Category Archives: Issue 1

Grading Historical Movies: Fedor Bondarchuk’s “Stalingrad” (2013)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The twelfth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Fedor Bondarchuk’s “Stalingrad” (2013).

 

Overall grade from 45 students:  B-

 

Review One

By Stephan Koclejda

Grade:  B-

Stalingrad, the 2013 film by Fyodor Bondarchuk, presents a Russian perspective on the fierce battle for the titular city with gratuitous special effects. Despite the propagandistic bookending and a contrived plot, Bondarchuk manages to craft a decent critique of the Soviet system within the film’s body.

Set in the almost mythical Pavlov’s House, a group of Russian soldiers take over the building from the Wehrmacht and discover the last remaining resident: a 19-year-old girl named Katia. The main cast of five become protectors and a pseudo-family to Katia, and themselves form the basis of Bondarchuk’s critique of the kind of patriotism in the Great Patriotic War. Everyone has been failed by the Soviet system in a way and ruined by the war. Polyakov lost his family in a bombing near the beginning, Chvanov lost his village to the Wehrmacht, Nikiforov witnessed the atrocities in Belarus and was tortured by the state after making it back to Soviet lines, Astakov was the sole survivor of his artillery battalion in an early battle, Gromov never had a chance to experience anything other than war, and Katia lost her family and neighbors to the fires of battle in Stalingrad. It points to the failures of the Stalin and the Soviet government to adequately prepare for the German invasion and the severe losses that followed in 1941. They all fight, but not for reasons like their unwavering belief in Stalin, communism, or the Soviet system. In fact, Soviet ideology fails to rear its head in the film – not a single political commissar seen amongst shots of the Red Army, nor any fervent praising of Stalin. Hauptmann Kahn, the Wehrmacht officer who was stationed in the house and is tasked with retaking it, is portrayed sympathetically even though he does brutal things like rape a civilian woman who looks like his wife and watch as his men burn a civilian woman and child to death. He blames the war for making him into a beast.

The film is bookended by odd scenes that seem to revive Soviet myth and contradict Bondarchuk’s critique: a Russian rescue mission in the rubble of the Fukushima earthquake in Japan. The narrator of the film, a doctor who is the son of Katia and Astakov, tells the story of a film to a German student trapped under rubble. These scenes make the assertion that the Soviet Union (basically Russia) saved the world by defeating the Nazis, and now continues to save it and do good. It ignores the failures of the Soviet system that Bondarchuk brought up in the war story, and makes for troublesome presentation of history in an otherwise okay Michael Bay-esque film.

Review Two

By Megan Drown

Grade:  B

An unwieldy film about the famous defense of Pavlov’s House during the Battle of Stalingrad, Fedor Bondarchuk’s film Stalingrad (2013) is an awkward and sometimes amateurish representation of a story that is the source of Russian pride. Set during November 1942, the film follows the story of five soldiers and a young woman named Katya who is a resident of the bombed out building the five men end up defending. Like many modern American war films, it is framed by a contemporary storyline: this time about an older man on a rescue mission to save people from the wreckage of the 2011 earthquake that hit Japan. The man is the son of Katya who claims to have had five fathers while consoling a young German woman – remarkably unscathed – who is trapped under the wreckage of a fallen building.

The film employs many devices to keep the audience engaged in the storyline. For example, Bondarchuk parallels the story of Katya’s character with the five men who defend her apartment building to keep the audience engaged in each of the five men’s stories. While the film has impressive visual effects and fits the chronology and events of the battle to protect Pavlov’s house, it executes the scenes, in which Wehrmacht and Red Army soldiers clash, tactlessly. There are many scenes in which the audience is left with a “WTF” feeling, most notably the scene in which one of the platoon officers and trained sniper, Chvanov, shoots a Russian woman that a quintessential conflicted Nazi Captain is sleeping with, instead of the Captain himself. If Chvanov was, in fact, seasoned by war with an insatiable vengeance towards Germans, one would assume that he would choose the Captain instead of the insignificant woman. Nonetheless, the film does contain many accurate historical elements while also evoking emotions that lead to the “shared experience” feeling so craved by American audiences.

Although Katya’s role was intended to make the audience pay more attention to the male characters (which is problematic in it and of itself), she is a charming young woman who is, perhaps, the most developed character in the entire film. This allows one to sympathize with the woman who is headstrong but melancholy; a woman who has had to bury her entire family, her neighbors, and dead children under the ruins of buildings because the cemetery was too far away to reach in the midst of war. Her naivety is almost endearing as she pleads with Captain Gromov to allow her to fight alongside the men since she is 18 years old and thus old enough to fight. Katya symbolizes a beacon of hope and light, Mother Russia one might contend, to the hardened men who come to love her in the matter of two days. Predictably, the men are so beguiled by Katya and what she represents, that they come to fight the battle for her, to protect her, rather, than to fight for home and country.

This development, however, leads to the overall quandary with the film. Is the film, in fact, a propagandistic tool to reinvigorate a sense of pride in Russians? Or maybe to reinvigorate Soviet sentimentalities to the satisfaction of a Russian leader who is nostalgic for the Soviet era? Bondarchuk has been a vocal supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his political agenda throughout this film is as conspicuous as its obvious tactical blunders. Quotes such as “There are no retards in the USSR. There are mentally ill, but no retards,” harkens back to the Stalin-era attitudes in Soviet films, films that were not allowed to portray physical weakness or discontentment of Soviet troops in any capacity. Additionally, the men in the platoon, especially Nikiforov who has been beaten and tortured by the Soviet state after being one of the lone survivors of the genocide in Belarus, have no qualms with the Soviet state. Many of the men in the platoon have experienced loss as a direct result of the Soviet state’s failure to protect its civilians, yet they fight nail and tooth for their country, aimlessly blaming the sociopathic Germans who, frankly, are annihilated in Stalingrad. Bondarchuk has called on the international community to separate his films from his political activism, but one must wonder how it is possible to separate politics from this film.

Review Three

By:  Steven Waurio

Grade:  C+

Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, Stalingrad is an average-quality film that presents a historical moment in a surprisingly effective way.  Centered on the experience of a group of Soviet soldiers defending a strategic house near the Volga river, the film manages to raise questions about the Soviet state’s culpability for the horrors that its citizens were forced to endure–both at the hands of the Communist leadership and the German army.

In an early moment of the film, a theatrical and fairly ridiculous slow-motion hand-to-hand combat scene makes it abundantly clear to the audience that Bondarchuk will prioritize visual effects over compelling narrative in his attempt to tell a story of one of the bloodiest battles in human history.  This tone is established early on and kept through the remainder of the film, but I don’t mean to suggest that the storytelling itself doesn’t have value.  Despite the somewhat un-imaginative overall narrative, the main characters in the film each represent an accurate understanding of Soviet and World War II history.  The Soviet soldiers are all characterized with motivations that have historical merit, and they all display significant burdens brought upon by the events of the war.  Two of the soldiers, Gromov and Nikiforov, have been rendered brutal by their experiences of war–Gromov as an officer who has never loved anyone or had a home, and Nikiforov as a volunteer who endured a horror of combat against Nazis only to be questioned and tortured later by his own Soviet state.  A third soldier, Astakhov, became combat and gun shy after his entire artillery unit was decimated.  And the final two Soviets, Polyakov and Chvanov, had civilian loved ones die at the hands of the German advance.  Similarly, the depiction of the woman in the household, Katya, presents a reflection of what the experience of a citizen in Stalingrad might have been like.  Her character is implied to have endured various forms of assault during the Nazi occupation, and, through accusing the Soviet soldiers of failing to protect the city, she indirectly accuses the Soviet state as a whole of failing to respond to the Nazi advance.

These depictions imply, at the very least, some connection to the Soviet state’s complete lack of preparedness for the German invasion.  They force the audience to ask, “If Stalin had reacted to the clear indications of impending invasion, would the first three soldiers mentioned have had to see so many of their comrades die?  Would the last two soldiers have had to lose their loved ones?  Would Katya have had to endure the awful experience of Nazi occupation?”  This is particularly important in a modern Russian political climate in which the state has revived the Soviet war cult and begun to more actively censor media critical of Russian or Soviet leadership.  While Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad falls short in many ways as a work of film and art, it stands out for its truth and accuracy in depicting Soviets’ experiences of World War II.

Review Four

By:  Aleah Sexton

Grade:  A-

Stalingrad, the 2013 Russian film directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, explores the heroism and bravery of a unit of five men during the roughest hours of Stalingrad.

The narrator of the film is the son of a young woman, Katya. He tells the story of how each of the five men are his “fathers.” Sergey, a young man recently drafted, is the true father to Katya’s son. The men and Katya grow fond of one another and use the mutually beneficial relationship to find hope and peace from the destruction and chaos surrounding them. As a parallel, there is another love story between a German officer and a Russian commoner, Masha. This relationship is forced; it’s obvious Masha is only “reciprocating” towards the officer for her own protection. Bondarchuk uses these contrasting love stories to play into Nazi stereotypes and build upon the courageous nature of the Red Army during this brutal period. The rhetoric of the Soviet soldiers appears to be selfishness, as they care for each other and the citizens. They place the good of the country above their own desires. This is used to contrast the Nazi sentiment, as officer Kahn continually visits Masha when his men are fighting. The unit of men guarding Katya are gentle, while officer Kahn rapes Masha. Stalingrad genuinely portrays the absolute despair of current-day Volgograd and introduces the various ways war goes beyond the frontlines. The story incorporates the narrator at the beginning and ending scenes, as he comforts German victims in Japan after the 2011 tsunami. Sergey tells the story of his five fathers to calm the victims as they await help. The introduction and conclusion of the narrator plays into the storyline that the Russians are courageous and selfless. By making the victims German, this adds another layer of complexity when the temporal setting changes to Stalingrad.

Based on historian Robert Rosenstone’s analysis of historical films, Stalingrad is a prime example of a dramatic feature film. The dramatic film “aims directly at the emotions” and “individuals are at the centre of the historical process”. Stalingrad used Hollywood tactics to incorporate love and action to revoke specific emotions from the audience. The story of the five fathers is explained with a dramatized plotline to fully engage the audience. Stalingrad does not portray the Soviets as victims to Nazis, but instead instills Americanized notions of heroism to focus on the bravery of the Stalingrad soldiers. The dramatic feature film also places an emphasis on “the visual and aural, and the resulting embodied quality of the film experience in which we seem to live through events we witness on the screen”. The camera angle, music, acting, and overall quality of Stalingrad gives the audience an experience to live in the moment of the battle and feel the anxiousness of the soldiers. Stalingrad is a successful modern war movie in that it educates the audience on the truth of the war, although it was at parts glamorized.

