Now elevated to the shortlist for International Feature, Russia’s submission, Dear Comrades! succeeds in large part because of the intimacy of the main characters within the larger context of a brutal act of state-sponsored terrorism from the Soviet era. The film is best when concentrating on the core relationship between mother and daughter that spurs the action and character development, because when director Andrei Konchalovsky zooms out to the larger landscape of the central incident, it becomes a borderline uncomfortable lens into modern day authoritarian actions while at the same time seemingly condoning it – if not outright endorsing it.
Set in early June of 1962, the film takes place around the infamous Novocherkassk Massacre, where at least 20 people were killed and dozens more injured after agents of the Soviet government opened fire on protesters demonstrating against raised food prices and cut wages. The incident was classified in the aftermath and kept a state secret for a further 30 years before the atrocities were officially acknowledged. Nearly 60 years later, no one is entirely sure on the number of casualties.
It’s against this backdrop that we have Lyuda Syomina (frequent Konchalovsky collaborator Julia Vysotskaya, best known to Western audiences for her role in the 3D Nutcracker movie from 2010). She works for the local City Committee of the Communist Party, and is the mistress of the committee’s president, Loginov (Vladislav Komarov). I wouldn’t mention that last part except for the fact that the film opens with her waking up in his bed and rushing out before his wife gets home, yet their relationship is never explored. It’s an odd tonal choice to start the movie on this and leave it dangling. You could have no relationship between the two of them and it wouldn’t change the story one whit, so I’m curious as to why it was included.
Anyway, Lyuda is a loyal member of the Party, toeing the line with the best of them. As such, she’s afforded privileges over the common folk, which in itself serves as a nice bit of satire, given that Lenin’s revolution was meant to end such obvious disparities and corruption. Despite the advantage, she has her fair share of difficulties at home, caring for her father (Sergei Erlish), a former anti-Bolshevik soldier, and her daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova), a somewhat impetuous 18-year-old firmly ensconced in her rebellious phase, going to student demonstrations and refusing to wear a bra.
Initially, Lyuda sees Svetka’s behavior as childish and churlish, but more likely to be an embarrassment to her career and standing in the community than anything else. However, once the massacre happens, Lyuda’s unwavering loyalty to the Party is tossed aside in favor of finding her now missing daughter, fearing the worst. The literal day before she was calling for the Soviet Army to make a show of strength and for “instigators” to be arrested and kicked out of the community for daring to question the decisions of leadership. With Svetka nowhere to be found and potentially injured or killed, most if not all bets are off.
That test of loyalty is presented in the form of Viktor (Andrey Gusev), a local KGB agent tasked with investigating the protests and cleaning up the mess. Lyuda is completely cooperative with him, even conceding that she’s willing to see her own child locked up for a few years to teach her a lesson about what it means to be an adult. But when it looks like Svetka might be in mortal danger, she leans on Viktor and his connections to find the truth about her fate.
This is where the film works best. Konchalovsky films in black-and-white in a 4:3 aspect ratio, partially because that was likely the common cinematic technology of the time, but also because it forces a degree of intimacy, which I’ve mentioned before in reviews of other films that use the same tactic. It crams Lyuda into a tighter frame, creating a literal closeness to complement the emotional one. In particular here it serves as a visual representation of the literal and figurative walls closing in around the town as the KGB and the Army cut it off from the rest of the country, as well as the mental inventory Lyuda takes as she gets ever closer to realizing the worst case scenario, to the point where she has to trust someone like Viktor, whose entire job is lies and subterfuge. When the film focuses on this and really gets inside Lyuda’s head, dealing with her own internal conflict, it really works.
Where it falls short, however, is in all the other window dressing. The massacre itself almost seems more played for laughs than something truly menacing or traumatizing. For example, after Lyuda’s hairdresser is killed by a stray bullet, she and another bystander drag an injured woman into the salon and sit her up against the window. While Lyuda dresses the woman’s leg wound, trying to assure her that she’ll be alright, she’s shot through the neck and makes a big, bug-eyed face before tilting her head down, dead, and her blood squirts behind her onto the window.
I mean, that’s slapstick, right? It’s dark as fuck, but there’s no way that was meant to be taken seriously… right? The same goes for the hairdresser herself. We don’t see her get shot, only her collapse to the floor and a brief seizure showing only her legs before she dies. She’s one of several people not even involved in the protests who gets killed, all of whom give way over-the-top death motions before collapsing. It’s almost like something out of a silent film or a Three Stooges short. If it’s supposed to be funny, I don’t really get it, because the movie never really hints at the level of gallows humor that, say, The Death of Stalin put on display. And if it’s not meant to be funny, but to be an indictment of mass murder, then why present it in such a way? Doesn’t quite make sense.
On a meta level, the film can also be a bit unnerving. We’ve seen a lot in the past year what can happen when peaceful protesters are met with oppressive government tactics right here in this country. On the flip side, the ex-President is on trial in the Senate for inciting the exact opposite, siccing an armed mob onto a government entity unprepared to hold them at bay so that he could remain an authoritarian head of state. But it’s not clear what side Konchalovsky takes here, if he takes one at all. One of the more biting bits of satire throughout the course of the film is when at different points, both Lyuda and Svetka complain about Nikita Khrushchev and say things would be better if Joseph Stalin were still alive, yet it’s estimated that Stalin had anywhere from 10 to 40 million people killed, and Russia’s current leader fancies himself as a spiritual successor, including the part where he attempts to assassinate his rivals out in the open. Seeing as how the film has the official seal of the Russian government, and therefore its endorsement, I can’t imagine it meaning that they feel there’s any criticism of Vladimir Putin, even though one could easily infer that. Basically, we don’t know how far Konchalovsky really went with his satire, how far he wanted to go, and how far he was allowed to go, and that puts a mild damper on the proceedings.
Still, when the film is focused on the human element with the political drama firmly in the background, it gets the message across, that no ideology is worth losing your own flesh and blood. Dear Comrades! can feel a bit unfocused at times, and the depiction of the massacre feels like a comic set piece more than a depiction of genocide, but when we just leave it to the simple story of a scared mother searching for her child, there’s universally relatable resonance.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What Russian history do you know? Aren’t you glad I didn’t make a Jakov Smirnoff joke this time? Let me know!