The Soviet terms perestroika for "restructuring" and glasnost for "openness" are not merely slogans to film maker Alexander Askoldov, whose first and only film, "Commissar," has been released after more than 20 years in government captivity. The fact that his film is being seen internationally and that he had come to the United States to promote it, has been proof to him that the words aren't mere promises by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
"Commissar," which Askoldov made in 1967 shortly after he completed his film studies, was quickly shelved by Goskino, the official Soviet film agency.
Goskino never provided an official explanation for the film's removal from distribution. But its sympathetic portrayal of a Jewish family shepherding a tough Red Army commissar as she gives birth and its depiction of a Soviet-style Holocaust pushed the film over the state-approved line of acceptable subject matter.
Askoldov doggedly appealed the decision. The more he appealed, not receiving any specific criticisms, the further he unwittingly sealed his fate. He was even barred from viewing the film. Soon, he was barred from Gorky Studio, where the film was in post-production.
Then, he was deemed "professionally incompetent"--essentially a court-martial in the regime of Soviet cinema. Out in the cultural wilderness, he made two television documentaries, only one of which was broadcast. He worked in the theater where he directed numerous "political musicals," as he termed them.
They had the same fate as "Commissar": shut down.
"I was going too far," he said. "People began to mutter, 'What is the matter with Askoldov?' "
Meanwhile, all but one print of "Commissar" had been destroyed. He was reduced to managing a concert hall, "but my wife really supported me," he said, during an interview in Los Angeles. And with a wearied sigh, he paused to look at his guest and translator.
It was a startling moment. This large-framed man (he played basketball in his school days), with his naturally droopy eyes and hang-dog expression, could send out an amused, crackling laugh at will. But now, he was finding it hard to summon any comedy from his internal imprisonment.
Last year, the Soviet Filmmakers' Union was restructured: the acclaimed, once renegade director, Elem Klimov ("Come and See") was elected first secretary. Goskino lost full authority, autonomy was given to the several dozen regional studios, and artists became freer in picking their subjects.
Most important for Askoldov and "Commissar," a Conflict Commission was established to review and release banned films. In the last year, the entire opus of Andrei Tarkovsky has screened in public cinemas. Out of the shadows have come such films from the '60s and '70s as Klimov's "Agony," Gleb Panfilov's "Theme," and Andrei Smirnow's "The Angel."
Finally, the process created the opening for "Commissar." The last remaining print was found. "I have no idea who had it," Askoldov said, "or who allowed it released from its cell."
It received a sudden, unscheduled premiere at last year's Moscow Film Festival and subsequently took the special jury prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival. It's playing at the Beverly Center Cineplex and the AMC 14 in Century City.
At a screening in April at the AFI Festival in Century City, Askoldov, 50, stood before an applauding audience full of Soviet emigres. Clearly moved by the outpouring of support, the director thanked them, stoically adding that he was pleased to be part of the growing East-West cultural exchange.
Back in his post-graduate days, Askoldov wrote two scripts--one partly based on his war hero father's sufferings under Stalin's dictatorship ("I call it 'my 1937 script' ") and "Commissar," based on Vasily Grossman's story, "In the Town of Berdichev."
As recently as 18 months ago, Askoldov said, noted director Sergei Bondarchuk ("They Fought For Their Motherland") branded "Commissar" as "Zionist," reiterating a charge brought against it in the Brezhnev era. As soon as the film traveled West, it received very different reviews.
Many critics remarked how "Commissar" recalls the great silent era of Soviet film, from the rhythmic montage of Sergei Eisenstein to the humanist drama of Vsevolod Pudovkin. The director acknowledged the influence of the earlier generation, while lobbing another criticism at his colleagues: "The new generation has forgotten their roots. With all the suffering our artists have recently endured--and suffering usually gives life to art--there haven't been any results. In the last three years, not a single interesting work has been done."
Askoldov now seems to look upon the reviews and applause as small consolation. What he stresses in conversation is that the sheer struggle of making the film was emblematic of Soviet political problems.