Review Five

By Adam Ring

Grade:  B-

This movie is intense. That initially could go one of two ways, and unfortunately in this case, the intensity actually encumbers the historical authenticity of the movie. That is not to say themes and messages don’t emerge from studying the characters, but overly-dramatic imagery and unnecessary melodrama get in the way far too often. However, once the audience is able to get past all these exaggerated aspects, an interesting message is revealed: the Soviet Union is ultimately to blame for the five main Russian soldiers’ demise.

There are essentially two sub-stories going on: that of the Russians and that of the Germans. On the German side, the interaction between Hauptmann Kahn and Oberstleutnant Henze is particularly interesting. As Kahn objects to Henze locking a mother and her child in a bus and proceeding to burn them alive, Henze compares what he is doing to “sacrifices their ancestors made”. He is committing the most heinous of all war crimes, and yet it does not bother him one bit. This makes Kahn more human, if that is even possible. The war has turned him into a beast, but he was not always like that. He does not possess the same radicalized Nazification that Henze does.

On the Russian side, the movie primarily focuses around a group of soldiers taking cover in a building. These men all have backstories, and as the movie progresses, the audience is able to learn what these men have metaphorically brought with them to war—lots of “baggage”. Perhaps most striking is the interaction between Gromov and Chvanov. After Chvanov helps Katya shoot a German filling up a barrel of water, Gromov shouts that “even animals don’t kill at the waterside”. In his response, the audience learns what Chvanov thinks of the Germans: “Kill them each time you see them”. Later in the film, the audience learns the source of this intense hatred: Nazi soldiers brutally murdered and raped his family. Each of the other four remaining characters have backstories that matter, but what is most important is to analyze why they do. Fyodor Bondarchuk seems to suggest an answer: these soldiers have had bad pasts, then they fight in the war, and then they die. The soldiers are victims of the Soviet Union in every sense.

Lastly, Katia deserves some serious analysis. In many historical films, there is often a “biggest loser”, or, in other words, one single person who suffers the most. Katia unfortunately claims this title. She didn’t ask for the invasion of Stalingrad. Yet, after Stalin ignored credible intel that the Germans would be attacking, she is left to deal with the death and destruction that the invasion brings. Of all the characters, she is the only one not to perish at the end. As an added bonus, she is impregnated with a child from one of the Russian soldiers, all of whom are dead.

This movie has a legitimate message to convey: people come to war with metaphorical baggage, and often end up worse off or dead by the end. So who is to blame? A very plausible suggestion is the Soviet Union, an empire that made the invasion of Stalingrad a lot worse because of inaction. And these five Russian soldiers, and especially Katia, suffer dearly for it.

Review Six

By Madeline Phaby

Grade:  C

Stalingrad is a 2013 Russian film directed by Fedor Bondarchuk and set mainly during the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad. Its principal historical merit is in its accurate depiction of the often-devastating effects that World War II had on everyone involved – both in and out of combat. Unfortunately, much of this merit is lost in the film’s melodramatic love stories, relatively unnecessary special effects, and most of all, the incredibly bizarre plotline. Although these aspects did not explicitly detract from the parts of the film that were historically accurate and realistic, the overemphasis on “Hollywood-esque” techniques and a littering of pro-Russian propaganda strip Stalingrad of much of its historical relevance.

The film begins on a rather confusing note, as it does not initially take place in the USSR at all – or during WWII, for that matter. In the opening scene, a Russian man is attempting to rescue five German children who have been trapped under rubble during a 2011 earthquake in Japan. The man starts to tell one of the German girls the story of how he had “five fathers”, and the viewer is then launched into a flashback. This flashback does take place during the Battle of Stalingrad, and it consumes the majority of the film. In this flashback, the narrator introduces and follows the experiences of five Soviet soldiers who encounter a young woman named Katya when they set themselves up in Pavlov’s House, her place of residence. The soldiers take a liking to Katya, who has witnessed the deaths of all the other inhabitants of the house, even though she is initially critical of the Red Army’s performance in defending the city. That Katya has very clearly been battered by the war enough to express such frustration is a surprisingly clear criticism of the USSR’s unpreparedness for the war and is an incredibly historically significant portion of the film. Katya, however, is not the only one who has been ruined by the war – the soldiers all have their own backstories that have shaped their personalities. For example, Polyakov’s wife and young daughter were killed in an air raid, Nikiforov’s successful career as an opera singer came to a screeching halt when he signed up for the war, and Chvanov developed a blinding hatred for Germans when they burned his home village down. This portrayal of the soldiers as humans rather than blindly patriotic minions who fought exclusively for Stalin is one of the most important aspects of the film. However, far more emphasis is placed on the love story between Katya and Sergey, one of the “five fathers” who is the narrator’s actual father, as well as the special effects that make all of the combat scenes in the film completely unrealistic and overly grandiose. In addition, although the “five fathers” are clearly disillusioned with the war, they are still cited by the narrator as the reason that he “never had to experience war,” thus making them his heroes despite all dying before the narrator’s birth. This, coupled with the obvious social commentary presented by the narrator, a Russian, saving the five German children, turns this potentially accurate and thought-provoking film into little more than a continuation of the highly problematic “savior complex” that plagues Russian memory of its “Great Patriotic War”.

Review Seven

By Blake Mullenix

Grade:  B-

Stalingrad (2013), directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, is a frustrating film. The film’s
opening and closing scenes, along with Hollywood-style heroics and special effects, distract the
viewer from the numerous truths it reveals.

Stalingrad is historically satisfying in that it highlights seldom discussed topics in Russia such as the unpreparedness of the Soviet Union upon the June 1941 invasion. Using five Red Army soldiers, Bondarchuk is able to uncover truths about World War II. Through Nikiforov, viewers are reminded of the atrocities against Soviet citizens, but also of the brutality of the Soviet state. Nikiforov became lost, but by the time he regrouped with other soldiers, he was interrogated by the state as though he was an enemy or a deserter. The character Astakhov is a physical reminder of how unprepared the Soviet Union
was upon German invasion. He was the sole survivor of a formally trained, artillery unit.
Because of the horrors he experienced, he freezes during the Battle of Stalingrad and is branded
by the others as “Sissy.”

Where Stalingrad excels in portraying the variability of Red Army soldiers, it falters in
its depiction of the Wehrmacht. There are really only two Wehrmacht soldiers that Stalingrad
allows audiences a close look at. From a Russian standpoint, Kahn is portrayed in an unique
manner. Kahn is portrayed in a stereotypical, beast-like fashion at times, like when he rips off the
clothes of a Russian woman before he rapes her. Conversely, Kahn is humanized when he
contemplates his actions and says, “I came here as a soldier, but you turned me into a beast.”
And while the depiction of Kahn as ambiguous strengthens Stalingrad’s significance as a
historical film, the character Henze does not. Henze is a character for audiences to root against
and hate in every aspect. Henze is portrayed as pure evil and what real Nazi soldiers are like in
the eyes of Russians.

Although the depictions of the Wehrmacht are questionable, they are not, however, the
most troubling aspect of the film. Three major issues stuck out in this film. The first, and most
minor, is the excessive, Hollywood-like use of special effects. While this did not devalue
Stalingrad as a historical film, it could distract one from truths exposed in the film. The second
issue involves the battle scenes. In every fighting sequence, the Red Army is portrayed as brave,
tactical, and fighting to the very end. For example, at one point Red Army soldiers engulfed in
flames are still fighting Wehrmacht soldiers. Finally, and the most troubling aspect of the film is
the opening and closing scene. The film oddly tries to connect the 2011 earthquake at Fukushima
to the Battle of Stalingrad. Additionally, in the closing lines of the film the narrator posits the
idea that the Red Army turned the tide of “human history,” and thus saved the world. For
everything that Stalingrad does well, especially as a historical film, it fails to establish itself as
an overall satisfying film.

Review Eight

By Paige Ross

Grade:  B

Set two months into the six month struggle that would mark the Battle of Stalingrad as the defining moment of World War II and one of the bloodiest in world history, Stalingrad tells the story of five Soviet soldiers through the recollection of the narrator; whose father was one of the five. In addition to providing context to the emotional aspects of the battle in November 1942, Stalingrad is also a story of love, loss, and the permanent consequences of war. Utilizing emotional appeals, a profound score, and an interwoven dynamic of love and compassion on both sides of the battle, the film captures the essence of war and the senselessness of violent human conflict. The larger “truth” Stalingrad portrays is that of humanity lost, the base brutality of war, and of the acute pain felt by both the Allied and Axis forces.

The film is a well-rounded, historically sound, and dynamic examination of the roles of both the Soviet and German forces involved in the Second World War. Throughout the film, the characters struggle with moral dilemmas that highlight the impossibilities and ambiguities of a conflict such as war: the sequence in which Katya accidentally shoots a German soldier getting water leading Gromov to scold Chvanov for killing an unarmed man, the latter replies, “I don’t give a damn if he’s drinking, eating or shitting. I killed him and I’ll keep on killing.” Chvanov’s callous disregard for the life an unarmed German soldier due to trauma he witnessed at the hands of Wehrmacht illustrates the ever-present pain of the Soviet past. The central conflict presented in the German ranks is the disillusionment of Hauptmann Peter Kahn and his subsequent relationship with a Russian woman named Masha. Early in the film, it is evident that despite prestige and decoration, Kahn is growing restless with the war and its escalating extremity. In a particularly disturbing sequence in which a mother and her young daughter are burned alive after being suspected Jews, Kahn shows obvious disgust and refuses to watch “the sacrifice.” Repeatedly, Kahn is ostracized and reprimanded for his relationship with Masha and he refuses to harm her or send her away, fighting for her safety until the final minutes of the film. While the film indulges in a considerable amount of contrived melodrama, Stalingrad nonetheless helps to convey a sense of history in which the diverse experiences of the Soviet population, various war atrocities, and the Holocaust are explored. Stalingrad’s ability to examine fault and compassion in both the enemy and the victor is one of the paramount strengths of the film as both a work of history and an examination of humanity.

Grading Historical Movies: Max Färberböck’s “A Woman in Berlin” (2008)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The eleventh film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Max Färberböck’s “A Woman in Berlin” (2008).

 

Overall grade from 45 students:  A

 

Review One

By Alison Perelman

Grade:  A

“A Woman in Berlin” (2008), based on an anonymously published diary, tells the story of a woman hiding with other women when the Soviet Red Army invades Germany at the end of World War II. The women must endure war-torn living conditions and the soldiers’ sexual advances, wondering when it will end.

The film is an effective representation of the largely untold stories of mass rape committed by Soviet soldiers against German women, as well as of the more general position of different people in wartime. Due to its source material, the film is accurate in its portrayal of setting, events, and behavioral reactions. It also conveys a lot of emotional truth because of the nature of the film’s focus.

