Aleksandr Askoldov’s film The Commissar (1967)

Screening and discussion on November 22, 2014

When in 1967 Aleksandr Askoldov finished working on his film Commissar, this artistic achievement cost him his livelihood and career. The film was seized by the KGB without a single screening, whereas its creator lost his job and was exiled from Moscow. Commissar was banned by the Soviet censors till the post-soviet era of glasnost, when it was rediscovered, reconstructed and finally released in 1988. At that time it was screened at several major international film festivals, reaping a number of highest awards and finding its rightful place among the masterpieces of world cinema.

Askoldov’s Commissar is an adaptation of a short story by Russia’s celebrated writer, Vassily Grossman. Set during the turbulent time of the Civil War which followed the October Revolution of 1917, the film brings together and clashes lives and outlooks of seemingly incompatible people, bringing to the fore the eternal questions about value and meaning of human existence, love and family. What does it mean to be human? What does it take to be human at the time of historical cataclysms? Can one’s dedication to the cause be more important than joys of private life? To what extent do our allegiances define us? How do we decide, who is ‘our own’ and who is ‘the other’? We will ponder questions to these and other questions, which this rediscovered cinematic masterpiece prompts. At the same time we will contemplate its artistic appeal and thematic relevance to the contemporary international audiences.


Film discussion questions:


1. What do you, as a viewer, find appealing in Askoldov’s film “Commissar”?


2. Askoldov, claims that this film is about love, children, and family. What do you think about this claim? What is this film about?


3. What in your opinion is the main dilemma of The Commissar?


4. Do you agree with London Encyclopedia’s nomination of Nona Mordiukova, who plays in Askoldov’s The Commissar Klavdia Vavilova, as one of the top ten world actresses of the last century?


5. What is unique and original about her portrayal of the Red Commissar Klavdia Vavilova?


6. How does the film reveal Klavdia’s womanhood?


7. Askoldov’s film The Commissar (1967) adopts to the screen Vasily Grossman’s short story, “In the town Berdichev” (1934). The latter was praised by a number of Soviet literary critics and enjoyed several publications in the thirties and sixties. Why then Askoldov’s adaptation of Grossman’s short story was censored and banned? What aspects of the film could be seen by the censors as anti-Soviet, “ideologically alien,” subversive and inappropriate?


8. Very often film’s critics claim—and Askoldov admitted it too—that this film glorifies the October Revolution and the ardor of the Civil War that followed. Do you agree with this assessment? What imagery supports this opinion? What aspects of the film subvert it?


9. How would you define the genre of this film? In which way, if at all is it a historical film?


10. What role do children play in the film?


11. What scenes and episodes, shots and images stand out as especially significant and memorable?


12. How does this film subvert the Soviet ideological claim about the equality of the sexes?


13. There is neither blood nor wounds on the screen. Nor does the film show explicit violence. How then does the film portray horrors of war?


14. How does Klavdia Vavilova view the Magazannik family? What do Maria and Efim think about Klavdia?


15. What does the film director, Askoldov, achieve by showing the holocaust through Klvadia Vavilova’s vision?


16. Why does Klavdia Vavilova leave in the end?


© 2019 by Svitlana Kobets. All right reserved.