Wednesday, 27 November 2013

"Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" - a historian's review

I finally got around to watching the last part of the German mini-series "Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" last night.  It first aired in Germany earlier this year, and caused something of a sensation, drawing enormous audiences, provoking spirited debate and anguished reflection and generally jumping the normal bounds inhabited by a TV programme. 

Meaning literally "Our Mothers, our Fathers", it is the story of 5 friends (3 men & 2 women) who meet up just prior to the invasion of the USSR in the spring of 1941 to swear eternal friendship and promise to meet again the following Christmas.  They are perhaps a microcosm of the ordinary German population: 2 soldiers (one keen, one not), an ambitious singer, a nurse eager to do her duty for the Fatherland, and a Jewish tailor. None of them, tellingly, is a Nazi.

What follows, over 3x90 minute programmes, shows what life - and the war - throws at the five friends, and crucially shows the ways in which they, like the vast majority of ordinary people, were subtly made complicit in both the Nazi regime and the all-pervading horrors of World War Two.  The singer, Greta, for instance, has an affair with a Gestapo man, essentially to further her career; Wilhelm (the enthusiastic soldier) is disillusioned by his experience of the war, his less enthusiastic brother Friedhelm becomes totally apathetic and ruthless.  I won't spoil your enjoyment by revealing too much more.

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when..."
In this respect, the film does a great job of bringing the nuances and complexities of life in wartime in a dictatorship to the screen.  Living in freer times, we like to imagine life back then as black and white: you were either clean or you collaborated.  However, life is rarely so neat, and certainly wasn't back then under the Third Reich or the Soviet Union.  What the film brilliantly brings to the fore is the countless shades of grey that existed for everyone.  The tiny compromises and accommodations that could often have huge consequences.  So far, then, so realistic.

Another positive was the film's production values, which were excellent.  Acting throughout was never less than convincing, and - whisper it quietly - people got dirty..., army uniforms were never neatly pressed.  I remember a veteran once saying to me that they could smell the Red Army before you could see them - this film gives a whiff of that grim olfactory realism.  In this regard, the only complaint was that the deaths were far too neat - people shot once in the body rarely die instantaneously; yet here they did, irritatingly regularly.

There are other gripes... I found it rather unrealistic that the five friends kept bumping into each other. Considering the vast extent of German-occupied Europe between 1941-45, it was utterly implausible that the nurse and her soldier beau, for instance, should have bumped into each other - not once but twice!  And that the Jew-cum-Partisan should recognise his childhood pal passing him in a Wehrmacht Kubelwagen... One is tempted to quip - "Of all the slit trenches in all the world..."

OK, I get it - the piece has to make a few concessions for the sake of a narrative structure.  But there were other failings - the film also showed a rather peculiar "world view".  It is probably to be expected that the Germans themselves would not be portrayed terribly sympathetically - they are all in some way seen as complicit (as the premise dictates), they are all 'collectively guilty' for the crimes of the Nazis.

Yet, beyond that, the film demonstrated some rather peculiar sympathies and prejudices.  The Polish Underground Army (AK), for instance - in which the Jewish tailor finds temporary refuge - is portrayed as being rabidly and almost uniformly anti-Semitic. Now, anti-Semitism was not just a German disease, and there were certainly instances of it in wartime Poland.  But, but... let us not forget that Poland has more individuals listed as "Righteous Among the Nations" - for saving Jews during the Holocaust - than ANY other country - and over 10 times the figure for Germany.  So, to portray the Polish partisans as more anti-Semitic than any of the German characters on show was not only a gross distortion - it was grossly unfair.

More surprising, perhaps, was the positive spin that was put on the Red Army and the Soviet Union in the film.  Not only did the benighted Polish partisans express the opinion that the Germans were worse than the Soviets, (they tended to view both as equally awful), but a would-be rape of the nurse character (Charlie) is interrupted by a stern (female) Red Army officer, who then finds her a position in a Red Army medical unit. If the scene were at all realistic, one fears, a captured German nurse like Charlie would have been raped - probably numerous times - before being unceremoniously shot.