The pacing of scenes, lighting, and costuming do well in setting the tone of the film and showing time passing. When the Red Army arrives, there is chaos that then subsides into routine. It is bleak and repetitive. Though the narrative may not always be exciting, it is accurate to what life was like in that situation. Several scenes are uncomfortable to watch — obviously because of the content, but even more so as a result of the camera angles used for perspective.

It’s often said that history is told by the victors; however, “A Woman in Berlin” is the opposite — told by and about German women. It offers a significantly different narrative of victimhood. While the Germans were the aggressors in World War II, their civilians suffered unjust treatment and casualties as well. And yet, there is also an important portrayal of strength through the main character. She is a victim, but uses intelligence and what little autonomy she has to make hard decisions to survive.

The film doesn’t forget the role of men and soldiers, even the Germans. “A Woman in Berlin” is most effective in depicting the nuances of both sides. War crimes committed by Germans against the Soviets are recognized via dialogue, and members of the Red Army are shown engaging in heinous acts too. Meanwhile, characters from both nations are humanized. The range of behavior is (sometimes unfortunately) accurate, and conveys the complicated reactions to such uncertain situations.

Review Two

By Madeline Phaby

Grade:  A+

A Woman in Berlin is a 2008 German film adaptation of an anonymous woman’s diary from the closing days of World War II.  The film gives a hauntingly honest account of the widespread rape committed by the Soviet Army against the women in Berlin, as well as the difficult decisions made by the protagonist in order to survive. Although the movie is incredibly brutal to watch at certain points, much of its immense historical merit lies in its ability to humanize both the Nazi sympathizers in Berlin and the Soviet Red Army. The viewer is made to feel sympathy towards both sides and conflicted as to who was “right” and who was “wrong” in their actions, which is precisely what makes it such a thought-provoking film.

When the Red Army first arrives in Berlin, all hell breaks loose. Soldiers begin to rape women indiscriminately, and the protagonist is not spared from this widespread pandemonium. After being violated by numerous men and harassed by just as many, she decides she’s had enough and begs the commanding officer for protection from his soldiers in exchange for total control over her body. The major eventually falls for her due to her beauty and sophistication, and she and the other women therefore are protected against the other men. Although the protagonist’s situation of being completely at the major’s disposal is far from ideal, it is certainly better than being passed from soldier to soldier. However, the major is transferred after refusing to kill the protagonist when it is discovered that she had been hiding German soldiers in her apartment. Shortly after, her husband returns from war, but is extremely cold towards her because he viewed her as ‘soiled’ due to being raped by Soviets. The narrative ends with the protagonist wondering how she is to go on without the major, a fittingly ambiguous ending to a morally ambiguous film.

The protagonist’s pragmatic approach to the unfortunate circumstances she is trapped in makes her a very brave and admirable character, which is a bit difficult for viewers to grapple with since it is strongly insinuated that she is a supporter of Hitler and his fascist regime. For example, she states at the beginning of her narration that she returned to Germany at the end of the war after traveling abroad because she “wanted to be a part of it”. While the viewer is clearly meant to feel sympathy towards the protagonist and the other German women being raped – since simply supporting an ideology certainly does not warrant being raped – it is also almost impossible for us to vilify the entire Red Army. Certain characters, namely the major and the Mongolian, are generally portrayed as good-natured, and another soldier describes how the children in his village were tortured and killed by the Germans. Because of the atrocities committed by both sides featured in the film, the only definitive conclusion that can be made is that in war, all are victims and perpetrators just the same.

Review Three

By Blake Mullenix

Grade:  A

A Woman in Berlin is unique in its approach to World War II, especially in regards to
German victimhood and its portrayal of Soviet soldiers. This film presents a complex story that
may make audiences feel conflicted about certain groups by the end.

A Woman in Berlin shows a range of Soviet soldiers. There are more stereotypical, beast-like Soviets who violently rape German women during their occupation in Berlin. Alternatively, there are
characters such as the Major who are more compassionate towards the Berliners. Interestingly
enough, the film breaks down the idea that soldiers always see their opponents as subhuman
through the Major, too. It is revealed that the Major’s wife was hung by Nazis, and whereas
usually this would make a soldier revengeful, the Major is different in that he protects the
anonymous main character. He even appears to love her at points in the film.

This film also looks at the complex nature of victimhood and being a victimizer.
Throughout this film, Anonymous, the main character, and other German women are repeatedly
raped, as was the case during the Soviet occupation. This undoubtedly makes audiences
empathize with these women are they are victims of war crimes. While the film does make these
German women out to be victims, it does not, however, shy away from pointing out their
complicity in the war crimes committed by Nazis at this time. At the beginning of the film,
Anonymous mentions how she came back to Germany because she wanted to be a part of it, in
reference to the then popular Nazi party. Later in the film, Anonymous admits to knowing about
atrocities that Wehrmacht abroad were committing, thus furthering her (and others) complicity
within the Nazi system. This film presents the idea that people can both be victims and
victimizers.

Furthermore, A Woman in Berlin helps one understand that someone can be a victim
without their victimizing be excused or absolved. Anonymous even acknowledges the
complexities presented by saying that if the Soviets had done to the Germans what the Germans
had done to the Soviets, then they (being Berliners) would have been killed during the Red
Army’s occupation. Whereas many films will take a clear stance on who are the “good guys” and
who are the “bad guys,” A Woman in Berlin portrays both good and bad within each side. A
Woman in Berlin offers no concrete answers and leaves audiences to ponder over what it means
to be a victim and if being a victim absolves one from their victimizing.

 

Grading Historical Movies: Joseph Vilsmaier’s “Stalingrad” (1993)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The tenth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 Stalingrad.

Overall grade from 45 students:  B

 

Review One

By Stephan Koclejda

Grade:  B-

Stalingrad, a 1993 film by director Joseph Vilsmaier, is a well-executed film about the battle of Stalingrad on the Eastern front that presents a muddy, simplified truth of the German Wehrmacht and the war. Its depiction of urban combat is brutal and gritty, but the sympathetic light it portrays the protagonists (and by extension, the Wehrmacht) makes for troublesome history.

The film follows a few members of a platoon in a Wehrmacht combat engineer company as they finish their leave in Italy, meet their new platoon commander, and are shipped to the 6th Army on the Eastern front to attack the city of Stalingrad in 1942. Some of the soldiers, Rollo and Reiser, are cynical hardened veterans from the unit’s combat in North Africa. Their new Lieutenant von Witzland is from a military family, hopeful and full of purpose at the start. As the situation for the 6th Army deteriorates, the men are reduced to desperate, cold husks by the bloody urban combat and the cold.

One of the big issues with Stalingrad comes from the attitudes of the characters: while they exhibit the various behaviors of soldiers, not one of them (aside from Indiana Jones-esque Captain Haller) ever espouses belief in the Nazi system. Von Witzland and his men are complicit in war crimes and are certainly no angels, but by this time in the war Nazi ideals and beliefs were certainly widespread within the Wehrmacht, entrenched by the brutality of combat in the East. The film (while not overtly) asserts that lower ranks of the Wehrmacht were victims of the Nazis and were not gladly pulling the trigger when told to execute civilians accused of being saboteurs, and that it was a war led by Nazis that led to their destruction at Stalingrad. It tries to contribute to the belief that Wehrmacht soldiers in the East were there fighting for their fatherland. It humanizes the characters and viewers feel sympathetic for Rollo, Reiser, and von Witzland, but it simplifies and muddies the truth of the war of extermination that was being waged in the East.

Stalingrad is a good movie, but not good history.

Review Two

By Megan Drown

Grade:  B-

A terrific manifestation of German apologetics, Stalingrad (1993) proffers a nationalist interpretation of World War II, embracing the arguments about a “clean Wehrmacht” made by Andreas Hillgruber and other German historians during the so-called Historikerstreit (Historian’s Debate) of 1986. The film is a grotesque portrayal of the Battle of Stalingrad in which Wehrmacht troops and the Red Army violently clash during the winter of 1942-43. However, with the onset of the unforgiving Russian winter, both forces face a greater adversary in the weather than in each other as many soldiers struggle to survive the intense cold, let alone fight in combat under such brutal conditions. A romanticized story of brotherhood amidst the grief and misery of war, Joseph Vilsmaier’s film perpetuates a historical and political myth about German moral culpability during WWII, particularly on the Eastern Front, in its separation of Germanness from Nazism.

The presentation of the great moral dilemma is rendered through dialogue between German soldiers and their commanding officers. One scene that is exemplary of this provocative moral dilemma is the interaction between a corporal named Otto and his captain. Otto presses the question on his captain in the face of impending tragedy, “We don’t have a chance. Why not surrender?” to which the captain responds, “You know what would happen if we did.” Otto, clearly perturbed by his captain’s disregard for his troops’ lives poses a greater question: “Do we deserve better?” The captain, failing to accept his culpability for the treachery that will ensue asserts “I’m not a Nazi, Otto.” In one fell swoop, Otto defines the commendable, if not mythical, moral character of him and his comrades, one that is separate from the complicitous behavior of high-ranking officers: “No you’re worse, you lousy officers. You went along even though you knew who was in charge. I told you what would happen.”

Otto’s haughtiness is ironic. Had he no less autonomy over his own complicity in human tragedy if he had predicted the repercussions of Hitler’s Nazi regime? No doubt, Otto is an impeccable portrayal of a patriotic soldier who fights for his country, but his righteousness is absurd. In fact, culpability in the war and in the Holocaust, which is completely ignored in this film, is not dichotomous. Even the lowliest soldier, especially one who opposes the Nazi regime, falls on the gradient of German complicity in genocide, particularly given the revelations about the Wehrmacht’s participation in the war crimes of the Eastern Front. Even the aristocratic soldier who arrogantly removes himself from Nazi ideology, while fighting their war, is complicit. Even the most ambitious soldier, who fights the war selfishly to gain rank and file, is complicit. The argument that high-ranking officials in the Wehrmacht somehow had more self-agency to oppose Hitler and his goals than common soldiers is null when those soldiers are just as instrumental in achieving Nazi aims as the officers who command them. If somehow, there is historic truth in these soldiers’ moral wrestling, their cowardice is greater than that of the Nazis, who actually believe their perverse ideology is furthering a cause.

Complicity in war is a gradient. Did these soldiers have some moral bearings? Sure. Could this have, perhaps, been an accurate depiction of Wehrmacht soldiers on the Eastern Front? No doubt. Is it even legitimate to assert that these soldiers did not partake in the Holocaust on the Eastern Front? Not probable, but it is, indeed, possible. However, Hillgruber’s and later Vilsmaier’s argument that Germany should honor the patriotism of soldiers on the Eastern Front is deeply problematic. There probably is truth to the movie in the nuance and afflictions of the soldiers’ characters, but a belief in their moral rectitude is wrong, even if they, themselves, believe they are innocent. No part of a Wehrmacht soldier’s gradient of complicity is unstained.

