The offending film focuses on Klavdia Vavilova (Nonna Mordyukova), a Red Army officer who arrives in a freshly-taken town and is quartered with the Magazannik family. She's left behind as unfit for duty because she's in the last stage of pregnancy. Yefim Magazannik (Rolan Bykov) is one of those "life-affirming" types, the kind who dances barefoot in his yard as some sort of prayer to God. He kvetches at having to give up his bedroom to the commissar, but he and his family prove friendly, the wife especially showing empathy, having five kids herself, with the pregnant officer. The boys in the family are rambunctious, and the way they're presented may be part of the problem the censors had with the film. For one thing, they like to play at war, pretending to cajole their sister's doll from a hiding place only to torture and execute it. Later, they treat the sister herself with some of the same childish brutality, calling her a "Yid" for extra measure. The offensive insinuation may have been that the Red Army's conduct may have inspired the boys' cruelty. They may have been offensive in another way in one scene when their mother is bathing them, only to be interrupted by troops passing through town. The curious kids rush out to watch, and Askoldov gives us one shot of their three naked penises through the passing wagons that could well have convinced Soviet censors that he was some kind of a pervert and could well give American viewers a little bit of the creeps. But the director may simply have meant them as symbols of innocence; a lot depends on the eye of the beholder.
For a while you think you know the direction the film's going. Klavdia is slowly domesticated, doing her share of household chores and clearly caring for her newborn. But the film takes a late turn when the approaching counterrevolutionary "White" army shells the town. Klavdia and the Magazanniks take shelter in a basement. The kids are panicking and crying, but Yefim calms them and entertains them by launching into one of his Tevye/Zorba-esque dances. In what becomes a dreamlike montage, he, his wife and the kids all dance past Klavdia in the darkness, urging her to join them. Then, in the film's most startling coup, the montage turns into a prophetic vision. Klavdia now sees Yefim doing a more subdued, submissive form of his dance as he and his family, all wearing Stars of David on their garments, are herded into a concentration camp as veteran inmates watch in their iconic striped pyjamas. Everything's there but the Nazi regalia -- though it can't be the 1940s because Yefim's kids are still kids. From there there's one more anxious episode as Klavdia rips apart the boarding covering a door so she can shelter her baby (temporarily left on a sidewalk) from an advancing army, and then the commissar's fate is sealed. She leaves the baby with the Magazanniks to raise as she hastily rejoins the Red Army for what looks like an unpromisingly undermanned assault on the enemy with a minimal orchestration of the Internationale playing as a coda.
So for all Askoldov's alleged philo-Semitism he (and presumably Grossman before him) seems to be saying that for all Yefim's quaint charm his attitude of faithful resignation is simply inadequate to the moment in history. It is not enough for Klavdia to put her faith in a higher power; she can't wait for things to happen, but must rejoin the struggle, even if that means sacrificing her motherhood, not to mention her life. That would seem to make her an exemplary Bolshevik and an ideal hero for a Soviet film. But Commissar seems to have been judged much as a Hollywood film would be under the studio system: the ending with its stark hint of sacrifice for its own sake isn't happy or affirmative enough to satisfy the audience the bosses presumes exist, or wants to exist. In short, a Soviet cultural bureaucrat was just as likely as a Hollywood studio bureaucrat to be a moron.
Visually, Commissar swings for the seats on every pitch, and Askoldov occasionally hits one out of the park. Apart from that stunning flash-forward to the Holocaust, the film's most arresting moment comes when Klavdia flashes back during labor to her wartime adventures and envisions the slaughter of her comrades. This scene climaxes with a host of saddled but riderless horses charging across a bridge and through the countryside, eventually accompanied by an eerie murmur of human voices. It left me wondering whether the scene had influenced Steven Spielberg's more restrained employment of riderless steeds in War Horse. Regardless, Askoldov's imagery has at least as much power as anything Spielberg achieved in his new film. Commissar is often self-indulgent but never in an annoying or pretentious way. Askoldov's show-offery doesn't distract from the forceful yet ambiguous point he wants to make about war. If it was too ambiguous for a 1967 commissar to comprehend, or too forceful for him to accept, those are badges of honor Askoldov and his move can wear with pride today.