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The Past is a Foreign Country: Andrei Konchalovsky on “Dear Comrades!”

Andrei Konchalovsky discusses his devastating period piece and Venice Film Festival prizewinner.
Leonardo Goi
“What am I supposed to believe in if not communism?” Lyudmila stutters, drunk and disheveled, toward the end of Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades!. A Stalin devotee and World War II veteran, she serves as a Communist Party official in her native Novocherkassk, a town in southern USSR. But her unquestioning ideology suddenly wavers after a strike at the local factory is quelled with deadly force by the KGB and Red Army forces. Seldom known outside Russia, the real-life massacre shook Novocherkassk on June 2, 1962, claiming the lives of 26 unarmed civilians (though the number, as per Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, might have been as high as 80). 
Dear Comrades! is a faithful and impeccably crafted exhumation of the tragedy—an event the Soviet Union kept secret until its dissolution in the early nineties. Konchalovsky has cited films such as Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 The Cranes Are Flying and Grigori Chukhray’s 1959 Ballad of a Soldier as stylistic reference points, and indeed—shot by Andrey Naidenov in stark, gorgeous black-and-white and presented in a near-squarish retro 4:3 frame—the film doubles as a homage to the Soviet masterworks of the era. But to read Dear Comrades! as a relic from the past is to miss the ways in which it thrusts the massacre into the present. Written by Konchalovsky and regular co-scribe Elena Kiseleva, what makes the film so resonant is its ability to square the crackdown within a long, uninterrupted history of state violence; what makes it so disturbing is its choice to frame Lyudmila as both a victim of that violence and an enabler of the system that fuels it.
Rivetingly played by Yuliya Vysotskaya (among the few professional actors in a largely untrained cast), Lyudmila has clung on to the party as her raison d’être, and now watches as it turns against innocent people—with her own pivotal contribution. Her daughter Svetka (Yulia Burova) goes missing during the crackdown, whereupon Dear Comrades! turns into a stomach-churning rescue mission, shuttling us into a maze of party offices, morgues, and mass graves. But the film never ridicules its protagonist’s patriotism, nor does Lyudmila’s character arc culminate with an unequivocal rejection of the ideals she was raised to revere. Even as she finally awakens to the full scale of the state’s violence and her belief in party politics crumbles, her faith in the country’s chances of redemption does not. In the end, an empty chrysalis of the woman who powered through the film’s preamble, she manages to muster enough courage to utter a final prayer: “we shall be better.” It’s an unexpected injection of optimism and humanity into a film orphaned of both: a plea to move forward, but to never forget. 
Halfway through last year’s Venice Film Festival, where Dear Comrades! nabbed the Special Jury Prize, I sat with Konchalovsky to discuss his latest.