Though the greatest discomfort for the audience rests in the fact that there may be some historic truth to Stalingrad, and in the assertion that the Wehrmacht soldiers’ complicity in genocide on the Eastern Front is not dichotomous. The pain of the Nazis’ role in molding German history was the root for the Historikerstreit. One can sympathize with historians’ desire to insert patriotism back into German history; however, the polemic disposition of German historians should be understood with caution as it is enticing to excuse the actions of, seemingly, valiant soldiers, who remain culpable for Nazi brutalities in war. Perhaps the best way students of German history should seek to understand the historicization of National Socialism and its formative role in molding German identity is through Saul Friedlander’s thesis of differentiation and nuance. Friedlander advocated for a critical historical understanding of the Nazi era bereft of the taboos that thematically plague historical analysis of the epoch (1933-1945); however, he argued that while the historicization of National Socialism should shift the static paradigm of this epoch, the normality and relativism of the epoch should still be defined under the criminal system which existed. In other words, Martin Broszat’s thesis that the Nazi epoch should be treated like any other in German history is null; rather Broszat’s was an argument that could easily divulge into apologetics.

To quote Friedlander:  “Indeed, normal life with the knowledge of ongoing massive crimes committed by one’s own nation and one’s own society is not so normal after all.” To close Otto’s rhetorical question, no, him and his troops do not deserve better. This was something of which Otto’s fictional character was already aware in his swift and final act to end his own life. There is no redemption in the face of one’s own complicity in horror.

Review Three

By Steven Waurio

Grade:  B

Directed by Joseph Vilsmaier in 1993, Stalingrad skillfully presents a sympathetic view towards lower-rank German soldiers in World War II that isn’t often given, although it conveniently avoids important historical events in doing so.  By following a single military unit during the German offensive into the city of Stalingrad, Vilsmaier is able to create a narrative surrounding several German patriots with very human and understandable flaws.  Though these characters are forced at times to made awful decisions and to commit terrible crimes, the audience is made to understand that these soldiers struggle to cope with the emotional pain brought about by the decisions they’ve made.  The audience doesn’t see a cast of Nazi zealots who accept orders to brutalize or murder civilians with glee.  Instead, the audience is shown how these characters would try to push back against such terrible orders, or how they find themselves unable to live with their actions after they’re forced to carry out these crimes of war.

The film certainly doesn’t suggest that the German frontline soldiers were innocent.  There are no morally perfect characters in the film.  It does, however, direct the vast majority of blame onto the higher-ranking officers.  These officers, rather than the Russian enemy, are the true antagonists for nearly the entirety of the film.  While the Russians, who, for the most part, are just faceless combatants, are depicted as simply providing resistance against the German offensive, the higher-ranking officers seem to act against the very survival of the men under their own command.  It isn’t until the final words of the film that the Russian impact is driven home.  On-screen text states that the Russians surrounded 261,000 Germans, of whom they only captured 90,000, of whom only 6,000 eventually made it back to Germany.  After trying to grasp these numbers, it’s nearly impossible not to sympathize with the German soldier, or at least the frontline German soldier as they’re depicted in the film.

The only counter to this sympathetic reaction is the fact that the film ignores the first year of the German offensive into Russia, and the fact that the war crimes committed by German soldiers, or even just the war crimes in which German soldiers were directly implicated, were among the most appalling in the world’s history.  By purposefully excluding this history, the film creates a sympathetic view towards German soldiers.  But the fact that it does so takes away from its historical impact.

Grading Historical Movies: Louis Malle’s “Au revoir les enfants” (1987)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The ninth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical 1987 film Au revoir les enfants.

Overall grade from 45 students:  A

 

Review One

By C.J. Carney

Grade:  A+

Au Revoir les Enfants reveals how French collaboration with the Nazis contributed to the pointless deaths of Jewish civilians in occupied France. Yet the messages in the film contribute to a more significant truth. The main message of the film is about prejudice; however, it’s also about finding friendship in dark places, the destruction of childhood, pointless death, guilt, and how one unthinking action can change a life forever. These messages illustrate a timeless truth in the film, which is that society needs to overcome prejudice and hate in order to thrive.

Au Revoir les Enfants is an autobiographical film based on the childhood events of its director, Louis Malle. As an 11-year old kid, he attended a Carmelite Roman Catholic boarding school where he witnessed three Jewish students and a priest being rounded up by the Gestapo and later deported to Auschwitz. The story follows Julien Quentin, Louis Malle’s proxy character, and a Jewish boy named Jean Kippelstein, who is under the alias Jean Bonnet, as they attend a Roman Catholic boarding school during the war and secrets about Jean’s past are revealed.

At the start of the new semester Jean Bonnet and two other Jewish boys are enrolled at the school, under new identities to keep them hidden from the Nazis. Julien is initially hostile toward Bonnet as he is just smart as him and is jealous of his ability to play the piano. Julien comes to the realization later in the film that Bonnet is Jewish when he is praying in Hebrew and wearing a Kippah while the rest of the children are asleep. After Julien realizes that Bonnet is Jewish the hostility between the two fades. They end up becoming close friends as they study together, play piano together, and bond over their love for literature. This conveys the message that true friendship can be found despite living in a dark reality and being different. Malle illustrates that difference shouldn’t matter, and that despite different economic and religious backgrounds two people can still become friends. This reflects the truth about how prejudice and hate need to end because they just cause suffering, which can be seen at the end of film as the friendship between Julien and Jean is taken away.

All these events occur amidst the horrors of World War II that Julien doesn’t really realize until the ending of the film. Joseph, the former kitchen helper, informs the Gestapo of the children hidden at the school after he is fired. This part of the film is the most significant highlight of the historical truth of French collaborators being responsible for the deportations and deaths of many Jewish civilians. As the Gestapo searches Julien’s class for Jean Kippelstein, Julien, unthinking, glances at his friend and later watches him be taken away. This goes to show how one unthinking moment can change a life forever and result in guilt for the rest of one’s life. Jean Bonnet ends up dying a pointless death just because of who he was, not for a crime like Joseph committed. As a result, Julien’s childhood ends forever with the interference adult world. The film illustrates a painful memory in which Julien discovers the horrifying reality that hate and evil do exist in the world. This discovery results in the loss of childhood and eternal trauma, not only for the character of Julien but for Louis Malle.

Au Revoir les Enfants is a heartbreaking narrative, which documents a very painful memory in the life of child. The sense of knowing that the ending is very bleak for Bonnet is utilized from his first appearance up to the wave goodbye at the end of the film. The rocky relationship that emerges into a friendship makes the reality of the world at the time even more real and the ending all the more heartbreaking. It also made it very easy to connect to Julien emotionally as the audience is placed in his shoes. Au Revoir les Enfants is a film that people can learn a lot from, not just about a historical truth, as there are definite lessons portrayed that can be applied in today’s society. The truth about society needing to overcome prejudice and hate is perhaps the most significant lesson of the entire film.

Review Two

By Paige Ross

Grade:  A

Au Revoir les Enfants, set in the winter of 1943-44 in Nazi-occupied France follows the story of Julien Quentin, a young student at a Carmelite boarding school, and his unlikely friendship with Jean Kippelstein, a Jewish student taking refuge at the school under a false surname. The film portrays the climate of occupied France subtly by utilizing interpersonal relationships and human connections to supersede the stereotypical notions and narratives of French life under the Nazis. Julien’s tentative and cautious friendship with Jean illustrates the fear on both sides to try to understand the other and the powerful ability of humanity to overcome fear and prejudice. The raw “truth” presented in Au Revoir les Enfants is that of people and their inherent natures, and perhaps even, the inherent goodness of people. The film is riddled with instances of people’s goodness and charity: Father Jean taking in the three Jewish students at immense personal risk in order to try to save their lives, Julien learning to accept and understand Jean, despite the fact that their lives have been radically different, the Quentin family taking Jean to dinner, and the attempt by some of those in the school to hide one of the Jewish students from the German soldiers, to name just four instances.

In addition to providing subtle truths about the nature of Nazi-occupied France, Au Revoir les Enfants illustrates the conflicts pertaining to class, religion, and the inherent innocence/naivety of children caught up in the issues of World War II. Against a backdrop of washed out colors and muted tones of grey and blue, the film depicts the sheltered and posh life of the wealthy students at the boarding school, as well as the place of God and religion in the context of war, fear, death, and the bleak unknown. Religion is an omnipresent force in Au Revoir les Enfants, and religious statues and symbols are present in a majority of the film’s shots. This element of the film speaks to French Catholicism and the role of God and virtues in everyday life. Lastly, the story presents the innocence of children and their inherent inability to understand hatred and prejudice. One of the most engaging verbal exchanges occurs early in the film between Julien and his older brother Francois wherein Julien cannot comprehend why such a vehement dislike of Jewish people exists (especially among his wealthy classmates). Julien asks his brother, “What have people got against them [Jews]?” To which Francois replies that they are smarter and crucified Jesus. On its base level, Au Revoir les Enfants is a story of friendship and understanding, a narrative about stepping into another’s shoes and walking around in them for a while. It is a story about the humanness of all people, and power of acceptance.

Review Three

By Adam Ring

Grade:  A+

The time period Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants was set in provides context for the entire mood of what is shown: this was an era filled with prejudice, anti-Semitism, and intense hatred. Director Louis Malle shows that not even young children are immune to these effects and does this by casting a set of young boys at a boarding school which doubles as an asylum for Jews. The movie masterfully invites the audience to ponder questions related to morality, faith loyalty, and blame. Through the eyes of initially naïve and innocent children, Malle shows them going about their everyday life until new boys arrive in the school, and then everything begins to change.

The first part of this film is rather uneventful: the audience is introduced to Julien Quentin, a young French Catholic boy from a rich family, who is returning to boarding school after winter break. Quentin is largely all talk, no action, and acts tough around the other boys. When “Bonnet” arrives, Quentin takes a peculiar interest in him, and the audience begins to see the signs of a little boy trying to figure out a puzzle that doesn’t quite add up.

While Bonnet never directly expresses fear in being caught, his demeanor reveals him as a quiet boy with much to hide. Quentin obviously knows something is up, and plays detective, slowly coming closer to the truth. Why does any of this matter? Mainly because it shows children trying to make sense of the unknown. This form of childhood innocence reflects an overall sense of French ignorance into just how stressful life was like being a Jew during this time. As shown in the scene at the fancy restaurant, French milice officers have no problem trying to remove a Jewish man from dining there…simply because he is Jewish. This raises so many red flags it is not even funny—France’s own military was actively involved in rounding up Jewish people. This invites the following question: were some of the French just as complicit in Jewish genocide as the Germans? Arguably so.

