by Norman Berdichevsky (February 2013)
Two of the most honestly gruesome films of barbaric atrocities in modern times ever made are the Russian film The Chekist and the Polish film Katyn.
The Chekist was directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin (1992 Cannes Film Festival Award) but hardly rated mention anywhere in the United States. The unbelievable atrocities of torture and mass execution seen in the film were all confirmed by factual articles in Pravda itself in 1921-22.
Katyn is the true story of the slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers on April, 1940 by Stalin’s henchmen and based on the book Post Mortem: The Story of Katyn by Anderzj Mularczyk. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. The Russian leadership has admitted the guilt of Stalin in the Katyn massacre, finally turned into a dramatic film in the 2007 Polish production. It is an emotionally horrifying and draining experience to view these films. Both these films’ producers and actors have been brutally honest enough to graphically portray the unvarnished horror of the Communist regimes to their fellow citizens in Poland and Russia, something no Hollywood producer has dared to do and about which, most of the American public shows no interest.
Contrast this with the host of brilliant anti-Nazi films made during World War II that established Hollywood’s “patriotic reputation” and the naked fact that no serious major Hollywood feature film has dealt with the epic battle against totalitarian communism. The films with a major international political theme made before American entry into the war hardly touched on the Soviet Union except for a light comedy like Ninotchka (MGM 1939). Contrast magnificent films with the hundreds of World War II, spy, Spanish Civil War (For Whom the Bell tolls) and Holocaust films made since 1945 that continued to use the wartime anti-Nazi theme but never about any of the real life opponents of the Axis who were prominent in the anti-Nazi cause and Resistance yet were conservative even ‘Rightwing’ nationalist leaders such as Churchill, De Gaulle, Iannos Metaxas of Greece, Arne Sorensen of the rightwing group Dansk Samling and Engelbert Dollfuss of Austria (see my book The Left is Seldom Right, chapters 12-18).
The Fountainhead (1949) stands out as the ONLY film of a political nature that intellectually argued against the Leftist themes of solidarity, the plight of the poor, the “just struggle” of the working class, the “new society” created in Soviet Russia and the greed of the wealthy and privileged.
On the theme of the Cold War and the struggle of subject peoples under Soviet and Chinese Communist rule, there was essentially nothing but a few trivial Grade C films (for example –I married a Communist that had to be re-released under the less obvious titles of The Woman on Pier 13 and Beautiful but Dangerous. Critics trashed the film for its “fatuous plot and cartoon characters.”
The struggle to resist communism and the Cold War did not lead any American producers to create a serious dramatic film involving the Hitler-Stalin, Pact, the Gulags, the now thoroughly vindicated charges of treason against the Rosenbergs, the evidence of Whittaker Chambers against Alger Hiss, the Korean War, the Hungarian Revolution, the Cultural Revolution in China, Pol Pot, Ceaucescu, the GDR or the collapse of the USSR. Can one imagine a director such as Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List) dealing with any of these themes? Abroad, there have been a few serious British attempts such as Dr. Zhivago (1965) and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (1971).
Americans who have seen The Sound of Music were offered a sugar coated, romanticized and typically exaggerated Hollywood version of the country’s crisis but it did contain a grain of truth – that the real as well as the cinematic hero, Captain Von Trapp, a conservative, aristocratic, devout Catholic retired naval officer, is symbolic of those among the country’s social elite who held the Nazis in utter contempt as gutter rabble. The same people whom Stalin had referred to as “Christian Fascists” (Dollfuss, the Heimwehr and Prince Starhemberg) who had crushed the working class Social Democrats’ Schutzbund uprising in Vienna in 1934, were the same ones who tried vainly to oppose the Nazis’ repeated sabotage and coup attempts to force union with Germany.
