History of the World According to the Movies: Part 65 – World War II: The Eastern Front

Image

My main reasons why I have Roman Polanski’s 2002 picture The Pianist as a picture for the Eastern Front during World War II is that it manages to bring both the action of the war and the Holocaust in the same film as well as to such a personal level as Adrien Brody’s well deserved Oscar-winning portrayal of survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman. Szpilman may have survived both of these events through the kindness of strangers and sheer dumb luck but he lost practically everything in the process. Still, the Second World War brought the conflict much closer to home than any other war has before or since and The Pianist greatly embodies the experience of those on the Eastern Front whether they be soldiers, civilians, or targets of genocide.

If there was any place during World War II you didn’t want to be in (with the possible exception of Nazi Germany), then Eastern Europe would probably take the cake. The Eastern Front was perhaps the one of the bloodiest theaters of the war with a death toll mounting to over 25 million alone, making the war in the Eastern Europe perhaps one of the worst wars in history by itself. It was also wracked with lots of genocide if you know what I mean. Hollywood usually doesn’t cover this part mostly because you can’t have have an English speaking protagonist in these movies. Yet, there are plenty of these movies covering the Eastern Front that were made in Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. Another reason why it’s not very much represented in Hollywood is due to the Cold War and the fact that much of the war in this region was conducted under Soviet forces led by Josef Stalin who was among the Allies. And if it weren’t for Soviet Russia being on the Allies side, then they would’ve lost the war.This isn’t an easy fact to swallow but it’s rather important despite how uncomfortable Americans were about Communism and how bad Stalin was, Russia was the primary Allied power in this region. This doesn’t really fit well with the whole idea of World War II being fought to make the world “safe for democracy” while the US and Britain joined forces with a leader who had absolutely no interest in it and also committed many crimes against humanity like genocide. Still, another event taking place on the Eastern Front that many would be more familiar with is the Holocaust since most of Hitler’s death camps would be built in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland. Millions would be killed in these camps particularly Jews who were one of the Nazis’ primary targets. Many would be killed in massacres as well. Still, many movies pertaining to World War II in this region have their share of inaccuracies which I shall list accordingly.

The Holocaust:

Almost every European Jew knew he or she was, lived among Jews, and practiced Judaism. (Actually many European Jews had assimilated into mainstream European culture, many didn’t practice Judaism, some even married non-Jews, and some even didn’t know that they were Jewish at all nor identified as Jews either.)

The local populace outside the concentration camps didn’t know that the Holocaust was happening even if there was a death camp in their neighborhood. (Of course, there were people who said that they had no idea that the Holocaust was happening in their towns but I’d just call these people being in flagrant denial. Besides, there’s no way that anyone nearby the death camps wouldn’t be ignorant of the Holocaust. I mean you can’t deny something terrible was going on after seeing the sight of black smoke and the stench of burning flesh afterwards. You can’t shelter a kid from that.)

Most Jews knew about the gas chambers at concentration camps during the Holocaust. (Most of them didn’t know anything about the gas chambers at the concentration camp until they were either in one {which was too late to tell anyone about them} or after the war during the Allied concentration camp liberation.)

The Nazis only went after Jews. (They also went after other people as well including people who were married and friends with Jews, gypsies, gays, social radicals, scientists, Soviet POWs, and later rich Poles.)

European Jewish people would never betray each other even if they had to pay with their lives. (Schindler’s List and The Pianist correct this with the Jewish Police.)

Concentration camp prisoners were always well fed, visibly clean, trimmed, and hairless. (Of course, no one could make a historically accurate Nazi concentration camp scene without starving the actors. Besides, the real images from concentration camp of naked and starved prisoners full of lice would’ve been particularly horrifying.)

It wasn’t unusual for German boys to strike up a chat with concentration camp inmates through a fence. (This is a premise for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. However, there would absolutely be no way for a German boy to stroll up to the fence for chats with camp inmates because he would’ve been shot on site the first time he tried son of an SS officer or not. Also, unlike what the film implies, even an 8 year-old German boy would certainly know who Adolf Hitler was.)

The public knew that the Nazis were capable of staging a mass genocide. (Actually while anti-Semitism had been pervasive in Europe for a millennium up to World War II, most people at the time would’ve thought the idea of a Jewish genocide as monstrous and unthinkable. Unfortunately, this is why the Nazis came so close to succeeding because nobody thought they’d do, despite evidence and even survivors until Allied troops saw the death camps for themselves.)

King Christian of Denmark publicly wore a yellow Star of David in defiance of a Nazi order that all Danish Jews do so. (This is a myth for Danish Jews were never ordered to wear a yellow star in the first place.)

Anne Frank:

Anne Frank received her diary after her family went into hiding. (She received it on her 13th birthday a few days before the family went into hiding. The makers of the 1959 film about her probably just wanted to save money because most of her diary takes place in the Secret Annex anyway. Also, when her diary was published some of the names were changed to preserve anonymity.)