Meanwhile, Père Jean gives an incredible Homily to the students and parents during a Mass; he directly acknowledges this is a time of incredible hatred, and wealth and fear are causing French Catholics (supposedly holy and pious people) to murder and betray each other. It doesn’t take much to read into this to see Father Jean is referring to people of his own country treating Jews with disgust and contempt. Wealth and corruption are rampant: in the scene at the restaurant, Quentin’s mother comments that the Jewish man being harassed was “very proper”—which emphasizes his class before his personhood. In another scene, Père Jean refuses to expel the boys caught stealing food in fear of offending their wealthy parents. Finally, during the Homily, one man is apparently so offended at being called out that he makes a statement and leaves the Church.

The single saddest and lowest moment in the entire film comes when Joseph, the fired assistant-cook, betrays children, and alerts the Gestapo that the boarding school is housing three Jewish boys. Scenes like these reflect some of the lowest points in humanity: a grown man is willing to destroy the lives of children because he is bitter over getting fired. The fear, paranoia, hatred, and hypocrisy displayed here is overwhelming, and calls into question the role France had in the destruction of Jews.

The world often likes to think that Germans, and in particular, the Nazis, were the ones solely responsible for the mass Jewish genocide. While they definitely shoulder most of the blame, the fact remains that many other groups were not as innocent as many would imagine. Frenchmen were willing to betray their fellow Jewish brothers and sisters just to save their own skin, and this film did an excellent job pushing this message across. It features authentic characters, a realistic and meaningful plot, and manages to raise some serious questions about who is to blame in the mission to eradicate Jewish people from the face of the Earth.

Review Four

By Jill Titelbaum

Grade:  A

Au Revoir Les Enfants is a quasi coming-of-age story that beautifully illustrates the indifference and inequality during WWII in France. The director, Louis Malle, uses a child’s perspective and timing to achieve this. The story is shown from the perspective of preteen Julien Quentin. Julien hails from a wealthy French family and he and his older brother, Francois, attend a Catholic boarding school in rural France. The headmaster, Father Jean, smuggles in three Jewish boys and gives them fake identities. One of the Jews, Jean Bonnet, is placed in Julien’s class. The audience joins Julien as he explores the world around him and makes a new friend. His childlike curiosity serves to progress the plot.

 

Throughout the movie, Julien observes inequality, however he struggles to understand it. There are numerous close-up shots of Julien that show his inquisitive eyes. He also asks many questions. In one instance, he doesn’t understand why Jews are discriminated against so he asks his brother, “Francois, what’s a yid?.” He is not completely satisfied with Francois’ response and he studies Jean for more answers. In doing so, he realizes they’re more alike than not. In another scene, Joseph the poor kitchen assistant is caught stealing. Despite several students’ involvement, only Joseph is punished. Father Jean explicitly says they would’ve been expelled if it weren’t for their wealthy parents. Joseph calls out the injustice, but he is still fired.

 

Inequality goes hand in hand with indifference. Indifference is exposed through careful timing in the movie. Many scenes transition into scenes which emphasize the previous one. For instance, on Parent’s Day, Father Jean gives a harsh sermon condemning indifference and selfish privilege. The next scene is Julien, his family, and Jean dining in a fancy restaurant. At the restaurant, a Jewish patron, Mr. Meyer, is confronted by French police. The other patrons don’t protest until there is a commotion. A German officer finally sends the police out. The wealthy diners only acted when their peaceful meals were interrupted. They didn’t intervene to stop Jewish discrimination, suggesting that the wealthy strove only to maintain the status quo and were indifferent to people in need.

 

The closing scene powerfully utilizes both techniques. When the boys are lined up outside, the Gestapo asserts, “You must help us rid France of foreigners and Jews.” Just then the three Jewish students and Father Jean are lead out through the courtyard. Julien and Jean make eye contact and Julien gives a somber wave. The closing narration drives home the trauma of that experience: “Bonnet, Negus and Dupre died at Auschwitz; Father Jean at Mauthausen. […] More than 40 years have passed, but I’ll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die.”

 

Overall, Julien tries to make sense of his world. As a result, he witnesses the indifference and inequality which culminate with forsaken Joseph ratting out the Jews to the Gestapo. They are ultimately imprisoned and killed Au Revoir Les Enfants illustrates one of the many tragic consequences of indifference and inequality during WWII.

Review Five

By Bryce Hendrickson

Grade:  A

Au Revoir Les Enfants is a sobering reminder to French citizens of their complicity in the Holocaust. It functions both as a loose chronicle of Louis Malle’s childhood in occupied France, and an important vehicle for Malle’s conclusions about France and World War II. As we follow the protagonist, a young student named Julien at the academy, we feel some of the guilt, and confusion Malle feels about his own time under occupation. His fond memories of boarding school life are intertwined with the complications of race and class relations in France. After having 40 years of further perspective, Malle is able to choose certain memories and vignettes, some probably more factually truthful than others, to highlight certain aspects of French culture and emotions regarding the Vichy system and German occupation. Regardless of how genuine each of these memories are, they still communicate important emotional and metaphorical truths.

Through the eyes of a child we see the best and worst of French culture at the time.  Father Jean and other workers at the monastery risk their lives to protect three Jewish boys from persecution by the Nazis as well as their French collaborator. Meanwhile the other French adults actively hunt out French Jews or are completely apathetic to the fate of their Jewish citizens. Malle uses Father Jean to preach his message to the French people he feels didn’t do enough during the war. He accuses them of allowing wealth and power to blind them to the suffering and fear imposed on such a large group of their fellow men. Father Jean does this both through his sermon to the wealthy families of the students and through his reaction to the kitchen employee Joseph’s black market operation. Jean identifies that the war is a symptom of wealthy peoples’ lust for power and fear of speaking out against a system that has made them rich and comfortable. The film postulates that man has created a game of wealth and power for himself. That those in power will stay silent in order to maintain that power, and those who have no power will betray their fellow man the first chance they get if they are in a desperate enough situation.

These two polarized positions are exemplified by Julien’s mother, the Parisian socialite and Joseph, the poor kitchen worker at the monastery. Julien’s mother seems to be opposed to the war and the mistreatment of the Jews at least when they look like “fine enough gentlemen,” but she is unwilling to speak up against this kind of destruction even though she has the power and wealth to affect change. Joseph on the other hand has nothing. He is forced into a situation where he can either work outside the system in order to survive stealing from those who try to help him, or collaborate with the evil system to exploiting the heroes of the story just to stay alive. When we create divides in our society between the haves and have nots we allow evil to persist because people are either too afraid to give up their status to speak up, or they are so desperate to change status that they will betray their fellow man.

Grading Historical Movies: John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” (1987)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The eighth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was John Boorman’s 1987 Hope and Glory.

Overall grade from 45 students:  B+

 

Review One

By Stephan Koclejda

Grade: A

Hope and Glory (1987) is a spectacular British comedy about family, boyhood, and the Blitz. Drawing from the personal experiences of director John Boorman, the film captures the Second World War and subverts its myths through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy living in London during the Blitz.

The film follows Billy Rohan and his family, as the war pushes them into the new ways of life on the British home front. His family deals with the occasional German bombing of their street as he goes to school, his teenage sister Dawn sneaks out to party, his dad enlists to recapture his glory days, and his mom left behind to take care of them all. For the Rohans the war soon becomes just another facet of life, tertiary to their lives, as such was the experience for the United Kingdom throughout the course of the war. The British had a vastly different experience than the rest of Europe, and Hope and Glory is refreshing in its capture of it.

Throughout the film the various British myths and propaganda are debunked with comedic flair. The concept of family as a binding agent for society is subverted: while the Rohans are together and closer at the end of the film, it has its disfunctions and isn’t magically cohesive. Dawn has a sexual relationship with a Canadian soldier who eventually impregnates her and marries her (she’s 16, by the way). Billy’s mom doesn’t miss her husband very much while he’s working for the army and is able to share her true feelings with the family friend Mac who feels the same for her. The concept of family is shown in a real way that doesn’t hold true to propaganda.

In the context of Billy’s childhood, war is a grand time. Bombed out buildings provide a playground for him and the neighborhood boys, complete with semi-destroyed clubhouse and plenty of things to go and smash. Unlike Forbidden Games, Ivan’s Childhood, Germany, Pale Mother, or Come and See, innocence is never lost or ripped away by the war – it’s still fun and games for Billy. He sees destruction of his neighbors’ homes, sure, but an 8-year-old cannot fully understand why it’s not nice to go ask the girl down the street whose house was just bombed that night if her mom died in the blast (she did). Hope and Glory presents a child’s truth of war, one perhaps more real than the mythic one of the great British empire, with “everyone doing their bit”. Instead we are meant to rethink the British mythos of World War II, and even mock it a little bit.

Review Two

By Natalie Davis

Grade:  B

Hope & Glory may seem initially like overly patriotic British propaganda. However, upon taking a closer look, it becomes a self-aware satirical view on British imperialism.  This story follows one family: a husband who fights briefly in the war; a mother who is not in love with her husband, but with his best friend; a daughter who has a love affair with a Canadian soldier, a young boy fascinated by war, and a very small daughter.  The main character in this film, Billy, is a young schoolboy who sees the war around him as something exciting, not scary.  Throughout the war, Billy’s life does not change dramatically, but instead ends up helping him in small ways: he makes new friends, he grows closer with his father and grandfather, and last but not least his school gets burnt down so he doesn’t have to go to class.

This film seems patriotic upon first glance; in the end the family is stronger than ever and the main character is happier than he has ever been.  However, after breaking down the movie, it holds a much deeper and meaningful portrayal of British citizens during World War II.  Hope and Glory contrasts Billy’s innocence and naivety about the war by including older, more ambiguous characters.  These characters, such as Billy’s grandfather and Billy’s teacher, are more knowledgeable about the war and support the growth of the British Empire.  The film comically depicts these older characters as idiotic adults who are stuck in their own beliefs and cannot see the greater truth.  These adult characters follow tradition British values: they do their ‘bit’ in war and assume others to do the same.  On the other hand, the Billy and most of his family do not do their ‘bit’, they make selfish choices in the war and they are ultimately the happiest.  Hope and Glory supports the notion that being a good, supportive citizen to your country is not necessary.  Instead of regurgitating the government’s ideals, one should look at everything through a child’s eyes.  People should see the world innocently, logically, and do what they fell is right.  Hope and Glory is ultimately quite an ironic name for this movie, because it is does not support typical British ideals.

