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Dear Comrades! review - Andrei Konchalovsky exposes the Soviet past | reviews, news & interviews

Dear Comrades! review - Andrei Konchalovsky exposes the Soviet past

Dear Comrades! review - Andrei Konchalovsky exposes the Soviet past

The tragic June 1962 events in Novocherkassk are the backbone of retro drama

'A story about rebellion in which we are never offered the slightest hint of the interior drama of the protestors'

Veteran Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky has gone back to his beginnings for his latest film.

The real-life events on which Dear Comrades! is based took place in June 1962, when social unrest over rising prices saw strikes break out in Novocherkassk, an industrial town in Russia’s south, culminating in street protest against the Soviet regime. The very idea of such an uprising was, of course, anathema in the “workers’ paradise” that was the communist system, and it was brutally suppressed by the Kremlin. The extent of the casualties was concealed, the dead secretly buried, and the events practically written out of history for almost four decades.

The early Sixties was when Konchalovsky himself was beginning as a filmmaker, as both screenwriter (his first collaborations were with Andrei Tarkovsky) and director. He has chosen to make Dear Comrades! very much in the style of Soviet cinema of that time, with luminous black and white cinematography (by Andrei Naidenov) and in the narrower Academy screen ratio. The visual effect is conventional – it’s certainly not what Konchalovsky himself was preoccupied with at the time – and makes the result deliberately dated, a conscious attempt to mimic the style of a distant era.

To what era exactly does this lovingly crafted period drama really belong? The script from Konchalovsky and his co-writer Elena Kiseleva initially seems similarly standard for that time, telling the story of the three turbulent days of unrest from the perspective of prominent city official Lyudmila (Julia Vysotskaya), a loyal Party member whose hardline ideological conviction is such that she’s unstinting in her praise of Stalin and how things used to be, especially when set against the changes that the new Khrushchev regime is unleashing. There’s a sternness of resolution in her physical bearing, too, her sense of duty and dedication tempered a little only by life at home with her 18-year-old daughter Svetka (Yulia Burova), who’s more in touch with the reformist mood of the new times and ready to put her rebellious spirit into action, as well as the grumpy old father (Sergei Erlish, a glorious cameo) to whom she’s obviously close, though the two don’t agree on much. Her ongoing affair with a married Party colleague seems casual, to say the least, their conversation in the film’s opening scene – the only one in which we see Lyudmila in anything like intimacy – dominated by concern at the impact of the price hikes that are about to prompt the unrest.

Over the first half of Konchalovsky’s two-hour film, we observe the growing upset of the local bosses, first as a strike erupts at the factory that they have gone to try to pacify (they end up trapped in a cramped basement, afflicted most of all by the unfamiliar indignity of the situation); then, after the arrival of politburo bigwigs from Moscow, we follow how the swelling ranks of military and KGB commanders proceed to deal with what confronts them (pictured below). When the demonstrators march, peacefully, on Party headquarters in the city to seek dialogue, unexpected and brutal retaliation awaits them.  

It’s worth pondering just what Konchalovsky is engaging with here. In the formal cinematic terms that Dear Comrades! sets itself, for Russian audiences at least this could be seen as the story of a strong Soviet official heroine fulfilling her duty, albeit dealing with events that would never have been depicted on film at the time (equally, no hypothetical “original” viewer for such an absolute interpretation remains today). For foreign audiences, approaching without such preconceptions, it’s a different matter, but the sense of our filmic expectations being upturned nevertheless unsettles. This is a story essentially about rebellion in which we are never offered the slightest hint of the interior drama of the protestors: imagine Mike Leigh’s Peterloo retold from initial insurrection through to clean-up, exclusively from the point of view of the authorities. Konchalovsky’s depiction of the bungling inadequacies of the official system as it responds to unprecedented crisis is sarcastic enough – whether it’s lower-level functionaries seeking to pass the blame in self-protecting panic, or the high-ups whose response is unthinking repression. But does our implicit close involvement with them as viewers elicit any level of sympathy, most of all with Lyudmila herself, whose perspective we surely absorb?Dear ComradesThe sheer power of Vysotskaya’s playing – even when she remains very much a public figure – makes that inevitable. We intuit Lyudmila’s wartime bravery (and the losses that have left her a single mother) as somehow inseparable from the rigidity of dogma to which she adheres; despite a degree of privileged access to provisions that her position brings, the life she lives nevertheless remains of the people – she does not belong to some distant, corrupted elite.

