Ch. 13 Commissar (1967/1988): The End of the Thaw

Commissar, one of the most striking films of Khrushchev’s Thaw, was banned in the Soviet Union for its expression of overt sympathy for Jews who were persecuted during the Russian Civil War. After its remarkable release twenty years later, Commissar became one of the best known Soviet masterpieces in the West. But when it was made, in 1967, the most controversial part of the film was a scene depicting the Holocaust that was to come, as envisioned by a Russian commissar woman (the film's main character). This famous scene is featured here.

Availability: Commissar is widely available on DVD, with English subtitles (New York: Kino International, 2007).

  1. The camera portrays the events as seen through the eyes of the Russian commissar woman. What does she see?
  2. How are Jews portrayed in this scene? What does it remind you of?
  3. The filmmaker Askoldov considered this the key scene in the film (he called it “the march of the doomed”). How do you understand it? What makes it a key scene?
  4. How was the film interpreted by Soviet editors/censors when it was first made in the 1960s? How was it received in the Soviet Union, and in the West, after its release in the late 1980s?