The Serialization of the War

By Birgit Beumers (University of Bristol)

The occasion both for this paper and for the heightened cinematographic interest in WWII is clearly related to the 60th anniversary of the Soviet victory over fascism in May 2005. Although interest in the war has always accompanied anniversaries of the victory, serialisation is a relatively recent phenomenon: serials usually dominate in other genres—such as literary adaptations (Idiot; dir. Vladimir Bortko, 2003), costume dramas (Poor Nastia; dir. Ekaterina Dvigubskaia, Petr Krotenko, Stas Libin, Alla Plotkina, Aleksandr Smirnov, and Petr Shtein, 2003), crime stories (Streets of Broken Lights; multiple directors, since 1997), or, more recently the sitcom (My Lovely Nanny; dir. Eduard Radziukevich, Andrei Kuznestov, Aleksei Kiriushchenko, 2005), but not the war film. It is also interesting to note that hardly any films about WWII were made in the 1990s, which has political, but more important financial reasons: the budgets for war films are unusually high because battle scenes involve special effects and pyrotechnics.

Serialization always contains an element of popularisation and trivialisation, which is unsuitable for topics as serious as WWII. The only television serial on the war produced in the Soviet era was Tat'iana Lioznova’s Seventeen Moments of Spring (1972), which was an attempt to popularise the KGB at the height of stagnation and in which WWII served merely as a backdrop for the spy thriller that represented the USSR’s answer to James Bond.

The popularisation of the war through serials (but also through blockbusters) precludes heroism: characters are portrayed as “one of us.” In this new view, WWII is no longer a time that encourages heroic feats: the serials reject the hero who fights for a cause, showing instead his human face. As the French historian Sophie Wahnich has argued in her analysis of the concepts implicated by a number of European museums that commemorate the war, [1] the former war hero is as much a victim as those who lost their lives. This new war hero is represented in the humanist tradition, which eclipses the values that the soldiers defended and that made their deeds heroic in the eyes of the old regime. The hero becomes a victim of war (of absurd and meaningless violence). This is accompanied by a shift in the perception of the enemy, who is also seen as a victim: the barrier between “them” and “us” is washed away, and there are no longer winners and losers. This process of stripping the Soviet soldier of his heroic status and of blurring the division between opposing sides is apparent both in feature films and television serials of recent years.

Television serials on the war are attempts to personalise a distant history. Although the number of survivors of those years decreases steadily, viewing patterns reflect a preference by contemporary Russian viewers for Soviet-era over post-Soviet war films: a 2005 survey shows that war films of the 1970s lead in the ratings, that only five of the top 20 titles are recent films and these are all television serials, not feature films. [2]

Recent Russian war films tell a story that deposes the classical hero and blurs the dividing line with the enemy. The opposition of political systems (communism and fascism) and traditional binaries (East/West) have disappeared in an age of growing globalisation. During the 1940s filmmakers and writers portrayed the war in terms of victory and triumph, glorifying the fatherland in an attempt to boost people’s morale. During the Thaw (1956-64) films tended to shift towards individual heroism, dwelling on the suffering that people had endured in order to secure victory: Boris’s sacrifice of personal happiness in Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (1957) and Alesha Skvortsov’s heroic defeat of the German tanks in Grigorii Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (1959), combined with his concern for his mother, are fine examples of this shift. Yet both during the war and in the Thaw, cultural discourse never took issue with the aim of the war: the defence of the fatherland and the victory over fascism. The fight against the enemy bonded the nation and gave soldiers a purpose, making their task worth the sacrifice: they defended values, moral and national ones.

Contemporary Russian filmmakers change the perspective on WWII. Mikhail Ptashuk’s August 1944 (2000) portrayed the work of Soviet intelligence agents intercepting radio transmissions from the enemy partisan group “Nemon” in the western territories, which had just been liberated by the Red Army. A team of four officers avert a military raid on the territory, ignoring orders from headquarters and risking their lives in the process. The theme of individuals taking the course of events into their own hands, especially in light of the chaos at Soviet military headquarters, was further developed by Nikolai Lebedev’s Star (2002), a remake of Aleksandr Ivanov’s 1949 film of the same title, which showed the work of an intelligence unit that went beyond army rules in order to complete its task; for this reason the original film was released only in 1953. Lebedev’s film turns the war into a series of special effects and focuses on representing atrocities and building suspense. I suggest that Lebedev’s stark tale of the heroism of the Soviet intelligence called for a different kind of narrative, one that actually begins with Aleksei German Jr.’s The Last Train (2003) and ends with the television serials of 2005. For German, war knows no heroes: he looks at the fate of two German men—a doctor and a postman—who have failed to make the right choice (or a choice) at the right time. They are now victims of circumstances—of politics, of regimes—and victims not of the war, but of their own predicament. German’s film is a clear manifesto about the absurdity of war, in which people can merely try to maintain their human dignity, and where “heroic deeds” lie in simple human gestures and compassion.

