The haunting verity about this film review - from the inimitably eloquent Anthony Lane at The New Yorker magazine - is that the social topography it traces out is eerily identical not just to the make-believe world of Ratland China, but, alas, also to that of our own Western “liberal democracies” that draw closer each day - especially in this looking-glass period of vacuous new-year celebrations that resemble mournful vigils instead - to the miserable lifeworld we had long despised in the slavishly servile populations of despotic oriental regimes.
The career of the Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky is a zigzag affair. There can’t be many people who have made a faithful adaptation of Turgenev’s “A Nest of Gentlefolk” and a buddy-cop thriller with Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone—“Tango & Cash” (1989). That was one of the films resulting from Konchalovsky’s move from the Soviet Union to the United States, in 1980. The least gentle of them was “Runaway Train” (1985), which was like Dostoyevsky’s “House of the Dead” pumped up into an action ride, and which ended with an escaped murderer standing atop a locomotive as it sped toward a snowy and certain destruction. Other Konchalovsky projects include a long Soviet epic called “Siberiade”; a heroically cheesy version of Homer’s Odyssey, for NBC; “The Nutcracker,” in 3-D; a bio-pic of Michelangelo; and a wild tale set in a psychiatric ward during the First Chechen War, and featuring Bryan Adams. Of course.
Now Konchalovsky has confounded us yet again, damn him, by coming up with his masterpiece. It’s called “Dear Comrades!,” and the artistry is calm, controlled, persuasively detailed, and utterly Stallone-free. The only excessive thing about it is the exclamation mark in the title. Like “Paradise,” Konchalovsky’s Holocaust drama of 2017, the new work is in black-and-white, and stars his wife, Julia Vysotskaya, in the leading role. “Dear Comrades!,” however, has a moral and emotional momentum that far outstrips the earlier film, all the more so for being contained within a near-squarish frame, as if to fend off the blandishments of a grand saga. At one point, the plot depends on a hole in the toe of a sock. The movie is being streamed, starting on Christmas Day, as part of Film Forum’s enterprising Virtual Cinema program. Catch it if you can. If the opportunity arises, in the coming months or years, to see it on the big screen, you know what to do.
Vysotskaya has a face that can harden in resolve or blench in shock, and such doubleness serves her well in “Dear Comrades!,” where she barely has the time, let alone good cause, to crack a smile. She plays Lyuda Syomina, who heads the production sector on the City Committee of Novocherkassk—a solid industrial base in southern Russia, cradled in a wide loop of the Don River, and housing an electric-locomotive plant. Lyuda, who was a nurse on the front line in the Second World War, and who still reveres the memory of Stalin, lives with her elderly father (Sergei Erlish) and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Svetka (Yulia Burova). As the story begins, in the summer of 1962, we find Lyuda in bed with her boss, the unlovely Loginov (Vladislav Komarov). They speak not of sweet nothings but of unobtainable somethings; food prices have been raised, meat and milk are scarce, and there are rumors of unrest. Loginov is unperturbed. “The Central Committee instructions clearly say that the change will result in higher living standards in the nearest future,” he says.
Your initial reaction is: “Nobody talks like that.” But Loginov does, as does Lyuda (she dismisses the shortages as “temporary hardship”), and you soon realize that both of them are true believers. In reciting the necessary rhetoric, like a rosary, they are not so much describing a situation as willing the reality to match up to their creed. What interests Konchalovsky is the sundering of words from facts, and the speed with which that split becomes a gulf. Thus, during a committee meeting, a siren goes off, indicating that the unthinkable has happened: factory workers, offered lower pay and less to eat, have gone on strike. “This is a crime,” Lyuda says. “People are ignorant.” Yet she is the one who doesn’t want to know.
A regional superior named Basov (Dmitry Kostyaev) arrives from out of town to handle the crisis. Fat chance. Portly and perspiring, he steps onto a balcony to address the crowd below. “Comrades, we live in a wonderful time,” he declares. A rock is thrown in reply. As the tension mounts, and as we follow the chain of command, we sense the rising fear, with apparatchiks hurrying to offload blame. Even a general, heralded as “a beast,” looks nervous in the presence of two brooding honchos from the Central Committee, dispatched on Khrushchev’s orders. Their fear is that information might leak out and foment further dissidence elsewhere; the city is to be sealed off. Boldly, if unwisely, Lyuda stands up and recommends an “extreme penalty” for those who incited the trouble. She will have her wish.
