Tag Archives: Red Army

The Winter War: Talvisota (1989)

“The only land we’ll give them is their burial plot.”

I came across this film thanks to a hosted blogging event conducted by All About War Movies. I’m more into crime film than war film, but The Winter War from director Pekka Parikka sounded interesting–mainly because it covered a subject I wanted to know more about: The war between the Finns and the invading Soviet army. The film doesn’t give any historical background, so first I’ll back up and say that Finland was considered part of Russia until Finland declared independence in 1917. The new Bolshevik government, facing enormous problems on the home front, rolled over when faced with Finland’s demand for autonomy, and Finland then became an independent country. Move forward just twenty years to the Stalin-Hitler Pact.  Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939, and then the old territory of Tsarist Russia became a target. Stalin wanted Finnish land, he claimed, as a “buffer” for Leningrad which really was an excuse for a landgrab.  The Winter War began after negotiations broke down between Stalin and Finland and a provocative Gleiwitz type event conducted by the NKVD took place. For the war, Mannerheim was the Finns’ Commander-in-Chief, and as a former member of the Imperial Russian Army, he had a good idea what the Finns faced. Incidentally, Mannerheim was opposed to the war and supported negotiations with the Soviet Union. The first film footage taken on Russian soil is of the 1896 coronation of Nicholas II, and if you watch the grainy footage, Mannerheim is walking slightly ahead of the new Tsar, off to the side, and carries the imperial orb.

 The Winter War lasted from Nov 1939-March 1940, and the film concentrates on a group of reservists from the farming community of Kauhava–specifically the Hakala brothers Martti (Taneli Mäkalä) and Paavo (Konsta Mäkalä) as they defend the Mannerheim Line. The film opens with the chaos of goodbyes and men reporting for duty. This opening scenes are portents of things to come: the men are ill-prepared, there’s little or no equipment, and no one expects fighting to actually begin. Negotiations are taking place between Finland and the Soviet Union, so the more optimistic men don’t expect a war to take place. There’s one seasoned soldier, Yilli (Esko Nikkari) however, who fought in 1918, who fully expects to fight and who also expects the fight to be tough. As the negotiations play out, the men from Kauhava move closer and closer to the front line and there’s a range of innocence and denial about what they face.

No shots took place until 50 minutes into the film, and then from this point on the action was almost relentless. Mostly the film portrays a war of attrition. The group of men whose fate we follow are sent to defend the Taipale River. Watching the film, seeing the men freezing in the ice and snow, well I couldn’t help but wonder what is worse…a war fought in the freezing cold or a war fought in the jungles of South East Asia. That’s a rhetorical question, by the way, but there is something dramatic about flamethrowers used against the white landscape and the white snow that turns to blood or is churned with mud by the continual onslaught of tanks.

Since the Finns basically fight a war of attrition in a situation that seems to be a throwback to WWI trench warfare, we see battle after battle as the Finns are decimated in one way or another. The film shows clearly that the Finns were outgunned and outmanned, but while the invading Red Army was vastly superior in sheer numbers and weaponry to the Finns, Stalin had been busy executing Red Army officers over the previous few years. This left the Red Army weak in leadership. The Winter War does not depict the guerrilla warfare waged by the Finns–instead it concentrates on the fierce trench war waged between the lads from Southern Ostrobothnia and the Red Army horde who periodically storm the Finnish territory under cover of aircraft attacks.

The invading Russian horde looks like another species from a distance, and those old Civil war hats add to the sense of alienation. A couple of the close-ups of Russians looked uncannily like Trotsky which was a bit distracting, but since we see things from the Finns’ point of view, the demonic view of the enemy probably mirrors just how those on the front lines felt. One of the most remarkable facets of this film is the way in which the Finns treat each other–while the men are disciplined, the discipline appears to be internal rather than external. Yes we do see so-called superior officers, but for the most part the men appear to hold themselves in check. These men are not, unlike their Russian counterparts–soldiers–but rather simple men fighting to keep their way of life. And when one man, a rather more fragile character can no longer stand the pressure and has a nervous breakdown, he’s treated with compassion and love. Of course, these men all know each other since they hail from the same geographical region, and many of them are related. I couldn’t help but think of all the war films in which troops are shot by firing squads for breaks in ‘discipline.’ That element is absent here, and ultimately The Winter War is an unusual film because of its inner humanity. One scene shows the men agreeing to give up wages in the hope that this will allow the purchase of much-needed equipment and weaponry.

