Films of the Revolution: The Commissar

On Friday, October 20th, The Commissar or Komissar, was screened as a part of the 1917/2017 Event Series’ Films of Revolution. Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature and Comparative and World Literatures, Harriet Murav introduced the film.

Professor Murav noted that the film was made in 1967, was composed of many sharp juxtapositions of scenes, and is based on a 1930s short story by Vassily Grossman entitled “In the City of Berdichev”. The protagonist of the film is a female Bolshevik Commissar who must leave the army to have her baby, where she is housed with an uncouth, messy, and rambling Jewish family. The Commissar, Klaudia Vavilova, is played by Nonna Mordyukava who plays the uncle’s mistress in War and Peace.

The film was extremely controversial in Russia; as a result, the director of the film, Aleksandr Askoldov, was banned from making films and dismissed from the Communist Party. He was told (falsely) that the film had been destroyed.

Professor Murav’s introduction called attention to the film’s characteristics that were uncommon to cinema at the time, such as the birth scene in which Vavilova’s pain is depicted as the impossible struggle of pushing a canon up a sand dune, suggesting through this surrealism that childbirth is more difficult that the Commissar’s experiences at war.

The characters in the film are steeped in violence. As we see in the children of the household, the three brothers gang up on their sister and tie her up (picture below). Though they do not harm her in any overt way, they terrorize her and torture her in hanging her to a swing until her cries are heard from inside. Through this scene, Askoldov shows how the violence of the period permeates into the otherwise innocent lives of the children. Professor Murav pointed out that Askoldov layered the anti-Jewish violence of the Civil War over the Holocaust violence.

Further, the film foreshadows the Holocaust in a jarring scene of Jews being deported from the local village wearing armbands and gold stars, and while the scene is very familiar to the viewers of the film, the scene feels incongruous to the viewer because the film was set well before the Second World War and thereby muddles the timeline for the viewer.

Professor Murav likewise highlighted that ordinary people had a hard time playing the film’s extras during the Holocaust scene because the location in which the scene was screened was allegedly near the location of a German round-up point during the German occupation. As the title “Films of Revolution” suggests, the film is set during the Russian Revolution of 1917, which resulted in a civil war between the Communists and the Bolsheviks.

Professor Murav added that this juxtaposition style used by Askoldov was dropped in the later cinematic period. The Commissar won various awards including the Silver Bear at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival in 1988, as well as several Nika Awards in 1989.

Throughout the film, the partriach of the Jewish family muses upon the dream that a tram will be built in Berdichev. His musings symbolize the family’s hope for the future, for prosperity and development in the town. The film ends on a rather stark note as the patriarch of the family concludes that a tram will certainly never be built in Berdichev as there will not be anyone left to ride it.   

Lizy Mostowski is a graduate student in the Program in Comparative and World Literature and John Klier Scholar in the Program in Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on Polish-Jewish literature and surrounding discourses. Her writings on Polish-Jewish topics in contemporary Poland can be found on the Virtual Shtetl website.

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