Ghosts of Soviet Holocaust Cinema Finally Escape From the Censors’ Files
Long-lost and suppressed classics with complicated depictions of the Shoah have found a revivalist champion
A doctor walks into an operating room and asks if the patient is asleep yet. As he is about to operate, a group of Nazis in uniform marches in—a round of “Heil Hitler” is followed by orders that the doctor put his scalpel down and leave the hospital. In the next scene, the doctor is paraded down a crowded street, still wearing his white uniform but with the word Jude scrawled across his chest in thick letters.
We know the doctor is headed to certain death, because that is what happens in Holocaust films. But this is no ordinary Holocaust film. This is a scene from Professor Mamlock, a Soviet film released in 1938 that tells the story of a German-Jewish doctor living under the Nazis. Part of a small, but significant, wave of anti-Fascist Soviet films, it was one of the first films in the world to address the issue of Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany and was seen by millions of people in the USSR before it was banned in August 1939, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a not insignificant number of Soviet-Jewish families took the warning of the film to heart and managed to flee ahead of the Nazi invasion.
This past April, a newly subtitled print of Professor Mamlock was screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, followed by a Q&A session with Olga Gershenson, a professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the preeminent name in Soviet Holocaust film history. Wherever a Soviet Holocaust movie is screened, Gershenson is there, leading the discussion and translating the Soviet messaging for contemporary audiences. Her third book, The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe, which will be released next week, traces the story of a shadow Soviet film industry that only rarely managed to represent the tragedy that filmmakers, directors, and screenwriters sought to warn against or memorialize. While films like Schindler’s List are often the way Westerners are first exposed to the Holocaust, there are no parallels in Soviet/Russian culture—Professor Mamlock was shown briefly after Hitler invaded the USSR, but had disappeared from Soviet theaters by the end of the 1940s.
Professor Mamlock (1938), Dir. Herbert Rappaport and Adolf Minkin
Gershenson’s work is a monumental achievement in giving a voice to the lost Soviet Holocaust films—to the filmmakers, and to also the millions whose fates they attempted to memorialize. As the charges of censorship pile up, and the list of silenced filmmakers grows, the sense of loss is overwhelming. The tragedy of what might have been is most poignant in the details of Gershenson’s own research—such as the moment she found the screenplay for Gott mit Uns (God Is With Us), with a blank sign-out sheet signaling that no one had touched it in nearly 50 years. (“When I called [scriptwriter Grigorii] Kanovich in Israel, he nearly fainted. He’d thought it was lost,” she told me.)
Or writing about Boris Ermolaev, whose battle to bring his film Our Father to the screen cost him his career. Ermolaev now lives in a Montreal nursing home: “The sad irony is that this is a Jewish nursing home,” Gershenson writes, “but no one around him is aware of what an amazing film about the Holocaust he attempted to make and what kind of audacity it required back in 1960s Soviet Union.”
Or her meeting with Valentin Vinogradov, whose career was destroyed over his film Eastern Corridor (one of his later films was literally washed off the film stock by authorities). A believer to the end (he died in 2011), he saw the censorship of his work as an aberration, or betrayal, of the system, not a representation of the system. In Gershenson’s judgement, “Up to this day Vinogradov is one of the most important Soviet filmmakers that no one has ever heard of.”
The Soviets had many ways to kill a film, whether it was through subtle means such as self-censorship by the filmmakers themselves and poor reviews in Pravda, or outright rejection by Goskino, the central film governing body. Of course, it was never a matter of the Jewish topic being addressed. “[S]aying out loud that the screenplay’s problem lies with its representation of Jews would itself be anti-Semitic,” Gershenson writes. “This is why the SRK [a film studio editorial board] was hard pressed to avoid any on-the-record discussion of Jewish topics, while effectively trying to suppress it.” Modern filmmakers will shudder to read the details of all seven approval stages each film had to undergo, from the initial idea through to the distribution of the final film.
Since many of the archives are still inaccessible, and a lot of material was never preserved, Gershenson herself is a significant character in the story she tells, playing the part of detective in digging through archives and, tracking the whereabouts of long-lost directors and writers. She flies to Munich to meet with one aging scriptwriter (Maya Turkovskaya), then to Israel to talk to another director (Mikhail Kalik) and finds another (Grigorii Kanovich) in Tel Aviv through the Russian grapevine and meets him at a Lithuanian resort.
To understand Soviet Holocaust films, it is also important to understand the way that the Holocaust unfolded in Soviet territories. There were no concentration camps in the USSR, and Soviet Jews were not sent westward to the camps in Poland. The vast majority of Jews were rounded up and shot in (or just outside) their towns by the Einsatzgruppen. For Russian Jews, Babi Yar, not Auschwitz, is the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust.
Jews also fought in the Red Army, often leaving their hometowns before the occupation and returning to nothing but deserted homes and mass graves. Others were evacuated eastward into areas like Tashkent and Uzbekistan. Most Russian Jews today can count Holocaust victims, Red Army veterans, and evacuees among their family wartime experiences.
The evacuation, and the failure of the Germans to fully occupy the country, also meant that a Yiddish culture (newspapers, film, theater) continued to exist throughout the war. As a result, the Jewish response to the Holocaust was immediate—and it was often supported by Soviet officials. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, formed by direct order from Stalin, not only documented Jewish losses, but its archives also reveal plans for a number of Holocaust films.
The scholar, critic, and masterful translator remains dedicated to uncovering the full subtlety and intelligence of the stories in sacred texts