More than twenty-five people died in the demonstrations of June 2, 1962, in Novocherkassk, and more than eighty-five were wounded. And yet, for a long while, what happened there was expunged from the records. It unhappened. Then, in 1975, in the final volume of “The Gulag Archipelago,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published reports of an uprising in the town—“a cry from the soul of a people who could no longer live as they had lived”—and of an ensuing massacre, every trace of which had been “licked clean and hidden.” Not until 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, did the Chief Military Prosecutor undertake a review of the fatal events in Novocherkassk. Two years later, the bodies of the murdered, finally exhumed, were accorded a proper burial, though some have never been found.
“Dear Comrades!” is not the place to go if you want a clear and exhaustive grasp of the historical incident. Indeed, one of the film’s assets—a very Tolstoyan virtue—is that it shows how unclear such an episode feels to those caught up in the chaos. Lyuda, for example, is hustled from a government building, along with her colleagues; they sit idly on benches, in the sunshine. Leaves stir in the breeze. Shots are heard, and Lyuda hastens back to the square where the protesters have gathered, because she knows that Svetka, her daughter, may be among them. We see people lurch and fall, under gunfire, but where it’s coming from is hard to gauge. Lyuda helps one woman, who has been shot in the leg, to the haven of a hairdressing salon; a bullet then zips through the window, with a tinkling click, and hits the woman in the throat. Her blood looks black. We stay inside, witnessing the slaughter through the glass, while a radio plays an entertaining song.
For some viewers, all this will seem too composed. The camera scarcely moves, surveying the tumult but never joining in; of handheld reelings and shakings, there is no trace. Yet you cannot mistake the movie’s onward force. This is partly a matter of editing—the meticulous energy with which we are propelled from one image to the next. (Is there an echo of Eisenstein’s “Strike,” a model of classical montage, from 1925? And, if so, how much irony resounds in that echo, since the strikers, back then, were heroes rather than enemies of the state?) But something else is driving “Dear Comrades!” It quickens into a quest, as Lyuda hunts in vain for her law-breaking child. Ideology smacks head on into love.
Vysotskaya’s performance is equal to the impact. Watch Lyuda having to ask the doctor at the local morgue (one of the movie’s few good guys, who has nipped outside for a smoke) if he has come across the corpse of a girl. More awful still is her unblinking horror when she’s told that she must write down her earlier demands—that is, retrospectively propose the very measures that may have killed her own daughter. Then, there’s the scene in which a K.G.B. agent, Viktor (Andrei Gusev), looking for Svetka, knocks on Lyuda’s door with a search warrant; instead of complaining, she slumps listlessly onto a chair. Despair can wring us dry.
Viktor is an odd case. He’s handsome, taciturn, and inclined, for some reason, to assist Lyuda rather than harass her. On the other hand, how can she trust him, since it’s the K.G.B. that—according to “Dear Comrades!”—was responsible for opening fire? (In other accounts, the Army was the guilty party, although one general, who refused to attack civilians, was stripped of his rank and dismissed.) Nevertheless, against regulations, Lyuda and Viktor team up and make their way out of town, on Svetka’s trail. Given that both adults are compliant cogs in the Communist machine, and that there’s not a flicker of romance between them, you wonder why they should risk their livelihoods, and maybe their necks, in pursuit of such a course.
One answer would be this: once you start to suspect that your entire world may be founded on a quicksand of deceit, then nothing seems more urgent or more weighted with meaning than the need to do one true thing. The shade of Antigone would gaze upon Lyuda in approval. If Konchalovsky’s heroine had been one of the factory workers, underfed and underpaid, her passion and indignation would have come as no surprise; it’s precisely because Lyuda is an enabler of the system, who, thanks to her status, receives ample supplies of sausage, fish, and candies, that her private crusade is so moving to observe. By the end, it becomes a kind of madness, and all she can do is stutter questions. “Why? How is it? Why?” she asks. “How am I supposed to forget this?” Beautiful and damning, “Dear Comrades!” is also an act of remembrance. ♦