Review Three

By Jill Teitelbaum

Grade:  C

Released in 1987, Hope and Glory portrays an imperfect British family whose seemingly ridiculous experience of WWII successfully serves as a critique of the increasingly obsolete and hypocritical old imperialist Britain as well as the myth of a united and austere war effort. The story is told through the lens of a naive British boy, Billy. He lives with his ungrateful mother, daft father, promiscuous older sister and unnoteworthy baby sister.

The opening scene of the movie sets the tone when it shows school children running around chaotically while an official government message warns about the imminent war. Their attention is only regained when the Western film that had been interrupted for the message resumes. According to Billy, when the war was finally declared, “everyone said ‘Fancy starting a war on such a beautiful day.’” Shortly thereafter, Billy’s father is deployed and throughout the film the family dynamic shifts as the war progresses. His mother is unfazed by her husband’s absence and we later learn that she still has feelings for her former flame, Mac. Her happy marriage, like many other things in the movie, turns out to be more of an act than anything. The community enjoys the idea of British patriotism more than living it. Everyone was expected to do their part to support the war effort and defend the “pink bits,” however they were less keen on making the necessary sacrifices. Instead, they went through the motions of being patriotic without internalizing genuine austerity and selflessness.

Billy’s urban middle-class neighborhood is bombed, burned and even visited by an ejected German soldier. Despite the serious implications of these events, the neighborhood continues to foster an unbothered and self-interested lifestyle. For example, Grace has a romantic picnic on the beach with Mac. With anti-watercraft obstacles and barbed wire in the background, the two of them reminisce about their past. The contrast between their environment and their conversation is comical. There were many examples of this frivolous attitude throughout the movie. Billy’s older sister is only concerned about having a good time. She sneaks out to party and initially rejects a marriage proposal from her Canadian lover claiming she doesn’t want to wait around for him. When Billy and his family leave the city to stay with his maternal grandparents, we meet his imperialist grandfather. The grandfather bemoans having had four daughters. His only perceived use for them was forming a string quartet. The grandfather also accuses his daughters of marrying deadbeats, meanwhile, he plays cricket and boats along the scenic river while other men are dying for their country. His hypocrisy and outdated beliefs represent the old British empire.

Overall, the adults in the movie are incapable of taking the war effort seriously and putting their country’s interests before their own. Similarly, the children struggle to grasp the gravity of the war. For example, at the very beginning, Billy laments, “I’m going to miss the whole war, and it’s all your fault!” This attitude was apparently unaffected by the experience of the war. In one of the final scenes, Billy’s school is bombed. In reaction to this, his schoolmate looks skyward and joyfully shouts, “Thank you, Adolf!” This tone-deaf remark captures the shared naivete and superficial patriotism of the Brits in this movie.

Grading Historical Movies: Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” (1985)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The seventh film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Elem Klimov’s 1985 Come and See.

Overall grade from 45 students: A-

Review One

By Steven Waurio

Grade:  A

There are few films that force an emotional response as powerful as the response felt while watching Come and See.  Directed by Elem Klimov in 1985, the film uses a tragic storyline and horrifying imagery to act as an extremely powerful warning against war.  It presents the war in Belarus as experienced by Florya, a boy roughly 15 years old.  He begins eager and ready to do his part in the defense of the Soviet homeland, and quickly finds that he hadn’t the slightest idea what that would actually entail.  In a story of war completely devoid of battles or heroism, Klimov is still able to convey a realistic, visceral feel and emotion of war that makes for a painful viewing experience.  The film follows Florya through a series of horrors.  He endures a bombing that deafens him, discovers that his family has been massacred, emerges from Nazi gunfire as the sole survivor, and witnesses the systematic defilement and murder of an entire village.

At a time (the mid-1980s) in which serious questions about the shared complicity of German soldiers in war crimes and the USSR’s failure to prepare for Nazi invasion were being asked, Come and See makes bold arguments.  It presents every German soldier as directly involved in and supportive of the Nazi cause of systematic extermination.  And, through a complete omission of Soviet leadership, it suggests that the Soviet government had little to no role in the defense of the homeland–that it was regular citizens who bore the full extent of the Nazi invasion. This implies that it was Soviet negligence that allowed the horrors experienced by Florya and other citizens to happen.

The most important function of the film, however, is to warn against all future wars.  Its title, Come and See functions as a demand to viewers.  Rather than blindly buy into the narratives of war that are put forth by governments around the world, the film’s title demands that viewers “come and see” the truth of war, stripped of its supposed heroes and glory.  When these narratives are stripped away, all that’s left behind is a sense of meaningless horror and terrible suffering.

Review Two

By Emma Darby

Grade:  A-

In all honesty, it is difficult to describe the emotional taxation caused by watching Elem Klimov’s Come and See. The continual insanity and decline in the life of Flyora is exhausting to watch because the audience’s heart as we watch him become broken. We become witnesses to the horrors of war.

It’s intriguing to compare the difference in how the war is perceived by young Flyora as the film progresses. In the beginning, though warned that he will regret his decision to hunt for an abandoned gun, the war seems to be an exciting new game for him to play, something that he and his younger friend imitate and find as a life goal. His mother protests and he finds himself overjoyed to be dragged out into the wilderness and posed like a good Soviet soldier. However, the realities and trauma of the war become quickly apparent, the plane that is seen early on continually reappearing and following him, bringing along tragedy and horror. Glasha’s character shows the physical trauma of the war, her body seen as a commodity and her view of herself as one to be taken over and over again. Though later, a woman looking very similar to her is viciously gang raped and beaten, adding to the new and rawer understanding of the war in Flyora’s eyes. Suffering allows no nobility through this understanding, any sort of push back meaningless in the overall loss in the war. The use of first-person camera angles creates a stronger sense of attachment to Flyora, as well as including moments that makes one feel as if they themselves are Flyora (such as when he is partially deafened), adding to his role as a witness to the atrocities. The slow death of light within Flyora’s eyes becomes more and more evident as he trudges onward, the death of his family, village, and hundreds of adults and children alike follow his journey.

The amount of emotional truth within the film is simply staggering. The continuous loss of life and the darkness of the film are overwhelming and almost sickening.  It never stops, truly. There is no end to the terror, no end to the pain that Flyora must go through. Watching the enemy soldiers claim they were forced into their actions, even the one who orchestrated the mass shooting and burning of hundreds of children and adults in the church and utilizing the idea of the clean Wehrmacht is enraging, painful, and the emotions in the bystanders are felt within a viewer. Flyora’s moment of revenge brings about a questioning of the birth of evil and just where and how did Hitler get where he was.  Flyora’s loss, both physically, mentally, and emotionally, all portray a unique and personal account of the war, making it so real, it’s almost difficult not to feel afraid of what’s going to happen to the viewer if they get too close to the screen.

Review Three

By Madeline Phaby

Grade:  A-

Come and See, a 1985 Soviet film directed by Elem Klimov, is a thoroughly chilling and unforgettable account of the destruction of multiple Belorussian villages by German troops during World War II. The narrative is mainly shown from the perspective of Flyora, a boy who is forced to witness unimaginable atrocities at a shockingly young age. The juxtaposition of youth and war, two entities that are essentially opposites, is much of what makes this film so memorable – and difficult to watch.

Flyora is conscripted by the Soviet partisans, and he willingly and enthusiastically joins the forces, leaving his horrified mother and two young sisters behind. After being left behind at the camp while the partisans moved on, he meets Glasha, a girl who immediately takes a liking to him. When the camp is bombed by Germans, Flyora’s hearing is permanently damaged, which is demonstrated by sounds being distorted for the rest of the film. Klimov’s decision to include this element provides the viewer with a more acute understanding of the trauma experienced by the boy and thus enhances the realism of the film. The two then return to Flyora’s home village but find it to be destroyed. Glasha realized that the boy’s family has been killed along with several other villagers, but Flyora has a delusional episode in a nearby bog and denies that they’ve been killed. The depressing sequence of events in which Flyora is told by multiple other villagers that his family is indeed dead and therefore finally realizes that they’re gone is only deepens the boy’s troubles. Throughout the rest of the film, Flyora witnesses Glasha (or a woman who looks like her) suffering irreparable mental damage from being raped by a group of German soldiers, a church full of people being inundated with grenades and gunshots, and the killing of a group of Germans by his original partisan troop. All of these events are nausea-inducing for the viewer, but the thought of an innocent child having to see such atrocities firsthand is absolutely gut-wrenching and provides a deep truth about the truly barbaric nature of war.

This film does not sugar-coat a single aspect of Flyora’s experiences, which is precisely what makes it so brilliant and yet also so horrible. It was not an easy thing to sit through, but the real events that inspired it were a million times harder to live and die through, which is clearly Klimov’s point. The brutal truth of the Khatyn massacre and similar occurrences is one that needs to be known, no matter the level of discomfort produced.

 

Grading Historical Movies: Helma Sanders-Brahms’s “Germany, Pale Mother” (1980)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The sixth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Helma Sanders-Brahms’s 1980 Germany, Pale Mother.

Overall grade from 45 students: B

Review One

By Aleah Sexton

Aleah Sexton

Grade:  A-

Germany, Pale Mother, the 1980 West German film directed by Helma Sanders-Brahms, is a riveting post-war depiction of how the lives of civilians, soldiers, and children were negatively impacted by the war. The film highlights destruction, chaos, desentization, and the daily struggle to survive in a world blanketed by trauma. The film follows the life of Lene and her daughter Anna, who is born during an air raid. The audience sees the downward spiral of Lene’s marriage to Hans, who is immediately drafted for refusing to become a member of the Nazi Party. The strained marriage is a reaction of Hans on the frontlines, and his once gentle nature turns to aggression and anger. Lene struggles to raise Anna as they roam the German countryside and experience the destruction the war has brought. The film goes beyond the upheaval during the war, and focuses on coping with life after the fact. Sanders-Brahms shot war outside the frontlines and captured the ripple effect of how the loss from the front affected entire communities back home. German complicity to Nazi indoctrination is another matter the film highlights. Lene does not help a Jewish neighbor in need. Hans does not refuse to kill innocent Polish civilians and French partisans. However, are their stances comparable to the horrific deeds of the Nazis? This question became an issue for all Germans during this time, and the film attempts to create interpretations of how complicit an ordinary civilian could be.