This theme of human dignity rather than war heroism is extended in Dmitri Meskhiev’s Our Own (2004), set in Ukraine in August 1941. The violence and brutality of the German attack on the Soviet base in the film’s opening sequence is captured in a few select scenes, some in slow motion, which depict the horror of war in an almost documentary style. The officer nicknamed “Chekist” (Sergei Garmash), the political commissar Lifshits (Konstantin Khabenskii), and the sniper Mit'ka (Mikhail Evlanov) manage to disguise their military rank before they surrender. Prisoners of war, they escape to Mit'ka’s village where his father (Bogdan Stupka), the village starosta, is already expecting them. The difference between svoi (ours) and ikh (theirs) is complex: how long can the starosta hide his own son, a Soviet soldier and German captive, from the German Polizei for which he works? Even when the head of the Polizei arrests the starosta’s daughters to force him to surrender his son, he keeps his calm.

Yet the fugitives fear that the starosta will turn them in to save Mit'ka. In their “defence” they display as much brutality and violence as the German troops in their attack. Meskhiev underscores that war always equals violence, no matter the side or aim that people fight for. These men are no heroes, ready to die for their fatherland, but they are ready to die for each other. Soldiers are crushed by tanks, treated like cattle by the enemy when taken prisoner, and behave like common criminals when on the run. The idealised image of a heroic and glorious war crowned by victory is shattered by the representation of the day-to-day reality of war. Is not the starosta the hero in this war—he does not to surrender the soldiers, protects his daughters as much as he can, largely refrains from violence, has served a sentence in a Soviet prison as a kulak, sends his son to the war, serves the Polizei, and protects his village? The final phrase of the film, when the starosta says farewell to Mit'ka—“Go, son, defend the motherland” (idi, synok, rodinu zashchishchat')—is more than slightly ironic. Which homeland should Mit'ka defend? The country ruled by the German Polizei? The country that arrested his father as a kulak? The country that took away his sisters’ husbands in the Finnish War and declared them dead? And what will the motherland do with a soldier who returns, alive, from German captivity? Meskhiev debunks the myth of the “fatherland” for which people were ready to die and asserts that soldiers defended their country because this was their job, thus de-heroicizing military action per se.

The release of Meskhiev’s film in November 2004 coincided with the broadcasts of one of the first and still most popular television serials about WWII, which also dismantles the illusions and myths of the great Soviet victory, underscoring not only the price of the victory, but also the ambiguity in soldiers’ motivation to fight for their country. The 11-part television serial Penal Battalion (dir. Nikolai Dostal', 2004) is the story of Vasilii Tverdokhlebov (Aleksei Serebriakov), a Soviet POW held by the Germans, who is executed for his refusal to collaborate. Miraculously, he is only injured and manages to climb from his grave (not quite as agile as Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 [2004]). Back at the Soviet Army base he is arrested as an “enemy of the people.” However, soldiers are needed at the front and Tverdokhlebov is released as commander (kombat) of a penal battalion (shtrafbat), composed of political prisoners and common criminals.

The soldiers in the penal battalion are considered “enemies of the people” by the Soviet regime and they are required to redeem their guilt with their blood. They are dispatched to the frontline and deployed as cannon-fodder for the advancing German army so that the Soviets can better plan their tactics: the penal battalion has to cross a field full of mines in order to capture German positions, to attack a detachment of German tanks without sufficient ammunition, to form a bridgehead without any support to deter the enemy. Dostal' dismantles the concept of Soviet war heroism: he shows the disorganisation at the front, where Soviet officers are more preoccupied with political views than with soldiers’ commitment; he tells of the devastating effects of the purges and dekulakization through flashbacks; and he shows that the enemy is not only the advancing German army, but even more so it is the NKVD, which is undermining the Soviet army; as Tverdokhlebov and the thief Glymov emphasize in their discussion, the enemy is both behind them (the NKVD) and in front of them (the German army).

