Review: Andrei Konchalovsky’s brilliant ‘Dear Comrades!’ brings Russian tragedy into stark focus
Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Dear Comrades!” dramatizes the deadly events of June 2, 1962, when Soviet government forces fired into a crowd of unarmed protesters in the southern Russian city of Novocherkassk. It took 30 years for the tragedy to be revealed and reckoned with: The bodies were buried in secret and all news of the bloody crackdown was meticulously suppressed, never to be officially investigated and brought to light until 1992, after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Another three decades would pass before the massacre would be memorialized in Konchalovsky’s blistering new film, the latest fascinating object in a career that has swerved unpredictably from Russia to Hollywood and back again. (The movie has been chosen to represent Russia in the Oscar race for international feature.)
Konchalovsky’s previous picture, “Paradise” (2016), was an unconventionally structured Holocaust drama filmed in boxy black-and-white. Although set roughly two decades after the Second World War, “Dear Comrades!” has the same stark, sharply etched beauty, with a gleaming monochrome palette and square-shaped, deep-focus compositions (the cinematographer is Andrey Naidenov) that evoke a powerful sense of confinement. It also features “Paradise’s” superb star, Julia Vysotskaya, here playing Lyuda, a Communist Party functionary and Novocherkassk city official. Misguided, often loathsome and always vividly human, she’s the ideal antihero for a movie about how even seemingly unshakable ideologies can collapse in the face of catastrophe.
We first see Lyuda untangling herself from a tryst with a colleague, Loginov (Vladislav Komarov), though theirs is the opposite of a postcoital daze. The early morning air is already charged with tension and urgency: Lyuda needs to get to the market before it empties out, and the two of them speak with cold anxiety of rising food prices, increased production quotas at the city’s electric locomotive factory and the looming possibility of a workers’ strike. (It’s June 1, the day before the massacre.) Lyuda grumbles about the party’s general direction under Khrushchev, reminiscing about how much better things were under Stalin, whom she idolizes. Loginov reminds her of her privileged position, which grants her access to coveted goods, and warns her of the consequences of not toeing the party line.
The couple’s tetchy exchange will play out in different ways, again and again, in a movie in which silence and denial prove crucial to one’s survival. And their illicit relations (Loginov is married) furnish an unforced metaphor for a system in which the powerful continually betray the workers with whom they’ve expressed solidarity.
When tensions threaten to erupt, Lyuda stands up in a room full of male officials and zealously demands that unruly protesters be punished to the fullest extent of the law. She doesn’t realize exactly what she’s calling for — and what horrors the authorities are capable of — until the next day, when thousands descend on the center of Novocherkassk and soon find themselves pelted with gunfire.
The massacre, which arrives at roughly the halfway mark, is filmed with swift, ruthless efficiency. The black-and-white images blunt the force of the carnage but also make it easier to process; we don’t see the red blood that has been burned into the ground by the hot June sun, though we do see a fresh layer of asphalt being poured over it almost immediately afterward. The state’s coverup has wasted no time getting started.
And it’s the comprehensiveness of that coverup, the practiced speed with which the government’s suppressive apparatus roars to life, that most fascinates Konchalovsky. Healthcare workers are made to sign nondisclosure agreements, denying that anything out of the ordinary happened June 1-2. The wounded hide out at home, refusing to seek medical attention for fear of being arrested. It would almost be funny if it all weren’t so ghastly.
The levels of official erasure are appalling; the ease with which everyone goes along with it is even more so. One person who refuses to buckle under quite so easily is Lyuda, whose factory-worker daughter, Svetka (Yulia Burova), has gone missing amid the protests. Fearing the worst, Lyuda embarks on a harrowing quest through blood-spattered hallways and bureaucratic loopholes, desperate to find her daughter alive or at least obtain confirmation of her death. Her unlikely companion on this journey is a KGB agent, Viktor (Andrei Gusev), whose cold glare softens in Lyuda’s presence, and who is moved to help her for reasons that are never expressed. The further Lyuda goes and the more she discovers, the more her confidence in her party ideals crumbles.
Vysotskaya’s remarkable performance shows us nothing heroic about Lyuda; as a longtime pillar of a thoroughly rotten system, she’s simply able to navigate that system more deftly than most. But you feel a growing sense of kinship with her regardless, as she’s propelled forward by her obvious love for a daughter from whom she was recently estranged. The early scenes of Lyuda and Svetka together at home, clashing bitterly over political and generational differences, have a stinging emotional intensity; meanwhile, Lyuda’s aging father (Sergei Erlish) sits in a corner, wearing his old military uniform and waiting for death. In this simple tableau of domestic discord, you see a multigenerational microcosm of Russian history, the dreams and delusions of the past and the soon-to-be-broken promises of the future jostling alongside each other in the same enclosed space.
Konchalovsky (who wrote the script with Elena Kiseleva) barely moves the camera in these moments, or indeed through the entirety of “Dear Comrades!,” in which sequences tend to accumulate through a series of rapid-fire cuts from one setup to the next. (The sharp editing is by Sergei Taraskin and Karolina Maciejewska.) The effect, visually, is one of limited mobility and entrapment, but it doesn’t limit the scope of what Konchalovsky is able to show us. His camera seems to be everywhere: in front of the crowds marching across a bridge before all hell breaks loose, in a tunnel through which fleeing officials make their escape and on a lonely rooftop where hope is briefly rekindled.
Konchalovsky has said that he meant to recapture the look of films from the ’60s, but these crisp, high-contrast images speak to another impulse as well: to look into a past shrouded in the fog of delusion and doublespeak, and to see through it with a clarity that burns and even heals.
In Russian with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: Available on Hulu
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