What is indeed accurate about The Sound of Music is not the tearful rendition of “Edelweiss” that rouses the Austrian patriotism of Captain Von Trapp’s neighbors (the song was composed by American Jewish composer Oscar Hammerstein), but the teenage working class neighborhood boy Rolf, in love with the captain’s eldest daughter, Liesl. He becomes the most enthusiastic Nazi and turns the family in out his sense of duty and loyalty to Hitler. This has its counterpart in the other great musical film about the 1930s political situation, – Cabaret, where the only individual seated in a park who does not rise to join in the enthusiastic singing of a Nazi anthem “The Future Belongs To Us” (just as our 60s radical believed), is an elderly man who had been through World War I.
During the period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact in which the Nazis and Soviets were close allies, the Soviet attack against Finland in December 1939 provoked screenwriter Philip Dunne and actor Melvin Douglas to propose that the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, a group of activists identified with the Democratic Party, condemn the invasion. A hardcore insider group of Communist Party members using the organization as a congenial front insured the defeat of the resolution.
In his 1980 memoir, aptly named Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics, Dunne wrote “All over town, the industrious communist tail wagged the lazy liberal dog.” And so it has been ever since. This was noted in the 1930s by screenwriter Ayn Rand, the only one in Hollywood who had actually lived under communism. Communist party member Dalton Trumbo, known as the highest paid screenwriter in the business was a Communist Party member and viewed his profession as “literary guerilla warfare.”
In 1941, before Pearl Harbor, religiously towing the Party Line, Trumbo wrote a novel The Remarkable Andrew, in which the ghost of Andrew Jackson appears in order to warn the United States not to get involved in the war. This was so blatant that even Time Magazine sarcastically commented that “General Jackson's opinions need surprise no one who has observed George Washington and Abraham Lincoln zealously following the Communist Party Line in recent years.”
To gauge the influence of Trumbo and others in whitewashing Stalin and the Soviet regime, one has to view such films as North Star and Song of Russia (both 1943) that portray the USSR as a land of workers and peasants living in simplicity but in dignity and abundance and dutifully following the guidelines of the Party. Even worse, Mission to Moscow (1943) starring no less a luminary than Walter Huston accepted the charges of the 1930s purge trials against Stalin’s former comrades and “explained” how the USSR had “generously” offered Finland five times more land (barren tundra) in exchange for the important security zone along the Karelian isthmus it had demanded just before launching its invasion in 1939.
Trumbo bragged in The Daily Worker that thanks to him and communist influence in Hollywood, the Party had quashed adaptations of Arthur Koestler’s anti-communist works, Darkness at Noon and The Yogi and the Commissar. It is precisely this point that most of the House un-American Activities Committee missed in its investigations, the internal network within the screenwriters union in sympathy with the party line rather than the specific content of individual films that might be excused as part of the war-time patriotic effort to cast our Soviet ally in the best possible light.
In spite of all the evidence provided by the Venona documents and the memoirs of Hollywood personnel involved in the Communist dominated union activity and studio policies that led to the justified investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee. What is all the more notable is that the House Un-American Activities Committee was at first strongly supported by the Communist Party–USA (CPUSA) when first introduced in 1933 on direct orders from Moscow because it was involved in uncovering Nazi and then later Trotskyite activities.
The actors and directors among the approximately 50 witnesses called to testify by the Committee who took the Fifth Amendment hundreds of times and were temporarily ‘blacklisted’ have entered the pantheon of Leftist Americana as the victims of the evil, racist, anti-Semitic, right-wing reaction as memorialized by those who idealize and idolize all those who testified before the committee and in the best of all scenarios were naïve dupes.
This was soon realized by a host of actors such as Ronald Reagan, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly and Lauren Bacall who originally went to the hearings with the intent of defending their studio bosses from what they thought might be slandered with guilt by association but realized that the Communist Party was indeed strongly enmeshed in the studio’s choice and rejection of scripts.
