Monday 11 January 2021

Strike!: "Dear Comrades"

Veteran Andrei Konchalovsky's latest Dear Comrades, part of a wider cultural project wherein Russia has started to wrestle with its own turbulent past, takes a ground-level view of a system that doesn't work anything like as efficiently or fairly as its overseers claim. It may well have some appeal west of its Novocherkassk setting. (The film has already been named as Russia's official entry for this year's Oscars.) The year is 1962, and we're introduced to local Party official Lyudmila (Yuliya Vysotskaya), a taut, high-toned blonde ideologue, as she disentangles herself from a married colleague's bed to receive preferential treatment at the neighbourhood deli, pushing past the dozens queuing for essentials. Many of these neighbours keep remarking on how prices went down under Stalin; Lyuda's only response is that the scarcity of goods is but a "temporary hardship". "We shall persevere," she insists. Her hardline belief will be tested, however, when workers at the town's locomotive manufacturing plant walk out on strike. At work, she finds herself in the thick of increasingly fraught negotiations between the Party's top brass and its rank-and-file. At home, she's looked upon sceptically by her aging father (Sergei Erlish), so sick of the present regime that he digs out his old war uniform and retreats inside it, and with open contempt by her militant daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova), who sides very much with the workers. What Konchalovsky and co-writer Elena Kiseleva establish is an impasse, both social and domestic: they know that when a country comes to a standstill, political rhetoric is no longer enough. Promise the electorate the world and instruct them to eat cake when that promise goes undelivered, but that's still dependent on the supply lines bringing those suckers their cake - and their milk, and their bread - being open and functioning. Like I said, the film may well have some meaning in the world beyond Russia.

As the strike catches the eye of Moscow and the KGB - who regard it as exactly the kind of unrest that needs quelling before it spreads - Dear Comrades initially presents as a series of meetings, and meetings about meetings. Early scenes aren't so far removed, in time or tone, from Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin, and we similarly feel this situation see-sawing between the vaguely absurd and the potentially tragic. One Party official voices his concern that Novocherkassk has always been "a high-risk zone" and a centre of "counter-revolutionary Cossack activity". (There are possibly UK cabinet ministers who feel much the same way about Liverpool and Manchester.) Increasingly, though, those of us unschooled in this real-life chapter of provincial Soviet politics will get the sinking sense that this strike is fated to end badly. That feeling is only heightened when Moscow sends in a general known as "The Beast", who has the bulk and bearing to back up that nickname, and whose first act upon taking up his post is to insist the soldiers dispatched to the area be given extra munitions. Here is a country at war with itself, half holding firm to the Party line, half to the ideals Lenin had in mind for the workforce. And in the middle of it all, Lyuda: at once a straight-faced functionary, a mother, a former soldier, a neighbour and a citizen who comes to see - close-up, and with her own eyes - that something is very wrong when adherence to dogma leads to blood being hosed from the streets. Konchalovsky has filmed an awakening of sorts, but the woman getting woke remains troubled by her complicity in these events; even as the political becomes painfully personal, she's being yanked into siderooms to rewrite the ordinances that will justify some new oppression. Within a country at war with itself, a woman at war with herself.

That first act is defined by a lot of contextualising talk; the Konchalovsky who made Runaway Train for Cannon Films 35 years ago is nowhere to be seen for some while. But he pulls off a brilliant, bracing setpiece around the midpoint as a KGB-appointed sniper opens fire on the strikers: in the midst of the crowdsplitting chaos that results, we know exactly where each bullet ends up. In the aftermath of that atrocity, Dear Comrades regroups and paints a vivid picture of the brutal arbitrariness of this moment in Russian politics. A nurse being asked to sign the 1962 equivalent of an NDA asks the wrong question and gets carted away, never to be seen again. A mortician appears utterly inured to the corpses piling up in his corridors. (He's a little like the Alfredo Castro character in Pablo Larrain's Post Mortem.) The film's period recreation is precise and handsome: it's composed in crisp monochrome Academy frames, adorned with perfectly chosen faces, from the blustering apparatchiks to the too-smooth KGB spy Lyuda falls in line behind. Yet the action is informed by a recognition that such handsomeness, such civility counts for only so much when the tanks roll in, and that business-as-usual attitudes and party politicking often obscure so much that would be better brought into the light. Propelled by an unravelling Vysotskaya, who has some extraordinary scenes as a combination of stress and vodka jemmies the scales from her eyes ("What am I supposed to believe in, if not Communism?"), Dear Comrades stands as a punchy, deeply moral late-career work to set alongside Andrzej Wajda's Katyn - a director's attempt to make peace with events he lived through, a reckoning with the past that provokes lingering, uneasy questions in the here and now. Why did it take so long after this for the Soviet people to throw off this system? How many more people had to die so as to maintain the status quo? And one more, I think: is post-Soviet Russia any better off now that its cronyism, corruption and state-sponsored violence are out there in the open?

Dear Comrades will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema from Friday.

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