Wladyslaw Szpilman:

Wladyslaw Szpilman stumbled away from the Treblinka train as the Jewish police officer said “Don’t Run!” (Contrary to The Pianist, this didn’t happen exactly as Szpilman recounted it though he was saved by a Jewish policeman while his whole family was gassed. However, some of that train scene consisted of some material Roman Polanski supplanted from his own Holocaust experience. Oh, and Szpilman had other friends who helped him besides the couple of entertainers featured. Still, Adrien Brody is almost a dead ringer for the real thing.)

Oskar Schindler:

Oskar Schindler didn’t start helping Jews until he saw an old one armed man killed by Nazis in his factory. (Actually he tried to save as many Jews possible almost from the moment the Final Solution was implemented. Nevertheless, it was Itzhak Stern who discovered a way to use the channel of forced labor to Schindler to help his fellow Jews. He even traveled to Budapest, Hungary where he met with representatives of Jewish organizations to tell them what was happening in Poland as early as 1942. Not to mention, he also worked as an agent for the Abwehr during the 1930s before arriving to Krakow which was headed by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris who was covertly working against the Nazi regime. And it was his Abwehr connections that helped him protect his Jewish workers from deportation and death in Nazi concentration camps. Of course, Spielberg kind of exaggerated Schindler’s journey from greedy jerk to hero in Schindler’s List.)

Oskar Schindler was German. (He was born in the present day Czech Republic and so was his wife. They were ethnic Germans though but not technically German citizens. Still, Schindler was never as good looking as Liam Neeson.)

Oskar Schindler’s factory hired Jews all through the Second World War. (Actually most of his original employees in his enamelware factory in Krakow were Poles and he switched to hiring Jews because they were cheaper and after he hired Itzhak Stern.)

Oskar Schindler named Jewish workers at his Krakow factory to be taken to what is now the Czech Republic in 1944. (At this time, some claim that Schindler was in jail for bribing the brutal SS commander Captain Amon Goeth during the latter’s investigation of corruption by the SS. As for Stern, well, he wasn’t even working for Schindler then. Also, there’s evidence that the names of the factory workers were compiled in 9 lists, the first 4 of them by a corrupt Jewish security police named Marcel Goldberg, who was a loathsome figure who accepted bribes to get people on the list which resulted in some Jews being removed. The Jews who worked for Schindler didn’t have fond memories of him and would’ve made a poor character in Schindler’s List. Schindler may not have written a lot of the list but he’s said to be primarily responsible for the fact there was one.)

Emilie Schindler did nothing to aid the Jews under her husband’s care except stoically support her philandering husband. (Emilie was also involved in her husband’s efforts though she was a forgiving wife. She cooked for the workers and cared for the sick at her husband’s second plant in the present day Czech Republic as well as assisted in her husband’s heroic efforts that she was honored as a Righteous Gentile as well. Her husband meanwhile he provided for his workers well beyond giving them the security of employment. He spent his own money providing them food, clothes, and medical care. He’s even said to provide weapons for them, too. He encouraged them to practices their religious rituals including Jewish burial rites. He accepted a shipment of 2 boxcars of literally frozen Jews and personally aided them in their recovery.)

Oskar Schindler was named a Righteous Gentile in 1958. (He was actually named in 1993 nearly 20 years after his death and during the time when Schindler’s List was filmed. His wife was also named a Righteous Gentile after her death as well.)

Invasion of Poland:

Plumbing fixtures were untouched during the bombings of Warsaw. (Contrary to The Pianist where water was still in the bathtubs after the bombings, you wouldn’t be able to get a bath if you tried since there was no running water. Maybe Wladyslaw Szpilman lived near a river or something. Then again, maybe the water had been in the bathtubs for a very long time.)

The Soviet Front:

Russia fought for the Allies in early 1941. (Contrary to Pearl Harbor, in early 1941, Russia was still an ally to Nazi Germany. The Russians wouldn’t switch sides until June of that year once the Germans invade the Soviet Union. And even then, Russia wouldn’t be considered one of the Allies until January of 1942.)

Female Soviet soldiers were hopeless, uncommitted fighters, and sexual predators. (No wonder Cross of Iron was said to be misogynist. Then again, since it’s a film by Sam Peckinpah, no one should be surprised. Still, Soviet women were allowed a more active role in combat than women in any other nation during World War II. Many Soviet women served as highly decorated fighters, pilots, and snipers.)

Whistles were used in the Soviet Army as signals for attack. (They weren’t.)

Soviet soldiers never attached bayonets on their rifles. (Soviet soldiers always went into battles with bayonets on their rifles.)