These soldiers fight not for their country, but because there is no other choice. Dostal'’s film undermines the patriotic values promulgated in earlier war films. As Wahnich argues in her essay, in today’s perception of the war there are no values to defend and no heroes; heroic qualities lie in the ability to bond with each other (and with the enemy) and to display acts of camaraderie in an amoral and corrupt environment. They are no saints: there are acts of theft, robbery, gambling, drinking, fights, rape, anti-Semitism, and breaches of military discipline in the battalion. But none of these men ever turns in one of his own or leaves one of his own injured or helpless in the field. The soldier is de-heroicized and turned instead into an iconic image of a man with moral qualities, a victim of his own regime and of the enemy.

In the autumn of 2004, along with Penal Battalion, a number of serials about WWII were aired on the main Russian television channels. I shall here focus on those serials that attempt to cast WWII in a different light, and especially on the role of Soviet “heroes.”

A Man of War (dir. Aleksei Muradov, 2005) is about a Soviet detachment in the forests on the western front in Belarus, from where Major Semin reports to Moscow Headquarters about a possible German chemical weapons stockpile. Semin is German spy in the Soviet Army, a traitor who is ready to sacrifice his entire detachment to the Germans. Moscow dispatches Lida Eisenschmitt, a German baroness and NKVD prisoner, to check out the German base for chemical weapons. For this mission, Lida resumes her identity as a baroness, meeting the German SS officer Schimmel while reporting to Petr Kotelnikov, a Soviet officer in German uniform. After completing the intelligence mission, the Soviet detachment destroys the German base, but finds no chemical substances. The Soviet army is ridden with spies, doomed by ineffective management from the centre, and betrays its own people; indeed, Lida’s husband was murdered by none other than her commanding NKVD officer. It is never obvious whether danger lurks from the enemy in a German uniform or a traitor in one’s own ranks.

This is also the theme of the most successful serial, Red Chapel (dir. Aleksandr Aravin, 2004), a spy thriller à la Seventeen Moments. This time the serial does not serve to whitewash the KGB and give it a human face, but to show how an ordinary citizen voluntarily works for Soviet intelligence in order to stop the fascist regime. Jean Gilbert is head of “Red Chapel,” an intelligence network in Paris that transmits information on the German army’s movements to Moscow. SS officer Kurt Giering is charged with disclosing the network, not suspecting that his next-door neighbour is the “kapellmeister.” When he finds out about Gilbert, he uses him to inform Stalin of British arms supplies to the German army in order to drive a wedge between the Allies. Gilbert, having uncovered the sham and prevented a rapprochement between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR, leaves for Moscow—and is arrested and jailed by the NKVD for ten years. Unlike Stirlitz, Jean gets no reward. The Soviet Union defeated the fascist enemy, but it did so not with superior military logistics, but at the cost of human lives; the regime is to blame for the losses in WWII.

Contemporary films and serials represent WWII less as a battlefield for enacting national pride and as a showcase for heroism, but more as a minefield of ambiguous feelings vis-à-vis the fatherland and as a testing ground for human qualities. The war serials of recent years characterise soldiers as ordinary human beings with flaws, and they share these flaws and weaknesses with the enemy. Killing the enemy, however adverse the situation may be, however great the risk of one’s own life, is no heroic act. It is a murderous crime. War makes victims of all men.

Soldiers’ actions are not heroic because they do not act by choice: they are turned into sacrificial lambs. There is no heroism in war; there is only the fulfilment of military duty in the face of adverse circumstances and the attempt to maintain human dignity and moral integrity—as shown by Penal Battalion’s Tverdokhlebov, who never condemns the petty crimes in his battalion and lets the gambler gamble, the priest preach, the thieves steal; or by Gavrilov in A Man of War, who bemoans Lida’s violence when she orders the destruction of a train carrying people. In a contemporary context, the films advocate a compliant and obedient soldier, thus supporting the ethos of military duty.
However, Wahnich also argues that the rejection of the concept of the heroic soldier fighting for a just cause leads, in turn, to a renunciation of violence. If this conclusion is right, then serialisation condemns, by extension, any kind of warfare.

Birgit Beumers (University of Bristol)


1] Sophie Wahnich, “Les musées d’histoire du XXième siècle en Europe.” Etudes: Revue de Culture Contemporaine. July/August 2005: 29-42

2] “K 60-letiiu pobedy: Fil'my o velikoi otechestvennoi.”

Birgit Beumers© 2006

Updated: 27 Mar 06