Jul 252008

I haven’t found any good obituaries in U.S. newspapers for Nonna Mordukova, who died earlier this month. The one in the Washington Post pointed out that she appeared in some government propaganda films: “Throughout a career that spanned half a century, Ms. Mordyukova appeared in dozens of films, including some textbook examples of Soviet propaganda.”

Well, everyone knows that there were a lot of Soviet propaganda films. But what was surprising to me when I started watching Russian movies was the parts that were subversive of Soviet propaganda, including three roles I can think of that were played by Nonna Mordyukova. If the Post wanted to talk about the political aspects of her work, it should have made that point. These are in three films that are readily available to U.S. viewers via Netflix.

In Vokzal dlya Dvoikh she played the part of an “uncle” who gave an entertaining little lecture on the virtues of private property and free enterprise. I’ve never seen anything like that in a popular U.S. film. In Brilliantovaya Ruka she played the part of a meddlesome building superintendent — in a way that provided social commentary which I suspect was not comforting to all the authorities. And the biggest role was of course as the Commissar in Komissar — a film that was suppressed for 20 years and which even under glasnost was released with extreme reluctance, seeing the light of day only thanks to outside pressure. In an interview, the director Alexandr Askoldov pointed out that even today it is rarely seen in Russia. Nonna Mordukova was one of the actors who interceded on his behalf at the time when the film was suppressed, when Askoldev was facing the possibility of a fate worse than that of being kicked out of the Party and of being prohibited from directing more films (which is what did happen to him).

It’s not that Mordyukova was a political dissident. As far as I know she wasn’t anything of the kind. She even seems to have preferred that Askoldov give in to the censors on the parts of the film that he refused to edit out. (You can see this on the Komissar DVD that contains “extra” material.) But she played a role in conflicts that we would do well to know about.

Here is a page about Mordyukova that gives better information about her work:

Komissar is an interesting case. Most web pages that talk about her work mention her big role in Komissar. But I have found Russian sites that tell about her career without mentioning that film. Same for Rolan Bykov, who played the male lead (see clip below). There are Russian web sites that tell all about his work, except for their silence about that movie.

And now I’ve learned that Komissar is still censored, even at Netflix. The clip below includes several minutes that were not on the one we got from Netflix. I am suspicious of why they were removed, because it seems they are important in leading up to the famous Holocaust scene that got Askoldov in such big trouble. Maybe the producers didn’t want to touch the Turkey-Armenia genocide issue, which is mentioned in this clip. But there are also parts that seem important in developing the character played by Mordyukova — in which she explains some of her views on war service and the political aspects of the wars.

25-Jul Slight edits to remove awarkdness, I hope

Dec 252007

“Come and See” isn’t what I would pick for a Christmas movie, but it’s what we had at home from Netflix that still needed watching.

I didn’t expect much from it other than “war is horrible” and “the germans were evil” and that’s pretty much what we get. In showing terrible brutality and suffering, it avoids dealing with the really scary aspects of war such as one gets from an exhibit like the one labelled “A Monstrous Mediocrity” over at Suicide of the West. However, one thing the movie shares with that exhibit is a Nazi soldier taking some snapshots with a personal camera.

I also re-watched some of the interviews on the Commissar bonus materials DVD. One thing I had somehow missed was that Alexandr Aksoldov was kicked out of the Communist party twice. The second time was under Perestroika, when most other banned films were being released. His was not. The reaction to the proposal was to instead kick him out of the party again and bring up old charges against him.

Raisa Nedashkovskaya’s interview made me put Commissar back in my Netflix queue for viewing sooner rather than later. I remember the scene she was talking about, but I didn’t realize it featured an interweaving of Russian and Jewish lullabies. She sings both of them nicely, but I want to see (hear) again how it was done in the film.

Dec 182007

We watched Komissar several months ago; now I’m watching (and re-watching) the interviews on the “Bonus Material” DVD from Netflix.

The most puzzling one was actress Nonna Mordukova being harshly critical of Aleksandr Askoldov for not making any more films.

This, after learning on that same DVD how the Soviet cultural authorities had not only banned Askoldov’s film, but destroyed it (except for the one copy that somehow got filed away), forbade him to make any more films, forbade him to assist in the making of any more, got him kicked out of the Communist Party, prosecuted him as a social parasite, and may have done worse to him if not for Mordukova and actor Rolan Bykov coming to his defense at his trial. (Well, that last part I learned from Wikipedia, not the DVD.) Under those conditions it would have been hard for him to make any more films, no?

Mordukova doesn’t say so, but the only way Askoldov could have avoided all these banishments would have been to compromise on the making of Komissar. He could have omitted the scene of the vision of the Holocaust, and then the film could have been released back in 1967. But he refused to do that.

We learn that Askoldov was a stubbornly principled man. In her long career Mordukova played some roles that make me wonder whether she, too, tested the limits of the censors. I’ve wondered if there are any stories about that. But she apparently made enough peace with the ruling regimes to have a long career as a popular actress, and to receive awards from the likes of Vladimir Putin. Was she resentful of Askoldov for doing the right thing in the face of opposition, like some of us who never served in the military might be resentful of those who put their life on the line for their country?

I’m not sure when her interview was made. That part is in black-and-white and in it she doesn’t look very old, so I presume it was not as recent as the others. It seems to be part of a program like I’ve often seen on RTR Planeta, where an actor or actress takes questions from the audience and where film clips are shown. Maybe it, too, was her way of making peace with the regime.

I still like her work and look forward to watching other films in which she appeared (if any of them ever make their way to Netflix). I can understand that not everybody is going to buck the system to the extent that Askoldov did. It’s too bad Mordukova had to be critical of Askoldov for it, though. Or, maybe she was just faking her criticism. It’s hard to understand what’s happening in an environment where people can’t be honest with each other.