Snipers could duel each other over the vast expanses over the empty ruins of Stalingrad without collateral casualties. (Except that during the Battle of Stalingrad, these ruins weren’t empty but had hundreds of thousands if not millions of soldiers crammed into an area that was only a few square miles.)

15-year-old Sacha Fillipov was hung by  Major Konig. (Contrary to Enemy at the Gates, the boy was hung with several other children by the Germans on Christmas Eve 1942. He was a spy for the Russians though and did exist. However, it’s likely Konig didn’t.)

The “Zagradotryad” wore regular Red Army uniforms. (They were an NKVD {secret police} unit that was responsible for shooting retreating troops. Thus, they’d wear NKVD issued uniforms.)

Mass attacks were utilized at Stalingrad. (Those attacks you see in Enemy at the Gates were never utilized in Stalingrad because open squares were few and far between. Actual fighting took place in street-to-street and entire battles could take place in a single building. But what World War II would be without tanks? Still, The Pianist does have a scene where a battle takes place in an entire building even though the movie takes place in Warsaw.)

“Oy Kozaro” was a Russian fighting song. (It’s a Yugoslav fighting song. Russians wouldn’t know this.)

The Red Army never had enough rifles or ammunition to arm their soldiers. (They actually were swimming in guns following the German invasion. Still, some units at Stalingrad did suffer from rifle shortages mostly due to logistics problems. Yet, there’s no evidence that Soviet soldiers were sent to attack the Germans with one weapon for every two men. Nor is there any record of any Soviet soldier being sent into combat unarmed.)

If the West had overcome its anti-Soviet prejudice, then World War II wouldn’t have happened. (According to Mission to Moscow that is. Seriously, this is the most fucked up shit I’ve ever heard. Still, according to historian Robert Osborne, “At the time this movie was made it had one of the largest casts ever assembled … When it was shown in Moscow, despite all the good will, people who saw it considered it a comedy—its portrayal of average, everyday life in the Soviet Union apparently way off the mark for 1943.” However, it is based on what US ambassador Joseph E. Davies thought about the Soviet Union, propaganda or not. Nevertheless, he’s usually derided as a political naïf and “useful idiot” for the Stalin regime and for good reason.)

Leon Trotsky and his followers were spies for Germany and Japan during World War II. (Trotsky was in Mexico at this time trying to stay alive. Stalin would eventually catch up to him though. As for Trotsky’s followers, do you think they’d give a shit about Germany and Japan? No. Besides, wasn’t it Stalin who signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler? Yeah, and little did Stalin realize that Hitler would break the pact with Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941 by invading Soviet territories. Oh, and there’s evidence that Soviet intelligence had full knowledge about Operation Barbarossa but Stalin refused to accept it until it was too late.)

Josef Stalin:

Josef Stalin’s purges were a justified investigation against pro-Nazi spies. (Oh, for fucking God’s sake! Doesn’t anyone behind Mission to Moscow ever understand that Stalin staged his purges in the 1920s and 1930s which wiped out up to 30 million of his own people? His purges during this time would significantly weaken Russia before the German invasion in 1941. Not only that, but his killing off of experienced officers would also hinder Russia’s defense capabilities for a time as well, which is why the Germans were able to go as far as they did. Still, if you want to make a movie about tolerance for other countries and cultures, don’t have it take place in Stalinist Russia {at least one that features Stalin as a good guy} or any place that has a leader known for committing crimes against humanity.)

Nikita Khruschev:

During World War II, Commissar Nikita Khruschev (yes, that one) feasted and resided in luxury while his soldiers languished in a damp basement. (Khruschev wouldn’t be happy with his portrayal in Enemy at the Gates. This is a man who considered a flush toilet as an unnecessary luxury and at his meals on oak plywood. Russian officers didn’t lead decadent lifestyles at all.)

Nikita Khruschev led the Red Army during the Battle of Stalingrad. (The real leaders were Vasilevsky, Chuikov and Zhukov. Good luck finding them in Enemy at the Gates, because they’re nowhere to be seen. Zhukov’s efforts in World War II led him to be such a popular war hero that Stalin couldn’t kill or imprison him despite his jealousy of Russia’s most famous war hero.)

Vassili Zaitsev:

Soviet sniper Vassili Zaitsev engaged in a sniper duel with a German Major Erwin Konig. (No sniper named Konig has ever been identified in the German records, though Zaitsev claimed this. Yet, unlike Enemy at the Gates, the sniper duel is said to have lasted for 3 days until Konig was killed if it happened. Zaitsev also said that he was the head of the Berlin sniper school but there’s no information to verify that. Actually other than Zaitsev’s memoirs, there’s no documentary evidence to prove that Konig actually existed, or that the duel ever took place. It’s pretty likely that Zaitsev either made the whole thing up or just didn’t know who the guy was.)