They were active in the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage employees) while the Communist party-backed CSU (Conference of Studio Unions) attempted to force the studios to deal only with them. Even in the private field of talent scout agencies working with the major studios such as the William Morris agency, the Party had managed to obtain sufficient influence to steer the scripts of Communist writers and directors such as Ring Lardner Jr. and Bernard Gordon on to the desks of producers while soft-pedaling the work of their non-communist clients.
In 1999, the University of Southern California which is notable for its film school unveiled a sculpture garden dedicated to “The Hollywood Ten” who were blacklisted as “victims” of the Cold War and heroes honored for their “Protection of the First Amendment” by refusing to testify. This is the result of the continued preference by many in Hollywood for wishing to “See, Hear and Smell No Evil” because they are committed to the prevailing ideal of those in the profession whose first allegiance is to anti-anti-Communism.
At least, the British film industry presented one forthright denunciation of the puppet communist regimes in Eastern Europe – The Prisoner, 1955, starring Alec Guniness as a heroic cardinal, accused of treason. The film was based on Croatian cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, the victim of a show trial staged by the Yugoslav communist regime and on Hungarian cardinal József Mindszenty. The film accurately portrays the psychological pressures applied to extract confessions and the techniques used by the regimes to fabricate evidence; splicing tapes, and forging documents, photos and signatures but stops far short of the brutal techniques of physical torture frequently employed.
An even braver and more unexpected attempt at truthfully portraying war crimes unflinchingly that would not be made today was the product of the Italian cinema. The film is Two Women (Italian: La ciociara, The Woman from Ciociaria), a 1960 film directed by Vittorio De Sica. It tells the story of a mother unable to protect her young daughter from the horrors of war and is based on the real experience of Italian women at the hands of the Goumiers (Moroccan Allied soldiers) serving in the Free French forces in 1943 and representing the worst Allied case of war crimes against civilians in World War II. The film stars Sophia Loren and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Why would it not be made today? The answer is obvious – it portrays Muslim soldiers running amok committing atrocities and is the ultimate in political heresy today. Back then however, the American film industry was not so squeamish and awarded Sophia Loren the first ever Oscar to a non-American actress in a foreign language film for her role. She also received the Best Actress Award at Cannes and from the British Film Academy and the New York Film Critics Circle Award.
It is undeniable that the Goumiers displayed great bravery and aggressiveness and were successful in causing German forces to retreat on several fronts but their military achievements were accompanied by widespread reports of war crimes – murder, rape, and pillage across the Italian countryside so that the Free French military authorities sought to import Berber women to serve as “camp followers” in rear areas set aside exclusively for the Goumiers. According to Italian sources, more than 7,000 people were raped by Goumiers. Those rapes, later known in Italy as Marocchinate, were against women, children and men, including some priests. And what has Hollywood produced lately? Reds in 1981 in which Oscar winning Warren Beatty plays American journalist and witness to the Russian Revolution, John Reed, who makes the concession that the Soviet regime indeed “violates human rights” but nothing on the screen graphically portrays these violations.
And today? Have you seen any films about Iraq or Syria in the face of outrageous slaughter by the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad (50,000 killed and climbing; mostly civilians, or those armed with small weapons versus the full might of the Syrian armed forces). We had Syriana, a few years ago in which America’s involvement in the Middle East and its attempt to confront Islamist fanaticism is held to be solely based on oil. It portrays the Arabs, the Arab states and Arab-Americans as the unfortunate victims of the global conspiracies and machinations of the CIA.
As long as they oppose the United States, even the most vicious, 8th century doctrine of fundamentalist Islam with its proclamation of Jihad and its denial of any civil rights or liberties, its record of violent anti-Jewish hatred, its contempt for the elementary rights of women and children, still qualify as “the good guys.” Where are the massive street demonstrations today of the type that seized headlines for months against American intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan? They are nowhere. There are none, apart from a few Syrian exiles parading in front of the Syrian embassy in Paris – that is the measure of the conscience of the Left.
Norman Berdichevsky's latest book is The Left is Seldom Right.
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