Thursday, December 24, 2020

Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades!

By definition, there can't be a strike in the socialist workers’ paradise, so there must have been something deeply amiss in the provincial industrial town of Novocherkassk. Of course, the Soviet authorities dealt with dissent the way Communists always have. The result was a massacre and a cover-up. Andrei Konchalovsky dramatizes this formerly redacted episode of Soviet history in the searing Dear Comrades!, which releases virtually tomorrow, in conjunction with Film Forum.

Loyal Party apparatchik Lyuda Syomina keeps assuring townspeople they have never had it so good, even though the Party just increased food prices and slashed wages at the local munitions factory. Despite the local Party’s propaganda campaign, the factory workers have had enough. Awkwardly for her, this includes her modestly rebellious daughter, Svetka. The mere notion of a strike is enormously embarrassing, but when the striking workers barricade the Novocherkassk committee headquarters, Khrushchev dispatches the military, under the command of a trigger-happy loyalist.

Even though Syomina and her colleagues manage to sneak out, the shooting inevitably starts and it continues until the strikers are utterly broken. The unofficial death toll is high, but officially, the incident never happened, leaving worried parents no recourse when they realize their children are missing. That also includes the panicked Syomina, but at least her Party status gives her some limited latitude to search for Svetka, or her body. She finds a surprising ally in Loginov, a cautiously disillusioned KGB agent.

You probably never heard of the Novocherkassk Massacre, because the Party tried to whitewash it from history. Yet, it most certainly did happen. To ensure accuracy, Konchalovsky enlisted Yuri Bagrayev, the chief military prosecutor in charge of the frustrated 1992 inquiry, as a technical advisor. Years after the regime’s fall, this film still feels radioactive. Initially, the tone is somewhat akin to the absurdism, particularly with respect to the petty bureaucratic rivalries, but it soon turns deadly serious. Frankly, Konchalevsky’s depiction of massacre maelstrom is frighteningly realistic and the subsequent crack-down and cover-up are absolutely chilling to witness. Absurdity, confusion, and brutality—that pretty much covers the Soviet Socialist experience.

Regardless, you cannot look away as this tragedy unfolds. Without question,
Dear Comrades is Konchalovsky’s late-career masterpiece. There is so much to parse and analyze in the film, but it is always gripping on an immediate, human level. Julia Vysotskaya’s portrayal of the conspicuously flawed Syomina is wonderfully complex and messily human. (In many ways, her compromises represent all the compromises the Soviet people had to make, in order to live under an immoral system.) Vladislav Komarov provides an effectively understated counterbalance to her, as the slightly out-of-step Loginov.

Dear Comrades
is also a triumph of period production, perfectly recreating the depressed grubbiness of the Soviet 1960s. Andrey Naydenov’s stark black-and-white cinematography gives the film a hyper-realistic look, reminiscent of vintage early Soviet documentaries. Much has been made of the characters’ nostalgia for Stalin and resentment of Khrushchev. Psychologically, that is understandable. Even if you suspect your father might be a serial killer, you probably would not take kindly to the first person who told you so directly.

Still, there are bigger issues involved, like the true place of labor under socialism. According to textbook definitions, socialism involves the centralized control of all three means of production—and labor is very definitely one of the means of production.
Dear Comrades vividly illustrates the potential down-sides for workers. This is a major film from an important but rather up-and-down filmmaker (and admittedly a somewhat guarded Putin supporter, so feel free to keep that in mind too). Very highly recommended, Dear Comrades! opens tomorrow (12/25) through Film Forum’s virtual cinema. Merry Christmas!