one in particular in great detail and in the process giving some good information on how the film was made. The Filmography for Askoldov is the same as on Disc One. Historically fascinating Letters and Documents are also presented, showing the deep impressions the film made, both positive and negative. In another more recent Interview with Raisa Nedashkovskaya (15:01), the actress reminisces on the film and gives her thoughts on its meaning and legacy. There is a reel of international Press (2:40) acclaim for the film, a list of its Awards, and a fine Photo Album ‘Recognition’ (4:49) gallery of posters, stills and promotional material for the film’s belated international festival appearances.
Inevitably, due to the director Alexander Askoldov being banned from making further films, The Commissar truly is a one-off film, but it is unique in many other ways. Visually, the film shows remarkable flair and inventiveness in its powerful depiction of complex personal and ideological conflicts, fully elaborating the underlying human issues that lie beneath. Regardless of the period that the film is set in, these truths remain relevant and, as the history of the film shows – taking 20 years to get released and a further 20 to make it to DVD in the UK – the truth endures. Artificial Eye’s presentation of the film on DVD isn’t perfect, but and the strength of the film’s imagery is in no way lessened by the less than pristine source elements and the package is well rounded out with an outstanding selection of supporting material in the extra features.