Monday, 4 April 2011

Aleksandr Askoldov: The Commissar - Комиссар (1967)

Director:Aleksandr Askoldov
Writers:Aleksandr Askoldov, Vasili Grossman (story)
Stars: Nonna Mordyukova, Rolan Bykov, Raisa Nedashkovskaya

Awards:9 wins; 4 nominations see here.

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. ...

One of the most striking Soviet films thawed out by glasnost, this 1967 feature by Aleksandr Askoldov was apparently controversial because it expresses overt sympathy for the Jews who were persecuted during the Russian civil war and because the lead character is a pregnant woman who challenged traditional stereotypes. As a first feature, the film is in many respects remarkable, if not an unqualified success. The black-and-white 'Scope images are often clearly influenced by the silent Soviet masters, and the use of subjective camera is especially striking, but the film is only intermittently effective as a narrative. Still, anyone with an interest in the subject or in Soviet cinema shouldn't miss it.

Excerpt of review from Jonathan Rosenbaum located HERE

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