Saturday, 23 November 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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