COMMISSAR (Aleksandr Askoldov, 1967, 1988)

A work of considerable artistic merit, Aleksandr Askoldov’s Commissar (Komissar) is nonetheless most famous on other than artistic grounds. Based on the story “In the Town of Berdichev” by Ukrainian Jewish author Vasili Grossman, it is writer-director Askoldov’s only film. Made in 1967, it was suppressed by the Soviet government for twenty years, appearing at home and in worldwide distribution, after finally being completed, only when glasnost had liberalized the nation and national prerogatives—and even then only because Askoldov indefatigably pursued its release. (It took a Silver Bear and the prize of international film critics at Berlin in 1988, and Askoldov also won at Flanders.) The film, in part about an impoverished Jewish family in 1922 during the Russian Civil War, takes aim at anti-Semitism. The Soviet Union had sided with Arabs in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. This is the preemptive “Six-Day War” that Israel fought against Egypt, which was joined by Iraq, Jordan and Syria. It was an especially active time for anti-Jewish sentiment in the U.S.S.R.—a sentiment that ran, and runs, deep among Russians as a result of Russia’s historically dominant Orthodox Christianity. The film was thus deemed unfit for the commemorative event for which it had been green-lighted: the fifty-year anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Askoldov was in his mid-thirties when he made Commissar. The intercession of friends and colleagues averted the worst possible reprisals against him; however, there was punishment: Askoldov was fired from his job, was banned from making movies for the rest of his life, was banished from Moscow, his place of birth, and had his Communist Party membership pulled.

Cultural collision is at the heart of Commissar. Klavdia Vavilova is a Red Army cavalry commissar who is stationed in a small town. When a military dalliance results in her pregnancy and abandonment, she is placed—that is, strategically hidden away—in the cottage of Yefim Mahazannik (Rolan Bykov, best actor Nika), a Jewish tailor and mender of pots and pans, his wife Mariya (Raisa Nedashkovskaya, best supporting actress Nika) and their six children. The Mahazanniks’s bedroom has been officially appropriated for Klavdia’s use. However, it is the close-quartered interactions between the formidable Klavdia and this warm, somewhat stereotypical Jewish family that weighs in on her, helping to move her to higher human ground.

The prelude to Klavdia’s movement to Yefim’s home is critical to understanding the film and, I believe, the apoplectic Soviet reaction to it. There is a wonderful transition, pretty much in real time, from a pregnant Klavdia taking a bath to her professional duty outdoors attending to a deserter. Where they are stationed is this boy’s hometown, and he may or may not have been deserting when he left the unit to make love with his wife. An instant after we see Klavdia naked, vulnerable, alone, herself, when she is, alone, bathing indoors, we see her, heavily, officially clothed, ordering the execution of a boy who may not even have been deserting—just going AWOL for a while, lured by the temptation of seeing his wife. Addressing him before imposing the ultimate punishment, Klavdia accuses the soldier of trading in his allegiance to their cause for “a woman’s bed”—and we protest in our minds: his wife’s bed—and there is no real evidence of desertion. Isn’t Klavdia “going by the book” in denial of her own circumstance? As the execution is recorded in slow motion, a surrealistic pitcher of milk falls from the boy’s grip—a reflection of how much at war with her suddenly maternal aspect Klavdia’s military behavior is. The upshot is an implicit antiwar skewering of Klavdia’s decision and the boy’s execution. None of this has to do with anything Jewish, but I cannot help believe that it significantly contributed to the Soviet response. I have this guide: the U.S. government suppressed for a slightly longer time than the Soviet government suppressed Commissar John Huston’s antiwar Let There Be Light (1946). Such opposition to pertinent works of art bespeaks the ideological temperament of nations that wish to maintain war as a “moral” option.

Indeed, even before her pregnancy, Klavdia is a character more at bay than her military rank suggests. When she rides into town on horseback, she keeps looking up, in awe of the buildings and space that rival her own status. When she bathes, the scene is also shot for spaciousness, Klavdia amidst an expanse of steam. When she moves into the Mahazanniks’s bedroom, Klavdia is confined, enclosed. The difference is extreme, but the meaning that is disclosed is identical; Klavdia is uncomfortable in and undone by her surroundings. On the floor in obvious discomfort, Klavdia evidences another kind of encroachment of space, as a result of the fetus that is growing inside her. Moreover, her psychological space is being limited by both Yefim’s protestations of her intrusion, often out of her presence but neverthetheless (in such a tight space) within earshot, and the children’s irrepressible noisiness and rambunctiousness, the latter, given Klavdia’s condition, an unintended taunt. Here again Askoldov is being delightfully subversive, for all these matters test Klavdia’s authority and, as a result, implicitly question military authority, hence, war. Commissar reminds us how elegantly a work of art can stake out an attitude, a position.

