After two decades of despair, Soviet film-maker Aleksandr Askoldov had almost given up hope of ever showing his first and only movie. In 1967, Askoldov wrote and directed The Commissar, a lyrical masterpiece about war and human dignity. Soviet officials banned the film and confiscated all the copies.
They also expelled him from the Communist party and ended his brief career as a film-maker. But in 1986, about a year after Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader, Askoldov received permission to search for his film in the state archives. After three weeks, he found some rusty boxes marked The Commissar in a damp cellar. The black-and-white film had been partially destroyed, but by piecing together various copies, Askoldov painstakingly restored it. Now, after 21 years, The Commissar is seeing the light of day.
At Toronto’s recent Festival of Festivals, it was one of 50 films featured in the largest retrospective of Soviet cinema ever mounted.
The program offered a privileged glimpse into a hidden side of Soviet life and culture. Like The Commissar, many of the films shown at the Toronto festival had been previously banned by Moscow bureaucrats. But under Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, there has been a revolution in the country’s movie industry. In May,
1986, conservatives were ousted from the leadership of the Soviet Filmmakers Union. And control over the movie industry shifted from the state bureaucracy to the union’s new leaders—directors whose films have often been shelved in the past. Setting up a body called the Conflict Commission to review banned work, the union has unearthed 60 movies during the past two years. According to the British Film Institute’s Ian Christie, who programmed the retrospective, “Film censorship has been totally abolished in the Soviet Union—it was the first cultural blast in the Gorbachev revolution.”
But Askoldov says that the Soviet bureaucracy is still uneasy about his film, which exposes anti-Semitism and paints a cruel portrait of the military. Set during the height of the Russian civil war in the 1920s, The Commissar tells the story of a hardened fe-
male army officer who becomes pregnant and is billeted with a sympathetic Jewish family. Askoldov broke the fetters of the socialist realism that prevailed at the time of the film’s release with fluid camerawork and dreamlike scenes of cavalry horses galloping riderless across the battlefield.
More recently, other Soviet film-makers have subverted realism—often mystifying the censors with fantasy. Director Vadim Abdrashitov’s 1984 feature, Planet Parade, is a whimsical excursion into the absurd. It is about a troop of army reserves who go looking for adventure after being involved in a mock battle. Advised by their superiors that they have been “killed” by a missile attack, the men pick up some women in the local village, attempting to seduce them in hilarious scenes of slow dancing under the stars. Later, the men abandon their dates and swim
off to an island for a comradely campfire. On the way back, they get lost in the woods and end up wandering around with a crowd of zombi-like residents from a nursing home dressed in clothes from the Stalin era. “Of course it is subversive,” said Planet Parade writer Aleksandr Mindadze. “But the politics are in the background.”
The sudden freedom that Soviet film-makers are now experiencing has posed a new set of problems. Interviewed in Toronto last week, Mindadze said: “Right now we can criticize everything and everybody. But I don’t think art should have the specific job of criticizing. Its tasks are deeper and more complicated.” Now that the bureaucracy has stepped aside, the film-makers must compete with each other to reach some of the most avid moviegoers in the world—Soviet citizens, who, according to Christie, go to the movies almost three times as often as North Americans. “As strange as it seems,” said Mindadze, “the danger now comes not from censorship but from commercialism.” However, the commercial fruits of Soviet cinema have bypassed Askoldov. A sad-faced figure who appeared at festival functions in a blue denim suit, the director said that he will earn “not a single kopeck” from The Commissar's international success. The reason: his government’s film export agency gives no royalties on foreign sales. And the Soviet media, he charged, have been downplaying the acclaim that the film is winning at festivals in the West. Meanwhile, Askoldov does not expect to make another movie. Instead, he spends his time crafting fine redwood furniture. “Maybe,” he said, “the West will start buying that one day too.”
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