Given what’s going on in Ukraine right now, many people may feel disinclined to take in a Russian movie, but the release in Japan of Dear Comrades!, a 2020 film by Andrei Konchalovsky, is timely in a chilling way. Based on a 1962 incident where factory workers in the small town of Novocherkassk peacefully demonstrated for higher wages when food prices spiked and were then killed by soldiers, the movie seems to take for granted the notion that Soviet authorities had no compunction about using deadly force just for convenience’s sake, even against their own people. As more than one person says during the course of the movie, life is pretty cheap under communism.
Of course, what’s going on now in Ukraine is not the work of the Communist Party, but a subtheme of Dear Comrades! is a kind of passive belief that Russia has alway been in thrall to authoritarianism. The protagonist, Lyudmilla (Yuliya Vysotskaya), is a Soviet functionary who blithely cuts the ubiquitous lines at retailers to collect her rations before anyone else can get theirs, but from the first scene it’s clear that just acquiring daily necessities is a full-time job that uses up everyone’s surplus energy. Lyudmilla carries her privilege with confidence and whenever someone even suggests that the food shortages are the doings of the party she puts them in their place with assurance. She even defends Stalin, who has already been in the grave for 9 years, replaced by a man who understood the destruction he caused even if he doesn’t say so out loud. To Lyudmilla, the state would be in better shape if Stalin were still running things.
The protest happens during a committee meeting that descends into chaos after the Kremlin calls them demanding they put an end to it by any means necessary. What follows is necessarily confusing because as orders make their way trough the byzantine Soviet bureaucracy anything that can go wrong likely does. The consequence is that lower officials quickly supplant their superiors and take out their grievances on them, thus multiplying the deadly toll initiated by the strike. At first, Konchalovsky seems to be aiming for some kind of dark satire, but once Lyudmilla realizes that her own daughter may have been involved in the demonstration, the movie’s whole mood turns deadly serious, with Lyudmilla doing double duty finding out the fate of her daughter and preventing her own arrest—or worse. Shot in black-and-white and framed with an eye for the austere beauty of Soviet brutalist architecture, the movie often feels calculated to the point of preciousness, and much of the drama of the second half doesn’t have as much power as the bleak comedy of the first. Dear Comrades! is sobering but it would have achieved more of its intended effect if it wasn’t telling us something we already knew.
In Russian. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).
Dear Comrades! home page in Japanese
photo (c) Produced by Production Center of Andrei Konchalovsky Foundation for support of cinema, scenic and visual arts commissioned by VGTRK 2020