NOTEBOOK: Watching Dear Comrades! felt like entering a time capsule: I was stunned by how authentic the film looks, down to its tiniest details. Even the extras you’ve cast look like they’ve been plucked from that era.
ANDREI KONCHALOVSKY: Well, we had to create a whole world from scratch, and for that to feel authentic, your set designers, custom designers, make-up artists, and casting directors should be able to grasp the requirements of the period you’re working in. As a director, I can select certain things, but ultimately I am in the hands of other people, and those people must understand the culture we’re dealing with if they want to recreate it faithfully. Of course, there are things that you can discuss with them, and choices you make yourself. But you must have a certain sensibility for everything to click, and for the world to come into being. Without that, it just won’t work.
NOTEBOOK: How important was it to rely on Yuri Bagrayev as a script consultant?
KONCHALOVSKY: Supremely important. He was the prosecutor who oversaw the 1992 investigation of the Novocherkassk’s events, and he gave me loads of inside information. As you can imagine, a lot of that was never published, so his help was invaluable. I wanted him to be completely satisfied with what we were doing, because there had been several documentaries and even some series on what had happened down there… and he was very upset with how those had turned out. I needed to be as meticulous and rigorous as I could. 
NOTEBOOK: Dear Comrades! is set in the past, and yet it registered as contemporary in a way I did not expect. I was very intrigued by the history of continuities you trace between the workers’ massacre and the violence the USSR waged in the region through the years—especially against the Cossack minority. I was wondering how important it was for you to unearth the truth around all these persecutions.
KONCHALOVSKY: That’s an interesting point. But I guess this applies to all my previous films: I just cannot make films about things that I am not absolutely convinced I know well. I need to be absolutely certain of what I’m talking about. Whether it’s a revolution, or Michelangelo, or Shakespeare… it doesn’t matter. You have to know. Take Homer. When I worked on The Odyssey, I had to figure out how to shoot the most ordinary everyday things, like how Ancient Greeks used to wash themselves… But once you start living in the period, when you become absorbed by the era you are working in, then things can come up by themselves. You may not realize this as you write, but you know those details and images will reveal themselves to you eventually.
NOTEBOOK: I’m curious as to how the character of Lyudmila came into being. Was she always the designated entry point into the story? 
KONCHALOVSKY: Well, the seeds of a film are very different from what ends up in the script. The idea we started with, of a mass demonstration crushed by the state… it could have turned into a hundred different films. But then I realized that Yuliya was the perfect actress for a certain kind of tragic character. We were doing Sophocles here in Italy, and I thought that maybe she’d be interested in playing a similar kind of epic, tragic, cathartic figure. And then, but only then, the story came into being.
NOTEBOOK: You paint her as a fanatic, but the film never ridicules her attachment to pre-Khrushchev Russia, and her messiah-like reverence for Stalin.
KONCHALOVSKY: But that’s because I like these people! I don’t want to accuse them of anything. They belong to my parents’ generation. I mean of course there have been people among them who actually opposed the 1917 Revolution - people who joined the White Guards, and other counterrevolutionary groups. But here, I’m talking about someone who was brought up in the Soviet Union, and raised to believe in a certain idea of communism, a certain idea of who Stalin was, and what he meant. I don’t want to blame people like her for any of that. It’d be stupid of me. I think it’s far more interesting to try to understand. Whether she was right or wrong in her beliefs is beside the point: you can like her regardless of whether you agree with them. And that’s a crucial point: a character can be likeable even though they’re completely “wrong,” from a moral standpoint. Conversely, you can have a character who makes all the morally “right” choices, and still find them utterly repulsive. 
NOTEBOOK: It dawned on me on my way here that in 1962, just a few weeks after the massacre took place, you were actually here in Venice with Andrei Tarkovsky, for the premiere of Ivan’s Childhood. Do you remember hearing about Novocherkassk in those days? Was there much clamor around it in Russia? 
KONCHALOVSKY: No. And we didn’t care. I mean, we were going to Italy! [laughs] That’s all that mattered. It was our first time abroad, and we wanted to see how things looked over there. 
NOTEBOOK: Do you remember when you first heard about the massacre?
KONCHALOVSKY: Oh, there were rumors that started spreading that same autumn. Something had happened in the South, something to do with workers and a shooting in Novocherkassk… but nobody could verify. And on top of that, there was the "blackout," as you know. People were afraid to talk about what happened. When you’re forced to sign the kind of documents you see in the film… You’re just not going to remember any of it.
NOTEBOOK: I was hoping you could tell me more about your work with cinematographer Andrey Naidenov, and your multi-camera shooting method. I know you’ve relied on the same approach for your last four films…
KONCHALOVSKY: Oh yeah. In Sin, Paradise, The Postman’s White Nights… we used the same technique. I just find it interesting to think of the possibilities a certain image can open up, of the vast spectrum of alternatives you can play around with once you shoot from multiple points. At the same time, life is not just what appears in your field of view, and lot of the more interesting stuff comes from what lies behind, what remains unseen. Learning how to capture that has been an interesting experience.
NOTEBOOK: Even as you keep the camera still through much of the film, each shot crackles with so much movement, tension, and danger. It was a jarring thing to see, as the calm of the visuals made the action all the more threatening, especially during the actual protest.
KONCHALOVSKY: Absolutely, yes.
NOTEBOOK: And it was also interesting to see you strike this careful balance between tragedy and irony. It’s a devastating tale, sure, but there are moments when the film feels surprisingly humorous. I’m thinking here of the way you depict the local party cadres, early on…
KONCHALOVSKY: Well, I think one must always try to tease out the richness and depth of one’s characters. Think of Shakespeare: even his tragedies were peopled with lots of comical characters, so to speak. Like in life. Beauty cannot exist without stupidity or ugliness. As for cinema…[pauses] I find that it’s not always easy to be free when you work within the constraints of this or that genre. I like an approach that allows me to look at a character, a story, through different perspectives.
NOTEBOOK: I heard you describe the film as a portrait of your parents’ generation… 
KONCHALOVSKY: It is, yes.
NOTEBOOK: Do you then see yourself closer to the character of Svetka, Lyuda’s daughter?
KONCHALOVSKY: I feel close to all of them, in all fairness. Including the party president. I like them for certain charms they have, and I try to forgive them, in a way. Because when you try to understand the people you’re writing about, that’s when empathy kicks in. It’s the same with life, in a sense. You can try to understand an evildoer—I’m not saying it’s easy, but you can make an effort.
NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting to hear you mention empathy: I thought the film brimmed with it, especially in your portrait of Lyudmila. Her attachment to the past may come across as ludicrous at first, but by the end it accrues a lacerating aftertaste.
KONCHALOVSKY: Oh yes. She is convinced all will turn out alright in the end. And as you know, she was raised under Stalin’s Russia, and believes that if Stalin would have been alive, none of that would have ever happened… To me, that was extremely important: that she could have her ideas and ideals, and would be loyal to them until the end. She thinks people betrayed the idea of communism she was raised with—Khrushchev and others, that is. Of course, like every fanatic, she is very limited in her perception. You see her blaming others, but never Stalin. And that’s how I think life is: people may be limited in their understanding of the world around them, but that by itself doesn’t make them are less sympathetic.
NOTEBOOK: You end the film on an optimistic note, which was uplifting as it was surprising, considering all the atrocities we witness along Lyudmila’s odyssey. The fact that she can power through them and still find enough hope to utter “we shall be better!” is nothing short of miraculous.
KONCHALOVSKY: Well, thank you for saying that. I believe… [pauses] I guess I believe that people need hope, and that hope, like religion, is irrational. And it is necessary for all of us to hold on to something as irrational as hope, because it gives us the strength to carry on and live. It’s like a doctor who shares some optimistic words to heal a sick person. You understand what I mean? Doctors don’t just cure you with drugs or razors, or whatever else they may use. They can heal you with words, too. And this is what the artist aspires to as well, ultimately: to give you some sort of hope. People need that to power through in the face of destruction. This is all I’m doing in the end: I’m giving you a fairytale. And a fairytale is a wondrous means for one to reach the deepest truth about human life.

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InterviewsAndrei KonchalovskyVenice 2020VeniceFestival Coverage
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