Our involvement only increases as the story progresses. Vysotskaya’s performance comes close to scorching as, abandoning her public personality, she surrenders to her instincts as a mother, terrified at what may have happened to Svetka, who was with the demonstrators. Whether this abrupt volte-face of character finally convinces is a wider question that may return in retrospect, but in the moment we are fully absorbed as Lyudmila plunges into a frantic search that takes her from the scene of shooting on the town square, via the frightened corridors of the hospital – the KGB’s ruthless priority is to take non-disclosure statements from all involved, classifying what has happened as a “state secret” – to the morgue. The moment when she relapses into prayer, as if realising that all her previous certainties are somehow no longer of any assistance, is one of true power (pictured below).

Konchalovsky’s direction is no less striking: he presents the shooting obliquely rather than head-on, catching the confusion of the crowd through which Lyudmila seems to bob about through details (death is something she witnesses almost out of the corner of her eye, while her previously confident gait becomes laboriously heavy). His control of the large supporting cast for the mass choreography of those moments is effortless, all the more impressive for the fact that the film’s ensemble was drawn almost exclusively from non-professionals (Vysotskaya, who is married to the director and has played leading roles in his features of the last two decades, is the exception; by a quirk of fate, she was born in Novocherkassk).Dear ComradesSo far, so impressive, albeit with a distinctly conventional cinematic feel (Dear Comrades! lacks the gripping retro style of, say, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida or Cold War). Which makes the final 30 minutes of the film something of a let down, the veracity of what we have seen to date compromised by a deus-ex-machina intervention by a previously marginal character, without whom the narrative could never develop as it does. (The fact that it’s a KGB officer, played by Andrei Gusev, who undergoes this radical change of heart only enhances one's scepticism.) Konchalovsky throws in a penultimate scene that takes us into so exaggeratedly a private space that it feels like sheer indulgence, topped off by some consciously arthouse visuals that seem equally extraneous (the beauty of horses in the wild is a delight of which he, it seems, will never tire).

Vysotskaya’s bravura performance is such, however, that for many viewers any such shortcomings will seem secondary. But there’s an ambivalence about Dear Comrades! that Konchalovsky never quite resolves. To what era exactly does this lovingly crafted period drama really belong? To the Sixties, the period whose style so infuses it? Konchalovsky has described the story as about his parents’ generation, those who believed in the state and followed it obediently (some more unquestioningly than others: the film opens with the music of the Soviet national anthem, for which Konchalovsky’s father wrote the words).

Or to the period of perestroika, when such revelations, including the story of Novocherkassk, first became public, gripping the attention of the Russian public? (That was also the time, coincidentally, when Konchalovsky’s debut feature, The First Teacher, finished in 1965 and subsequently censored and “shelved” by the Soviet censors for decades, was finally released.) Dear Comrades! would surely have achieved considerably greater resonance at home if it had appeared in the late 1980s: one Russian critic has described it as a film “for export”, a familiar local term that suggests that the director was less concerned with its local than its international reception (it took the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival last year).

Or does it belong, after all, to today? Alexander Solzhenitsyn was the first to bring the events of Novocherkassk to public attention, somehow excavating whatever limited and rigorously restricted information he could find, and writing in the final chapter of his The Gulag Archipelago about the uprising as “a cry from the soul of a people who could no longer live as they had lived”. You don’t have to look far from Russia’s borders, to what has been happening in recent months in Belarus, to find the latest iteration of that recurring response to totalitarianism. (No small irony, then, that the much blazoned producer of Dear Comrades! is one of the oligarchic economic kingpins behind the current Kremlin regime, whose chief concern today is probably preventing anything similar happening in Russia.) Konchalovsky, who probably counts as a conservative, has made a film about a reluctant rebel whose protest is nevertheless channelled away from the political towards the personal. The effort is as intriguing as the drama is absorbing. 

Watch the trailer for Dear Comrades

 

Imagine Mike Leigh’s 'Peterloo' retold from initial insurrection through to clean-up, exclusively from the point of view of the authorities

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