Vasili Zaitsev carried a romance with Tania Chernova who was also involved with Commissar Danilov. (He never claimed to have any relationship with anyone during the war, let alone be in a love triangle involving his boss. However, it’s said that Zaitsev and Tania were involved {despite being no love triangle since Tania could never have met Danilov for his contact with Zaitsev was limited} but they later separated and were each wounded in landmines. Both thought the other person was dead though Tania later found out that Zaitsev ended up marrying another woman and became devastated. She never married because of her love for Zaitsev. Zaitsev, on the other hand, he might’ve went to the grave thinking that Tania never survived the war. Actually the love story in Enemy at the Gates has more basis in historic fact than the sniper duel despite loud protests from critics who thought it as an unnecessary Hollywood addition to the gritty sniper duel action. Also, the rank of commissar was eliminated in October 1942, well before the end of the Battle of Stalingrad.)

Vaisili Zaitsev was a peasant pressed into military service in the Soviet Union’s darkest hour. (He was actually an experienced hunter with some education as well as had been a technical clerk in the Soviet Navy in the Pacific fleet. Also, he was a senior sergeant during the Battle of Stalingrad. In Enemy at the Gates, he’s a naïve shepherd boy who’s especially good at killing.)

Vaisili Zaitsev was an ace sniper. (He wasn’t said to be the best. Also, there were more than a million men fighting on both sides in Stalingrad.)

Tania Chernova:

Tania Chernova was an innocent sniper girl. (Except that she’s said to have a tough military background as an expert sniper with a long roster of kills. Oh, and while her and Zaitsev were involved in real life, her relationship took a back seat to her assassination missions. Also, Tania was said to be from the US and wouldn’t be speaking English in a British accent.)

Tania Chernova was wounded during an evacuation from Stalingrad. (She was wounded during an attempt to find and assassinate German General Frederich von Paulus, commander of the 6th Army, when a female sniper ahead of her stepped on a mine. Severely wounded, Zaitsev carried her back and they never saw each other again. But in Enemy at the Gates, she and Zaitsev are reunited at her hospital bed and live happily ever after.)

The Bielski Brothers:

Tuvia and Zus Bielski were the oldest brothers. (Actually out of the four Bielski brothers in Defiance the birth order is as follows: Tuvia, Asael, Zus, and Aron. They also had six other brothers and two sisters.)

Tuvia Bielski was emotionally conflicted over killing a policeman responsible for his parents’ arrest. (Yes, he killed the guy but he had no emotional qualms over it. Actually the Bielski brothers were fearsome fighters who targeted many Nazi collaborators, often executing entire families. They wanted to send a message loud and clear such as, “if you target Jews, there’s going to be hell to pay from us.”)

The Bielski group found the Soviet partisans greatly unhelpful. (Their alliance with the Soviet partisans wasn’t the most comfortable. The Soviets were fairly anti-Semitic while the Bielskis weren’t so fond on Communism. However, Tuvia knew how to deal with the leaders by downplaying the group’s Jewish identity and exaggerating their pro-Communist sentiments. That and proving his group’s worth with frequent acts of sabotage against the Nazis. The Bielskis alliance with the Soviets was an uneasy one but they managed to work fairly closely together, though Defiance implies otherwise.)

Asael Bielski was in his twenties during his time with the Bielski partisans. (He was 33 and was 4 years older than his brother Zus as well as 2 years younger than Tuvia contrary to Defiance.)

Tuvia Bielski met his wife Lilka in the forest in Nazi occupied Belarus during his time in the war. (Maybe but she was his step-niece of his second wife. She was also half-his age and perhaps would’ve been a teenager at the time contrary to Defiance. His second wife would’ve made a more suitable love interest. Still, Tuvia looked more like Eli Thompson from Boardwalk Empire with darker hair than Daniel Craig.)

Zus Bielski left his brothers to join the Soviet partisans. (The Bielskis stayed together until the last few months of the war when Moscow took direct control of the partisan fighters ordering Zus and Asael into separate units.)

The heroism of the Bielski brothers lay primarily in their willingness to wreck revenge on the Nazis. (Actually they weren’t the only group wreaking revenge as other Jewish and Eastern European groups did the same. Their real heroism lay primarily with their work in rescuing and protecting other Jews including those too weak or old to fight from almost certain death. This resulted in the rescue and survival of over a thousand Jews under their watch.)

The Bielski group had an egalitarian society within their ranks. (According to one book about women in the Holocaust, some of the Bielski brigade members said that the brothers ate better and the fighters had first pick among the women as sexual partners. “There is no equality in any place and there was no equality in the forest either,” according to one survivor.)

Advertisements

One response to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 65 – World War II: The Eastern Front

  1. Oskar Schindler and his wife were even better in real life than how they were depicted in Schindler’s List.
    I liked The Pianist too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s