Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
Original Title: Komissar
USSR, 1967. Kinostudiya imeni M. Gorkogo, Mosfilm. Screenplay by Aleksandr Askoldov, based on the story V gorode Berdicheve by Vasiliy Grossman. Cinematography by Valeri Ginzburg. Produced by Galina Belinskaya, B. Dokuchayev. Music by Alfred Schnittke. Production Design by Sergey Serebrenikov. Costume Design by Yakov Rivosh. Film Editing by Natalya Loginova, Svetlana Lyashinskaya, Nina Vasilyeva.
Klavdia Vavilova (Nonna Mordyukova) is a powerful commissar in the Red Army whose hardline devotion to her part of the Russian Civil War is being threatened by an impending arrival: she is pregnant and will need to step down from her duties to have a baby. After ignoring it for as long as possible, the army billets her with a Jewish family in a remote Ukrainian village to prepare for her birth; they are at first resentful of her presence, the family has six children and barely enough room as it is, but she quickly gets along with her hostess and is soon treated like one of the family.
Haunted by dreams of the deserter whose execution she oversaw, Vavilova eventually grows concerned when she is told that her army is in retreat and the White Army will soon be parading through their town. Either side of this war is happy to take part in pogroms against Jewish citizens, and her living with people that she has grown to care about could be putting them in danger. A fascinating dream sequence towards the end, which has Vavilova prophesy the coming horrors of the twentieth century for Russian Jews, is the perfect, haunting twist to this absorbing and careful tale whose strength is very much in the controlled performances.
Mordyukova, a brawny and formidable woman, makes a complex and inscrutable heroine in the lead, the harder she is to read the more you’re drawn into figuring out the jigsaw puzzle of her emotions and intentions; in a narrative not overwhelmed with too many incidents, her enigmatic qualities make it feel like a busy and complicated film. The portrait of military service as something that degrades the quality of human life, however, is scathing, and it’s not surprising that it stoked damaging controversy with Russian authorities. Made in 1967, the film was shelved by the Soviets for twenty years, during which they expelled director Aleksandr Askoldov from the Communist Party and told him the footage had been destroyed. In 1988, post-glasnost, it won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival partly for the power it still retained two decades after having been suppressed.
Berlin Film Festival Award: Silver Bear