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
It’s often forgotten today, but the Soviets were the first witnesses to many Nazi atrocities—a point also made by David Shneer in his 2011 book on Soviet-Jewish photojournalists (Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust), many of whom captured some of the most iconic Holocaust imagery known today. The earliest images of concentration camps were taken by Soviet-Jewish photographers; similarly, Gershenson is certain that the 1938 Peat Bog Soldiers is the first film in the world to show the camps. Another film, the 1945 The Unvanquished, directed by Mark Donskoi, became the first Holocaust film to show Jews as explicit Nazi victims (the mass Jewish execution in the film was actually filmed in Babi Yar). The film slipped through before the state machinery had figured out its official stance on the Holocaust, but then it quickly disappeared from screens.
“What we know now is that if not for this severe censorship,” Gershenson said, “the way we think about Holocaust cinema today would have been dramatically different, because today when we think about Holocaust cinema, we think about Schindler’s List or Shoah. But there were all these incredible Soviet screenplays.”
While the fates of individual films rise and fall with the vagaries of Soviet policies over the decades—the post-Stalin thaw, the clampdown following the Six Day War and the rise of the immigration movement—common themes emerge in all of them. When the Holocaust is shown at all, it’s externalized. This is partly because a Holocaust that happened outside the USSR made for a narrative in which the Soviets were blameless. But other factors were at work—such as the lack of imagery for the rapid Einsatzgruppen execution that came very quickly on the heels of the Nazi arrival.
“There was no authentic language for representing the Holocaust there. How do you represent an Einsatzgruppen execution? It’s just so horrible. It’s not even a camp. It’s just—” said Gershenson, her voice cutting off mid-sentence. “Imagine a film where all your main characters come out on stage and are executed, and that’s it. End of film.”
So, Soviet filmmakers had to find ways to code their films for a home audience. German and Polish Jewish characters were made to look more like Soviet Jews. In Professor Mamlock, the German-Jewish Mamlock is mockingly called “Itzik,” a typical Russian reference to a shtetl Jew. More often, films hinted at Jewishness without including Jewish characters.
“I call it Holocaust without Jews. You have all these striped pajamas and concentration camps and chimneys,” Gershenson explained. “If you know the actual history, you think ‘Wow, these people are all Jews.’ ”
Sometimes, she writes, nothing remained of the original Jewish story—“On censors’ orders, screenplays were changed and entire plot lines disappeared. Jews were written out of Soviet films. Nonetheless … these films remained obsessed with Nazi genocide and retained a measure of ‘residual Jewishness.’ ” For example, a 1965 Belarus production called All These Years, briefly shows a family led to their deaths in a ravine, the scene backed by a Yiddish soundtrack. In Eastern Corridor, produced in 1965 and one of the few films to explicitly address the Holocaust, a Yiddish plea is uttered by a character during the drowning execution scene. (Like The Unvanquished 20 years earlier, it too quickly disappeared from theaters.)
The Unvanquished (1945), Dir. Marc Donskoi
This all echoed the official Soviet response to the Holocaust, which was to universalize suffering and thus conveniently avoid mentioning the specific group of Soviet citizens who were targeted for being Jewish. Some 27 million Soviets died in the war—“So in Soviet discourse, those 3 million were just ‘peaceful Soviet citizens,’ ” Gershenson said. Why talk about Jewish victims as a unique group when every victim was another “peaceful Soviet citizen”?
This was the case in Steps in the Night, a 1962 Lithuanian film. It was originally based on the true escape of 64 prisoners—60 of them Jewish—from a Nazi prison. Gershenson found four versions of the screenplay in the archives. In the first, a single token Jewish prisoner was included. The final film had no Jewish characters—the heroes were all strong-jawed Soviets in the finest socialist-realism tradition.
Gershenson sums up this loss best when she writes of the 1964 Goodbye, Boys! (which was screened in Toronto in 2012 for the first time in decades): “In an alternate reality, in which he had not been constrained by Soviet policies and restrictions, [director Mikhail] Kalik would have included images representing the Holocaust on Soviet soil. … In the only reality we have, Goodbye, Boys! was made and even distributed, but in some ways it remained a phantom, a phantom of a film that could have been.”
The story of this phantom film industry is not a redemptive story—there’s no sudden, post-Soviet flourishing of Holocaust cinema. Decades of repression and propaganda had done their work too well, and Holocaust films continued to follow the existing formulas. Russia is one of the few countries in the world where Schindler’s List was a box office flop.
“If we start talking about the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, it’s very uncomfortable,” Gershenson explained. “Because then everyone is implicated. Maybe not in Moscow, but certainly in places like Kiev and Kharkov and all these other areas. The story of wartime collaboration or nonresistance is a very complicated story. The executions, the ghettos—it was impossible without local assistance. Today, even people with conscience don’t want to talk about it because it’s so uncomfortable.”
In the very act of writing the Phantom Holocaust, Gershenson brings the story full circle, writing, as it were, the next chapter in Soviet-Jewish Holocaust cinema. Two of the scripts she uncovered have found a new life—the 1965 Stalemate was transformed into a Moscow theater production in 2010, and a well-known Russian filmmaker, Oleg Gaze, is now seeking funding to produce Gott mit Uns. Generations of Soviet censors are, one hopes, turning in their graves.
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