Even with the so-called Khrushchev Thaw, it’s pretty amazing that Commissar even got made and perhaps even more astounding that it made it to the viewer all these years later. Some of that might be because it originated from Russian Civil War literature and anything else we can attribute to luck.
It is, as it titles suggests, about a commissar: an official of the Communist party, but this one seems special. First of all, she’s a woman which in itself is an interesting piece of commentary, but perhaps more so is the transformation she goes through.
From the outset, she is what we conjure up in our minds. Brutal, tough as nails, masculinized and mechanized by the collectivist agenda of the party. She’s the perfect comrade cog in the communist machine. Except then she receives the startling news that she is pregnant, and she must seek refuge in the home of a nearby Jewish clan. They are forced to quarter her, serving the greater good. She’s aloof to the whole idea and their diminutive patriarch puts up a fuss.
You see, he already has five children, a wife, and a mother to look after. He can’t afford to have this unwanted extra baggage, and she’s no friend of theirs. In this sense, the film feels reminiscent of Melville’s Silence de la mer. However, Commissar evolves into its own creature, just as all parties involved change over time. Yefim and his wife make their guest comfortable the best they know how and following the pregnancy they take good care of her.
Seeing her with a newborn is an altogether strange and foreign image, and with the cult of motherhood, the commissar’s whole demeanor shifts. She looks on at this family with contented eyes and stares back at her former life with some reluctance. It seems impossible to traverse the same paths she once did.
Perhaps most frightening are the images that are interwoven into the plot. They are disorienting, paranoia-filled, listless dreams that swoop in during pregnancy and restless hours of sleep. In the present, there are the children playing their militant games, terrorizing their sister, a sad reflection of the things going on outside of their own homes. There are constant contributions and pogroms always hanging over God’s people.
Whether it’s a hopeful fairy tales or a truth which you are willing to die for, the film paints a fairly bleak picture of what it means to live life. Our commissar is wholly disillusioned and the shadows of the Holocaust hang over the narrative because they lurk in the near future, not the past.
Director Aleksandr Askoldov’s favors a fluid camera that nevertheless feels unrefined more times than not in its blunt and most certainly chaotic movements throughout the frame. It’s as if it’s not confident keeping still — needing to prove its mobility in all circumstances. Still, the film boasts a lasting power that feels counter-cultural. This is not the film we expect coming out of the USSR circa 1967. These characters feel conflicted, their story feels sobering at best. It also offers up a strangely haunting dance sequence like no other, but then again this is far from an ordinary film. The director would soon be fired, expelled from the party, and exiled. The KGB would lock his film away and throw away the key for 20 years. He undoubtedly struck a cord — then and now.