How do you commemorate a shameful history long suppressed? One way is to render it in black and white images so stark there’s nowhere for the shame to hide, a feat achieved with stunning clarity by Andrei Konchalovsky’s perversely beautiful and coldly furious “Dear Comrades!” (exclamation point ironic). Meticulous and majestic, epic in scope and tattoo-needle intimate in effect, this scrupulous recreation of the lead-up to and aftermath of the Novocherkassk massacre six decades ago is excoriating proof that not all filmmakers are made sloppy or slipshod by anger. Some are made ever more righteously, icily precise.
It is a June morning in 1962, and Lyuda (a riveting Julia Vysotskaya, one of the few professional actors in a largely untrained often street-cast lineup) is hurriedly leaving her married lover’s bed. Even now there is a hard, impatient practicality to her movements, and the couple’s post-coital pillow talk is of rising milk prices and lengthening grocery lines. But before we can conclude that Lyuda is therefore anti-Soviet, she notes acerbically how much better things were before Khrushchev. Lyuda is a Party apparatchik, a true believer and a diehard Stalinist. Her lover Loginov (Vladislav Komarov) who is also her immediate superior on the local Party Committee shuts her down languidly, reminding her of the seditious nature of such talk: “You get Party rations so you don’t ask questions.”
For the rest of her day, it is largely Lyuda who does the shushing — of her daughter Svetka (Yulia Burova), who works in the local locomotive factory where there are rumblings of discontent; of her father (Sergei Erlish), a stubborn old chainsmoker with the ancient world-weariness of a Solzhenitsyn character; and of the shopkeeper, who noses for information even as she funnels cigarettes, sweets and forbidden alcohol to Lyuda in a back room. But later, it will again be Lyuda who is muzzled — this time by a secrecy agreement she must sign, along with half the residents of Novocherkassk, after the suppression of a strike at Svetka’s factory turns bloody.
The immense state machinery put in motion to condemn an entire population to silence to cover up this massively botched and cruel act of state intervention would be impressive if it weren’t also so implacably evil. And though Lyuda is nominally on the side of the suppressors, and finds an unlikely ally in a local KGB agent Viktor (Andrei Gusev), her hardline ideological stance and iron self-discipline start to crumble when Svetka does not come home. Lyuda goes frantic with fear that her daughter is among the casualties no one is allowed to talk about, and for whom no one even knows where to look.
Andrey Naidenov’s monochrome, Academy-ratio photography is an ongoing revelation. A glancing acquaintance with postwar Soviet history (quick references are made to the 20th Party Congress at which Stalin was posthumously denounced, for example) is a bonus, as it frees you up to explore the frame on purely aesthetic terms, and to decode the mini-stories each one of the carefully choreographed compositions tells. Lyuda’s apartment is often shot in detail-laden wides, the open doorways framing the characters in paradoxically cramped separation, isolated but without privacy. At other times, it’s simply the faces of an exceptionally characterful cast that compel. Even the background extras in the crowd scenes are fascinating to look at. Erlish’s marvelously dehydrated visage, especially, is used to great effect. When he sits at the kitchen table swigging black liquor, the light works into the topographical grooves of his wrinkles, contrasting with a religious icon propped next to him, in which the Madonna is worn smooth and practically faceless by years of secret stashing in a rarely opened trunk.
There is no score, the better for us to be surreptitiously infected by Polina Volynkina’s exceptional sound design, which is uncannily attuned to that particular kind of silence that can only happen in a fearful, crowded room, that is not silence at all but an empty cacophony of sighs and throat-clears and chairs squeaking under shifting weight. During the massacre itself, Lyuda hides out in a hairdressers, and when the bullets hit the window they do not boom, but emit the dull, anticlimactic chink of breaking ice.
Despite the seriousness of the intent and the pristine craft, “Dear Comrades!” also has a deadpan sense of humor, or at least a scornfully wry sense of the absurd, that plays especially well in the many scenes of bureaucrats and military men nervously passing the buck as far as it will go. When a small herd of officials shunts en masse down a corridor, almost tripping on each other’s heels, or when all the heads in a room swivel in response to a telephone’s jangle, these privileged, paranoid Party functionaries suddenly look like frightened meerkats.
Though there is no doubt he opposes her ideology, Konchalovsky has compassion for Lyuda, a high-minded, self-disciplined woman betrayed by the very ideals she fought so hard to emulate. There is sympathy, too for Viktor, the KGB agent moved by conscience — and perhaps by latent attraction to Lyuda — to help her try to find her daughter. There is, in fact, across the whole broad sweep of this remarkably absorbing historical reclamation, a great deal of compassion and righteous indignation, for everyone except those higher-ups who put the bullets in the guns, the bodies in the unmarked graves and the fear of God (or excommunication, which was worse) into a cowering population. For them, the brilliant “Dear Comrades!” has nothing but scorn and condemnation: When you force people to forget, you give up the right forever of being forgiven.