Andrei Konchalovsky’s latest film, the gripping monochrome historical drama Dear Comrades!, depicts the events leading up to and surrounding the brutal massacre of dozens of demonstrating railway factory workers, protesting harsh wage cuts in the town square of Novocherkassk, by the Soviet army and KGB agents on the 2nd June 1962. The gruesome event was covered-up by the state for many years, expunged from all official documents. It wasn’t until after the collapse of the Soviet Union that any kind of formal review into the bloody incident took place. We now know at least twenty-five unarmed civilians died in the fateful shooting that day, and more than eighty-five were wounded in the crossfire, although the real figure is thought to be much higher. It is this discrepancy that forms the central narrative concern of Dear Comrades!
Konchalovsky is no stranger to state censorship. In 1966 his second directorial effort The Story of Asya Klyachina, Who Loved, But Did Not Marry—a daring anti-romantic drama starring mostly non-professional actors—was suppressed by Soviet authorities, and did not receive a wide release until 1987 (where it subsequently won the Nika Award for Best Director and was hailed a masterpiece). That same year, Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic portrait of the iconoclastic painter Andrei Rublev, the screenplay of which he co-wrote with Konchalovsky, was similarly suppressed by the government for being too overtly religious and received only a single screening in Moscow (a heavily censored version was eventually given a limited release in the USSR in 1971 after it had received a rapturous reception at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969). It was an era when even the most slight of dissenting voices found themselves promptly silenced.
Konchalovsky first met Tarkovsky in 1960 while studying at VGIK, the Russian state film school, where they collaborated on the landmark short film The Steamroller and the Violin (1961) and later on Tarkovsky’s directorial debut Ivan’s Childhood (1962). Konchalovsky had spent the past ten years training to be a concert pianist at the Moscow Conservatory, but his love of cinema eventually superseded that of music, and he decided to retrain as a filmmaker. He has spoken of his influences during those student days:
“My mother was friends with famous directors like Douzhenko and Eisenstein. I remember Eisenstein taking me on to the set of Ivan the Terrible. I must have been about six. Later when I worked with Tarkovsky, part of what we were doing was fighting Eisenstein, denying him. By then the great influences on us were Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman.”
This reaction against the aesthetic of Eisenstein still resonates in his current work. In his review of Dear Comrades! for the New Yorker magazine, film critic Anthony Lane has noted the ironic similarity between Konchalovsky’s latest film and Eisenstein’s 1925 Soviet masterpiece Strike, where the protesters were the heroes of the narrative, not enemies of the state. One cannot help but suspect this inversion is intentional.
To say that Konchalovsky’s filmmaking career has been eclectic would be a gross understatement. From his debut feature The First Teacher (1965), he has gone on to direct acclaimed theatrical adaptations such as Uncle Vanya (1970), sweeping historical epics like the award-winning Siberiade (1979), to Hollywood thriller Runaway Train (1985)—based on an unproduced script by Akira Kurosawa—and the Kurt Russell/Sylvester Stallone action vehicle Tango & Cash (1989).
Like Tarkovsky, Konchalovsky spent much of the 1980s in exile from his homeland of Russia. Fortunately, unlike his schoolmate, he was able to return home in the 1990s and, in recent years, has returned to a more intimate and personal type of filmmaking – which seems to have found its apex in the heartfelt, deeply conflicted, and bittersweet Dear Comrades! Shot in black and white, in academy ratio, and consisting mostly of beautiful static compositions, one cannot help but draw formal comparisons with the recent works of Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski Ida (2013) and Cold War (2018). When the camera does move in Dear Comrades!—as it does in only a few key moments—it moves to move us, the audience, as extreme events and emotions play out onscreen.
At a crucial moment the protagonist, small-town bureaucrat Lyuda Syomina (a masterful performance from Konchalovsky’s wife, Julia Vysotskaya) gets a song stuck in her head. It’s a tune from the Soviet-era musical-comedy Springtime (1947), and the patriotic lyrics will soon take on a terrible ironic significance:
“Oh comrade, my comrade / protect your Motherland at all costs”.
It’s worth noting that Konchalovsky knows a thing or two about patriotic lyrics, given his father, the poet Sergei Mikhalkov, wrote the Russian national anthem. Over the course of the film, we watch as Lyuda, this staunchly loyal Stalinist who still mourns the loss of their wartime dictator, slowly begins to question some of her inflexible ideals, as the consequences of such bull-headed dogmatism strike very close to home.
Ideologically, the film plays its cards very close to its chest and is all the better for it – judging neither the Soviet state officials nor the protesting workers too harshly, presenting no clear-cut heroes or heroines, and even the shadowy KGB agents and stone-faced soldiers display moments of unexpected compassion and generosity throughout. Unlike the cinematography, the morality of Dear Comrades! is not black and white, but a thousand different shades of grey. They say it’s our contradictions that give us depth, and here that very much holds true. In revisiting a decade where he creatively found himself stifled and suppressed, Konchalovsky has made one of his most complex and enduring works.
Dear Comrades! is now streaming on Curzon Home Cinema