Alfred Schnittke as Film Composer: The Case of Commissar

Harlow Robinson, Northeastern University

Like Sergej Prokof'ev and Dmitrij Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke supplemented his work as a "serious" classical composer of symphonies, chamber music, etc. with extensive work in the cinema. For Schnittke, as for Shostakovich, writing film scores was also an important way to earn money during periods when he fell under official suspicion. Schnittke also wrote the scores for several of the best films of the post-Xrushchev era, notably Commissar (put on the shelf for 20 years after it was made) and The Ascent (directed by Larissa Shepitko). Both these films deal with difficult issues: anti-Semitism (with an amazing flash-forward sequence to the Holocaust) and collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. These were themes with which Schnittke could strongly identify, and he produced scores of unusual dramatic strength that beautifully illustrate the action and visual style. In my paper, I will analyze his score for Commissar, with reference to his other music and film scores.