Yefim is plainly put-upon by Klavdia’s imposed presence in his humble domain. His release the morning after her arrival is a perfect example of a Jewish man taking compensatory pleasure for the routine blows he is dealt for being Jewish: outside the cottage, alone, he breaks into finger-snapping, song and dance—a veritable Tevye the Milkman. In the context of Askoldov’s film, though, Yefim’s spontaneous performance is important. His is the joy of depressed humanity countering the depression, and it stands (and dances) in contradistinction to Klavdia, a resolutely glum individual in a position of authority, who has considerably less than Yefim to complain—hence, sing and dance—about. Yefim’s “joy,” it is strikingly clear, is his family, and it persists despite Klavdia’s interruption of his home peace. (Before he leaves for work, Yefim beams at his wife, who is holding their youngest.) By contrast, Klavdia is at war with her family—the child that her burdensome fetus is destined to become. She tells Mariya that the child she is carrying is “torture” and will be the death of her, to which Mariya responds, “My God, your words would make stones cry.” It is not too much to say that Yefim and his wife epitomize humane peace in the midst of war, while their uninvited houseguest—a reduced occupying entity—totes with her her association with war. Askoldov crosscuts between Klavdia’s ordeal of giving birth and flashbacks to some of her most harrowing war experiences. Surrealism overtakes realism once she has lost consciousness. Revived, she yells, “It will kill me!” Is Klavdia referring to her newborn or to war? Unlike Klavdia, Yefim cries with joy at the birth of her child. The sequence of shots implies a transference of his humanity to the mother, who uncustomarily smiles as she walks throughout the empty town carrying her son. However, at the bursting sounds of war she breaks down into tears in the street, protecting the infant. With the Whites rapidly approaching, that night Klavdia sings her son a lullaby. Mariya remarks to Yefim that Klavdia fusses over her child “like a Jewish mother.” Yefim’s response makes plain that maternal care claims no ethnicity, but one wonders whether Mariya’s parochial comment, with its suggestion of superior Jewish humanity, added to the Soviet store of resentment against Askoldov’s film. In context, it is in fact a lovely and generous moment, for we realize that Klavdia and Mariya have each affected and influenced the other.

Klavdia becomes “Aunt Klavdia” to Mariya and Yefim’s children. The completion of Klavdia’s humanization is sorely ironic. With the war raging outside, the family, Klavdia and her baby are all down in Yefim’s cellar. (A lapse: Yefim’s breaking into song and dance to calm his terrified children is as artificial and forced as the crying of the children that motivates the event.) Yefim laments the plight of his people, the precariousness of their existence. Suddenly a waking nightmare takes over the screen; men, women and children, identifiable as Jews from their Star of David patches, are marched into confinement. Carrying her baby, Klavdia is at the end of the line, watching. We assume that we are witnessing Yefim’s vision. But when the scene snaps back to Yefim’s cellar, the camera’s focus on Klavdia’s face reveals that it was her terrible vision that we have witnessed. It is a measure of Klavdia’s sympathy, even empathy, that she imagines this debacle (which history would prove prophetic), on the basis of Yefim’s remark.* Klavdia’s now full humanity is the depth of her concern not just for this one Jewish family but for the Jewish people. It is the film’s most piercing moment. We know what must happen, and it happens: after nursing her son and bidding him farewell, she leaves him behind with the Mahazanniks and takes off to rejoin her unit. The Mahazanniks have their work; she, hers. It is the ultimate sacrifice for the Communist cause, freely given. A sequence of shots leaves little doubt of the tragic outcome for Klavdia. At the last we wonder if Klavdia had ever known Jewish people before taking the Mahazanniks into her heart. Now her son will be raised Jewish. She knows she has left him in good hands.

What an emotional journey Klavdia undergoes, and Nonna Mordyukova charts it with great, subtle truth. power and a total lack of sentimentality.

Commissar is not a film of the first rank. It doesn’t measure up, say, to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, which was made in 1966. However, its many brilliant moments argue that Askoldov should have made more films—lots of them. But, like Klavdia’s living in peace and raising her child, that was not to be.

* Fannie Peczenik has written me the following: “Soviet Jews were murdered, in Berditchev and elsewhere, by the Germans as their armies advanced east. . . . I love this movie.”

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