The metaphorical truth the film captures is evident as Lene, Hans, and Anna attempt to piece their lives together as a familial unit after the atrocities each experienced. Based on Robert Rosenstone’s thesis of historical films, I would situate Germany, Pale Mother as a dramatic feature film with some representation of the documentary film, as well. The dramatic film “aims directly at the emotions” and “individuals are at the centre of the historical process”. Germany, Pale Mother certainly created emotional responses from the audience, due to the intensity of the episodes and the individual traumas each character was forced to endure. In terms of the documentary film, this presents “a linear, and moral story, often deals with large topics through the experience of a small group of participants”. Although this film was not directed as a documentary, there was some documentary footage cut into scenes. Germany, Pale Mother signifies a documentary because of the plotline the audience followed. It was centered on three individuals, and their stories could have been reality for thousands of Germans. The pain suffered from Hans and Lene appeared authentic, and the issues they grappled with could be a looming truth for many.

The impact of the film created a conversation about how familial life post-war is truly uprooted from the agony encountered in the midst of national chaos. The audience witnesses the dramatic relational shift between Hans and Lene after Anna’s birth. Lene and Han’s initial attempts to keep the family as a unit is far too unrealistic as they both quietly face their own demons. The viewers watch as suppressed trauma and desensitization from Lene and Hans come to fruition, as suicide seems to be the only option. These internal battles, Sanders-Brahms suggests, affected all Germans after 1945.

Review Two

By Adam Ring

Grade:  A

Helma Sanders-Brahms manages to do something extraordinary in her film – she presents, on surface level, a typical story about a German man having to leave behind his wife as he departs to fight in World War II. The brilliancy happens when this story is examined primarily from the perspective of Lene, his wife back at home. By taking this angle, Sanders-Brahms is able to communicate her central message: war is hard on everyone, but especially difficult for women back home. In fact, they can be the single biggest losers in the end, without ever having stepped foot on the front.

Lene’s startled reaction when she hears Hans is being conscripted into the war is not surprising at all—most wives would respond that way. Quickly, however, the audience learns Hans is not cut out for war like many of his fellow soldiers are—this can be seen when he expresses incredibly shock and sadness after witnessing innocent civilians being gunned down. When he returns home on a brief leave, the plot quickly changes. Hans, initially seen as someone fairly carefree and lighthearted, questions his wife’s pureness after accusing her of cheating on him. Even though he quickly takes it back, that initial statement sets up a downward-spiraling narrative that will slowly lead to Lene’s mental and physical decline.

As the movie progresses, Lene and her daughter Anna begin to suffer more and more. Most children grow up struggling to remember their earliest birthday; for Anna, she witnesses her own mother being gang raped by two drunken men. While she is much too young to process the full extent of the rape, the fact remains that an event like this permanently alters a child, and they are left to deal with the lingering memories for the rest of their lives. A theme of trauma after trauma begins to emerge—and the most interesting part is that most of the trauma witnessed is not caused by guns or tanks, like so many other war movies depict.

This family is like a ticking time bomb: each day becomes progressively more stressful until the entire situation collapses on itself.  At the very end of the movie, in response to Lene locking herself in the restroom, Anna offers the single most profound and revealing statement in the entire movie: “It was a long time before Lene opened the door. Sometimes I think she’s still behind it. And I’m still standing outside, and she’ll never come out to me”. In this case, the physical door is a metaphor for the illusionary door Lene is casting between herself and Anna. This is a textbook example of a mother completely giving up on life.

All of this is troubling to watch, and many may question why a director would even begin to make a movie that ends in such misery. The answer can be found by examining the impact Sanders-Brahms wants the audience to leave with. Why does any of this matter? In essence, the purpose of this movie is to show an often untold narrative of war—that being the toll it has on mothers and children. The director does this brilliantly. While the movie is sometimes hard to watch, the way it unfolds is purposeful, and each scene naturally leads to the next. This film tackles it all—it contains an important message, emotional scenes, real-world applicability, and a fearless exposure of the true terrors those left behind at home are forced to cope with.

Review Three

By Megan Drown

Grade:  B-

As if the Nazi Party and the sins of the German people weren’t abhorrent enough in contemporary films about World War II, Germany, Pale Mother serves as a testament to the revoltingly passive nature of two apolitical Germans during the war and their pathetic inability to come to terms with their complicity in genocide during the post-war reconstruction of their Fatherland. Opening on a sinister reflection of a Nazi flag while the camera pans out to reveal two men rowing on a river, the narrator asserts “I can remember nothing about the time before my birth. No blame can be attached to me for events before my birth. I didn’t exist then.” While establishing her innocence in the face of the horror the film would later reveal, the narrator’s words haunt the audience while the ensuing dialogue between the two men affirm their perverse nature.

A woman, Helene (Lene), and the protagonist-to-be is catcalled by the two men as she walks next to the river. After harassing her and watching her fend off a menacing dog, the two men – Hans and Ulrich – admire her from afar.

“She didn’t scream,” Hans says.

“A real German woman,” Ulrich replies.

“With black hair?”

“Pure Aryan. Her family is all blonde. She’s the only one with black hair. Seven beautiful sisters.”

Immediately the ideal of German beauty and racial purism characterizes the attitudes of the male-dominant German society.  Their complicity, and in fact accountability, for the extermination of Jewish people is undeniable, even in spite of scenes in which Hans, a soldier of the Wehrmacht, is adversely affected by his acts of violence against Jews later in the movie. However, the complicity of women in creating and maintaining the systematic extermination of Jews evokes a more ambiguous reaction from many in the post-war era.

Normative gender roles called upon women to be complacent, unquestioning, and supportive of their German husbands in Nazi Germany by taking responsibility for the home and raising the children while their husbands were off at war. This film certainly portrays a passive woman, Helene, who marries Hans, and embraces her role as a German wife and mother. She unquestioningly supports Hans as he is drafted into the Wehrmacht, in spite of her apprehension of the Nazi party, and she fulfills her role as a mother as she gives birth to a child and raises her throughout the horror and destruction of war. She also does not object to the arrest of her Jewish neighbor and complacently accepts the violence and paranoia of her husband when he returns from war to visit wife and daughter.

While the film largely serves as a mundane reflection of the tragic experiences of women during Nazi Germany and post-war Germany, it does not fail to express women’s complicity in the war and the consequences they must suffer because of it. These consequences, perhaps, culminate in the final scene of the movie, in which Helene, half-paralyzed, addicted to alcohol, and emphatically depressed, tries to kill herself. Though locked in the bathroom, until, at last, she re-emerges to embrace her sobbing child, the film ends on an incredibly somber note as one wonders if Helene and her daughter, Anna, might have been better off if Helene had, indeed, killed herself.

Grading Historical Movies: Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The fifth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 Ivan’s Childhood.

Overall grade from 45 students: B

Review One

By C.J. Carney

Letter Grade: B

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood illustrates the historical truth of war’s destructive tendencies and the emotional truth of how death impacts a child’s innocence. The film focuses on war’s destruction of childhood innocence as we see during Ivan’s dream sequences. The film’s emotional truth is delivered through the impact the war has on Ivan’s emotions, which turn from happiness to vengeance. We see Ivan’s intense desire to avenge his family’s deaths. We also glimpse Ivan’s happy childhood in his dreams, but that happiness is twisted by the destructive nature of the real world of war. Even the dreams have a dark undertone at the end of each sequence to show how that his childhood was lost because of the war.

Ivan’s Childhood tells the story of 12-year-old orphaned boy, who is all alone on the Eastern Front during World War II. The story is told in a non-linear fashion as throughout the film there are various flashbacks, with dream sequences, which provide details about Ivan’s childhood. Through the dream sequences and the conversations with other characters, it is evident that Ivan’s mother and the rest of his family were killed by the Nazis. As a result, Ivan joins the war cause in order to avenge the death of his family. Ivan is apparently a favorite spy for a Russian colonel Gryaznov, which is found out after Lieutenant Galstev interrogates him. As a result of this usefulness he become more involved on the front. There is also a subplot in the film between a military captain, Kholin and Galtsev’s affection toward one of the army nurses named Masha. In many ways this subplot interferes with the film’s historical interpretation: throughout most of the film it is very hard to get emotionally attached to the characters and the subplot with Masha doesn’t contribute to the message or the truth that the director is trying to convey. The central message of the film revolves around Ivan and his childhood experiences represented in his dreams.

With the non-linear plot, Tarkovsky’s message in the film can be interpreted in various ways. The plot starts with Ivan, then it shifts to the romance of Masha and the two Russian military officers, then it shifts to the Ivan preparing for a mission, then to the mission itself, and then finally to the war’s aftermath where we find out that Ivan was hung by the Nazis. However, the overall message that Tarkovsky is trying to convey is the war’s corruption of youth and its destruction on childhood innocence. Ivan’s innocence has been utterly destroyed by the war:  every aspect of a normal childhood has shattered. The film itself is therefore not a straightforward story as much as it is a compilation of images showing the war’s destructive tendencies. In the end, though, the basic message is clear enough:  this destructive war ruins childhood too.

Review Two

By Paige Ross

Letter Grade:  B-

Ivan’s Childhood tells the story of 12-year old Ivan Bondarev who has lost his entire family to World War II and is now in search of a way to gain revenge against the forces that destroyed his life and his childhood forever.

The four main characters struggle with what to make of Ivan and his role in the war effort as well as his desire to be a part of the front lines, a soldier fighting for his country. While the adults in Ivan’s Childhood are tempted to view the boy as nothing more than the lost and destroyed boy he is, Ivan’s trauma has aged him and creates a kind of warped maturity combined with a sense of stunted childhood innocence. The film illustrates the painful and all-consuming nature of wartime trauma on its victims and includes flashback/dream sequences to give the audience a glimpse of Ivan’s embattled mind and past. The film also provides a more extensive look at the trauma of war as inflicted on a child. Ivan’s Childhood is shot utilizing tremendously innovative cinematography, including long shots, close-ups, and leading lines, as well as a gritty landscape primarily shot at night or during periods of darkness. The desolate landscape of the front lines including elements such as barren and broken trees, swamps, and flatlands helps to further immerse the viewer in the destruction of war and the bleak atmosphere it creates. What Ivan’s Childhood does effortlessly, is to bring the conflicts and consequences of war into a physical realm, and one that seems somehow more realistic, uncomfortable, tangible, and “true.” Many of the most poignant moments in the film revolve around carefully crafted shots or strategic filming (i.e.: the motif of the wall in the church that carried the final words of those about to be shot by the Germans with the plea “Avenge us”).

While the film is shot beautifully and innovatively, in ways that even contemporary films often neglect to utilize, Ivan’s Childhood is a chaotic mixture of calm and disorder, with much of the film’s action revolving military pursuits and the internal drama of the soldiers, rather than focusing on the main subject: Ivan. Additionally, the flashbacks are disjointed and hard to follow, creating a kind of unintentional confusion for the viewer as to the events that transpired. Ivan’s Childhood also does not give the viewer any strong personal ties to the main or supporting characters in any real or emotional sense. While one obviously feels pity and sorrow for Ivan and his traumatic past, it is difficult to engage with him on a deeper-than-surface level. Lastly, some of the conflicts or subplots (i.e.: the pseudo-love triangle between Masha, Galtsev, and Kholin) included in the film provided nothing more than an extraneous distraction from the main subject (Ivan) and his thoughts, feelings, and significance and prevented further/deeper emotional engagement.