One is tempted to wonder why the Soviet Union is portrayed in such a positive light - the only group incidentally that come out of the film with any apparent credit whatsoever.  Indeed, such is the gloss applied, that - were it not for the excellent production values - one might have imagined that the film had been made during the dying days of the GDR!

Despite all this historically-themed griping - this is nonetheless an excellent film, which is well worth seeing (and it is due to be shown with subtitles as "Generation War" on BBC2 this winter).  German TV's treatment of the Third Reich, the war, and the nation's complicity in both has clearly come a long way, but there is still - perhaps - a little way to go.

© Roger Moorhouse 2013

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Fortress at Brest - a story of heroism, sacrifice and unreconstructed Soviet historiography

I watched an interesting film yesterday.  "Fortress of War" is the subtitled English-language release title of a Belarusian film from 2010, 'Брестская крепость' or "The Brest Fortress".  It tells the remarkable story of the Soviet garrison manning the 19th Century Fortress at Brest, on the Soviet-German frontier, in the opening days of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.  Astonishingly, the fortress held out for a week against the German attack, suffering enormous privation in the process, before its last defenders were forced to surrender.  It is indeed a remarkable story.

And, it is a remarkable film.  In pure cinema terms, it is actually rather good.  If I were to describe it as a "Belarusian 'Saving Private Ryan'", then that might sound mocking, but it should be taken as a compliment.  The narrative is well-paced, the characters (though a tad two-dimensional) are just about rounded enough, and the battle scenes are gripping and reasonably realistic.  So, on that level at least, the film is certainly not a waste of 138 minutes of your life.

The film is also remarkable on another level, however: as an example of unreconstructed Soviet 'hurrah' historiography.  But for the glossy modern production values, this exact film could have been made in 1985 - or even 1965.  The message is the same: the Soviet Union was a land of milk, honey and happiness before the Nazi invasion, and the Red Army was the unblemished valiant defender of the Soviet people.  Even the film's Political Commissar - Yefim Fomin - is portrayed with unalloyed admiration.  This - in 2013 - is truly remarkable.

So, there is a great deal that the film does not tell the viewer.  One salient point is the immediate history predating the 1941 attack, for instance that Brest had been in Poland two years before, and had itself been invaded and occupied by the Soviets and the Germans jointly in 1939.  Indeed, it was at Brest that one of the most remarkable episodes of the opening phase of the World War Two took place; the joint Soviet-German parade of September 22 1939.  As the image below shows, Brest could well have been synonymous with the brief flowering of 'friendship' between Moscow and Berlin.
German & Soviet Commanders take the salute at Brest
Yet, understandably perhaps, that was not an image that the world chose to remember after 1941.  Accordingly, no mention is made of it in the film.  Even the Nazi-Soviet Pact itself is reduced to a couple of oblique references that would pass most viewers by entirely.  The political and geographical complexity that Brest signified is reduced to a simple tale of Red Army soldiers defending the Soviet Motherland against unprovoked attack.

Of course, it is too much to expect a film with a discreet narrative to include such related, though extraneous, material as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, or the Soviet deportations of Poles from Brest and elsewhere of the previous summer, but the 'tone' of the film is still rather astonishing.  One parlour game that I sometimes play in these situations is to transpose the Soviets for the Nazis and then question whether the portrayal might be deemed balanced or objective.  So, for instance, the Political Commissar character - let us imagine that he were to be changed to an SS man, galvanising his troops, leading them in battle?  (Now this is not such a crass comparison: after all, let's not forget that the NKVD (to which the Political Commissar belonged) was responsible for the Soviet Purges, the Deportations, the Gulag, the Katyn Massacres, etc etc.. and easily qualifies as a criminal organisation, like the SS.)  So, even after the most cursory thought, most readers will surely agree with me that it is unthinkable that an SS officer would be portrayed in an uncritical light, and rightly so.  Yet, incredibly, in the Soviet world-view, the Commissar can still be a positive figure. Clearly, a generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, the ex-Soviet equivalent of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung: the famed "Coming to Terms with the Past", is barely off the starting blocks...

So, "Fortress of War" is well-worth a watch, and is remarkable on a number of levels.  Its Belarussian film makers should probably be congratulated, but they should most definitely be dragged into the 21st Century.