Although there’s a large cast, we follow the action, for the most part, through the eyes of the oldest Halaka brother, Martti, and it’s also through his eyes that the inevitable questions are raised: just how much do you tell the family back home? How honest should you be about the brutality of the conditions? Those left behind say they want to know the truth, but do they really? Are they prepared for the facts? Will knowing the facts even help?

After the prolonged, repetitive but realistic action, the film’s ending comes abruptly to an end and thus introduces a further sense of madness to the carnage just witnessed. How can men be bayoneting one another to death one minute and then proclaiming peace in the next breath?

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I Was Nineteen (1968)

“Perhaps you underestimate the Nazi movement’s irresistibility. It was a continuation of German history. You quoted Kant, but you misunderstood him. The categorical imperative to obey any order an authority gives us was a trait of this people before Hitler. The need to fulfill our duties. This was just an escalation. An artificially induced frenzy of obedience. The result of long-suffered degradation. An explosion of sadism. A phenomenon. We have been destroyed like no other race.”

I came across the title I Was Nineteen (Ich War Neunzehn) on a list of the ‘100 best German films ever.’ Some of the films are sadly no longer available, but I noticed that both A Girl Called Rosemarie and The Kaiser’s Lackey made the list, and since those were both great films, it seemed possible that  I Was Nineteen would be something special too.

It was….

I was nineteenI Was Nineteen is based on the memoirs of East German film director Konrad Wolf. Wolf was a lieutenant in the Red Army during WWII, and for a short period, he was the commander of Bernau in the spring of 1945.

The protagonist of I was Nineteen is 19-year-old Gregor Hecker (Jaecki Schwarz) who arrives on the outskirts of Berlin as a member of the Red Army advance scouting team. Part of Gregor’s job is to man the megaphone and tell the German soldiers that the war is over, they’ve lost, and they should surrender. Gregor is a uniquely valuable member of the team as he’s a product of a German parents who moved to the U.S.S.R and he can speak fluent German.

Based on Wolf’s diaries, the film is largely episodic and lacks a smooth narrative. Gregor is seen as a reflective mirror of the drama, and some of his recorded experiences remain more powerful than others. Some of the Germans, once they realise that Gregor is a ‘fellow’ German, imagine that this means he will be kinder and that they will receive different treatment at his hands. But Gregor doesn’t identify with Germany, its people or its lost cause in the least. He’s appalled by the actions of the Third Reich, and in one of the segments, he’s in the home of a German who intellectualizes the mass slaughter. Gregor isn’t even interested, and if anything, his slightly impatient expression seems to question why they even allow the man to spout his theories. Another of the very first segments depicts a young German girl in Bernau, obviously traumatized by recent incidents. The town is practically deserted, and the girl has drifted to Bernau from elsewhere. Terrified by the presence of the Red Army, she begs Gregor for protection in the hostile presence of a female Red Army soldier. There’s no sentimentality–even though for one moment, the film seems about to lean in that direction.

In another episode, Gregor arrives at a deserted concentration camp. He and his fellow Red Army soldiers anticipate liberating prisoners, but they have arrived too late. Archival footage of the gas chambers and the procedures used are grafted onto the film for a grim authenticity.

At another point in the film, Gregor is a translator for the Red Army officer who tries to persuade the German officers at Spandau to surrender. This is perhaps the most tense and arguably the most interesting segment of the film. The collapse of the Third Reich is evident at this point–it’s just that some people are admitting it and others are still delusional while the division between the Wehrmacht and the Nazi officers widens.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film’s unusual persepective is Gregor’s reaction to the German officers. While some of the Germans seem perplexed by Gregor’s role, Gregor views the officers as “blue-blooded bastards” who led the country into the path of madness. In spite of the fact that the war is ‘over,’ the film shows that this was an extraordinarily sensitive and dangerous time with some Germans refusing to accept defeat and surrender, while the ‘common’ foot soldier just wanted to go home. The film’s scenes show the destruction of the German army from within as some Germans refuse to surrender and try to kill those who hand over their weapons. 

I Was Nineteen is absolutely fascinating–in spite of its lack of momentum and with tension ebbing and flowing.  A May Day celebration, for example, interrupts the dangerous penetration of Germany, and makes the audience relax–much too early as it turns out. The fate of the German soldiers rounded up by Gregor and his fellow Red Army soldiers is not apparent, but their destination is the U.S.S.R, and many would never return….

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