Review Three

By Sean Mullee

Letter Grade:  A-

Ivan’s Childhood, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, depicts the scarred life of an orphaned child scout who finds himself in the care of several USSR officers on the front line. As Ivan insists on helping with reconnaissance against the Germans who killed his family, the story interweaves with elaborate dream sequences painting a better picture of Ivan’s life.

This was Tarkovsky’s first feature film, and the story is based on a novella named Ivan. The film is strangely beautiful with loads of contrasting imagery all used to demonstrate the unease of the front and the difference between reality and what could be for Ivan and the other civilians of the war. The murky bog that Ivan wades through at the beginning of the film is starkly different from the almost magical shots of a birch forest. The camera work is also superb, with many interesting long shots and angles that were experimental for the time and helped to inspire generations of directors to come. The best example is during a scene in a birch forest involving Kholin, a Captain and father-like figure to Ivan, and Masha, a frontline nurse. The bright backdrop creates a deceptively positive aura around the scene, and as Kholin pulls Masha across the trench, the camera drops from eye level to within the trench and levels out as they cross to the other side. This shot is interesting not only to the eye, but helps create a sinking feeling as Masha is forced into a kiss she never meant to give. Countless other pieces of smart camera work, along with phenomenally acted characters, make Ivan’s Childhood a powerful film that captures history through a lens. By this point, war films are no longer just static images in greyscale, they have artistry to their shot composition and structure.

The film is also successful at portraying the war in an accurate and truthful. Tarkovsky was himself a child during the war, roughly the same age as Ivan, and used some of his memories as images in the film, including those in the dream sequences. The film also wrestles with some overarching truths from the USSR during the war, mainly responsibility and burden. For the entirety of the film, Ivan struggles to be taken seriously in his pleads to help the war efforts. Ivan feels it is his duty to help the USSR, calling those who do nothing during wartime “useless.” He also feels responsible for bringing justice to the Germans who killed his family and avenging their deaths. Meanwhile, Kholin and the other Soviet soldiers feel they must protect Ivan, sending him to school away from the frontline to be safe, reasoning that his fighting should be over and that he has served enough. These basic beliefs conflict and the characters toil to get their way, with Ivan ultimately being allowed to help as a scout. At a base level, each character feels they have a burden to care for, and their paths to carry them cross and create turmoil, reflecting the upheaval of war itself. Overall, Tarkovsky’s masterpiece is a shining collision of poetic artistry and historical significance.

Grading Historical Movies: Grigorii Chukhrai’s “Ballad of a Soldier” (1959)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The third film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Grigorii Chukhrai’s 1959 Ballad of a Soldier.

Overall grade from 45 students: A-

Review One

By Stephan Koclejda

Grade:  A-

Ballad of a Soldier is a brilliant, artful Soviet World War II film about a boy trying to just get home and Soviet society trying to cope with war. Filmed in 1959, Director Grigori Chukhrai beautifully and tragically captures and presents truths about the Soviet Union’s experience in the Great Patriotic war that propaganda films during the Stalin era tried so hard to hide. The result is an organic, authentic, quality piece of historical cinema.

The protagonist, Alyosha, is just a common soldier, a common grain-fed 19-year-old village boy when he performs a heroic deed while scared out of his mind fleeing from German tanks on the frontlines. Instead of a decoration, he asks for leave to go home and fix the roof for his mother – the film is a chronicle of his journey home. While stowing away on a train, he meets young Shura, a girl fleeing the war and its traumas. Together, these two children represent the two main facets of Soviet society during the war: the soldiers fighting and the civilians fleeing the war. Alyosha wants desperately to see his mother (perhaps a representation of the Soviet Motherland) and is a good person who goes out of his way to help others but will ultimately return to the front and carry out his duty defending his home. Shura is an orphan of the war, seeking something, anything to get her away from its traumas.

As Alyosha travels, he comes across several towns and characters dealing with the war. He helps a wounded man return to his wife, who the wounded man thought would not be there for him. He delivers a package to the wife of a soldier heading to the front, only to find that she’s having an affair. He meets the father of the same soldier, bedridden and worried about his son. Little white lies are told, as Alyosha tells the father great heroic things about his son who Alyosha doesn’t even know just to help the old man feel better. Everyone is merely trying to survive, to cope with the sufferings and harsh realities of the war in whatever way they can. A wife has an affair, a father is told a lie.

Ballad of a Soldier does not shy away from presenting these realities – this is no cheery propaganda narrative. Stalin is no unifying figure leading the Soviet Union and communism to great victory over German fascism: the man is never even pictured or mentioned in the film at all. The nation exists in a state of total war. Nothing will escape untouched – the land, the buildings, the people, nothing. The Great Patriotic War came at a horrific cost to the Soviet Union and the film makes it known. We learn in the first minutes of the film that Alyosha does not live to see the end of the war, which makes each scene of him helping create light in the darkness of war that much more tragic and sweet.

Review Two

By Paige Ross

Grade:  A

Ballad of a Soldier artfully and subtlety captures the Soviet experience of World War II through the eyes of nineteen-year old private Alyosha Skvortsov, who requests leave in lieu of a decoration for his bravery destroying two German tanks, in order to visit is his mother and repair her leaking roof. On his journey home, Alyosha encounters the effects of war on the land and the people of his country. Through his eyes, the viewer gains a sobering picture of the grim and devastating realities of war in Soviet Russia. Alyosha meets a variety of people on his trip home including Vasya, a wounded soldier without a leg who is being discharged, Gavrilkin a tough-talking sentry who reluctantly allows Alyosha to board an army supply train, Shura a young girl supposedly trying to get home to her aunt, the dying father and unfaithful wife of fellow soldier Sergei Pavlov, and an elderly woman who drives Alyosha part of the way home. Through each of the characters he meets, Alyosha is able to see the true impact of war on the people of his country, and each character reveals a different aspect of war: physical injury, loneliness, fear, sadness, fatigue, etc. Perhaps one of the most telling and poignant moments in Ballad of a Soldier occurs in the film’s finale, which illustrates the senselessness of war and the death of possibility, future, and hope which occurs parallel. The narrator tells the viewer, “He [Alyosha] could have become a remarkable man. He could have become a builder or beautified the land with gardens. He was, and in our memory will forever remain, a soldier…a Russian soldier.”

Ballad of a Soldier manages to accomplish being a war film without being a “war film,” and utilizes the art of subtlety to make a greater, and perhaps more “truthful” statement about war. Rather than being a film filled with obvious violence, chaos, torture, and death, Ballad of a Soldier uses other less overt devices to help the viewer understand the devastating Soviet experience of World War II. In this sense, the film is masterful and perhaps even more powerful than other more “typical” war films. Additionally, the film makes a concerted effort to disprove and unravel earlier narratives presented in the propagandistic state under Stalin, such as Mikhail Chiaureli’s 1949 film The Fall of Berlin. Director Grigori Chukhari superbly integrates interesting and dynamic camera shots from beginning to end, which appear engaging to the viewer nearly sixty years later. Additionally, Chukhari’s choice of when and when not to include music in scenes is methodical and calculated, and further adds value and depth to the viewer’s overall experience. Taken as a whole, Ballad of a Soldier is a remarkable piece of film that powerfully, and softly, illustrates the lasting impact of the Second World War on Soviet Russia and its people.

Review Three

By Aleah Sexton

Grade:  A-

Ballad of a Soldier, the 1959 Soviet film, proved to be a melancholic, humorous, and lovely drama. From the opening scene, the audience is made aware that the main character, the charming, brave, and attractive Red Army soldier – Alyosha – will not survive WWII. Due to this tragedy, the film has added suspense and viewers follow Alyosha’s journey home to simply say hello to his mother and fix their roof. This film provided the audience with an example of true nobility as they witness Alyosha when he pays tribute to the Motherland by helping Russia’s people along the way. This film beautifully portrayed how war affects life beyond the trenches and the cultural responsibility that is carried among each regular citizen.

Following Robert Rosenstone’s thesis of historical films, Ballad of Soldier should be understood as a dramatic feature film, mainly because of  the ability to “aim directly at the emotions”. It goes beyond giving us a simple description of the past and instead, “it wants you, the viewer, to experience the hurt (and pleasures) of the past”. Chukhrai brilliantly uses his camera to zoom in on the character’s faces during intense scenes, orchestrating the music to compliment the emotion, and engaging with the audience through the entirety of the film by adding humor. Through all of this, the viewers are left with an intense film that produces an emotional response to the love and loss that the characters endure. Out of all the films the audience has watched for the class, I believe Ballad of a Soldier stands as the one with the most climatic idealism. Alyosha is the accolade of the Russian propaganda of the perfect, obedient soldier and his bravery is unmatched. However, his death adds a bit of risk on Chukhrai’s end because it proves that all of the war’s heroes are also just simply people. Stalinist propaganda is absent in the film. Instead, Chukhrai focuses on the humanistic aspects of war. The metaphoric truth he conveys is evident: Alyosha’s death reveals the true cost of war. The viewers are connected to his charming character and in the final scene when he waves goodbye to his mother for the last time we truly feel the cost of war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nomad Power: Three Essays

 Note:  Students in Dr. Daniel Prior’s course, HST 324 Eurasian Nomads and History, analyze primary sources in relation to historical literature and draw their own conclusions in dialogue with both types of sources. Three students in the Fall 2017 class wrote excellent papers on three different eras where the history of nomad power is fraught with interpretive challenges. Yasha Shatalov, a Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies major, sorted out multipolar relations among the expanding Russian and Qing empires and the nomadic Kazakhs and Kirghiz in the eighteenth century. Madilyn Clawson, a History major, examined the formation of the Second Türk Empire in the eighth century CE by contrasting the perspectives of Türk and Chinese primary sources. Ruilin Shi, a Mathematics & Statistics major, developed a historiographically sensitive theory of nomad state formation based on the historical case of the Xiongnu confederation and empire north of China (from approximately the third century BCE to the third century CE).

     The temporally and geographically diverse cases all focus on peoples of the Central Eurasian steppes or grasslands; a common thread running through the three contributions is the recognition that sedentary powers seeking to extend their influence into the steppe zone from outside its periphery and nomads seeking to expand their influence within and beyond the steppes often had differing views of each other’s powers and intentions. Taken together, the three authors’ contributions show Miami undergraduates using challenging source material to make sophisticated historical arguments.