Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hollywood discovers the GULAG

Peter Weir makes good movies. Master and Commander and Witness come immediately to mind. One of the things he does really well is recreate the world of his story authentically and down to the last detail. Today, in the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum writes about Weir's most recent project, a film about the GULAG and some men who escaped from it. Applebaum wrote GULAG: A History, and was consulted by Weir about the Soviet camps in preparation for the filming.
.... The Way Back is based on a book called The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, a Gulag survivor who "borrowed" his escape story: Three Poles crossed the Himalayas from Siberia into India in the 1940s; the Polish consulate recorded their arrival; one of them told his story to Rawicz. But the film is "true" in every way that matters. Many of the camp scenes are taken directly from Soviet archives and memoirs. The starving men scrambling for garbage; the tattooed criminals, playing cards for the clothes of other prisoners; the narrow barracks; the logging camp; the vicious Siberian storms. Among the very plausible characters are an American who went to work on the Moscow subway and fell victim to the Great Terror of 1937, a Polish officer arrested after the Soviet Union's 1939 invasion of Poland and a Latvian priest whose church was destroyed by the Bolsheviks. ....

I haven't found any reviews, so far, that hail this as Hollywood's first Gulag movie, perhaps because hardly anyone noticed that there weren't any before. Weir told me that many in Hollywood were surprised by the story: They'd never heard of Soviet concentration camps, only German ones. "If you need to explain what a film is about," the film is in trouble - and this one almost was. Weir had difficulties getting it distributed and some problems explaining the final scene to his financial backers.

Yet that final scene is exactly what makes this movie "real": Instead of returning home at the end of his harrowing journey, the hero is shown "walking" across time - across the Soviet occupation of Central Europe, across the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968 - finally returning home to Poland only after communism collapses. The absence of an instant happy ending also bothered some of the film's reviewers, even though, in "real life," there were no happy endings for anyone who lived in the eastern half of Europe after the end of the Second World War. People who escaped from the Gulag, survived the war or evaded the Holocaust didn't necessarily live happily ever after. Perhaps that's a truth too difficult to learn from a movie. [more]
Anne Applebaum - A real-life look at the Gulag