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The Phantom Holocaust

The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 290
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  • Book Info
    The Phantom Holocaust
    Book Description:

    Even people familiar with cinema believe there is no such thing as a Soviet Holocaust film.The Phantom Holocausttells a different story. The Soviets were actually among the first to portray these events on screens. In 1938, several films exposed Nazi anti-Semitism, and a 1945 movie depicted the mass execution of Jews in Babi Yar. Other significant pictures followed in the 1960s. But the more directly filmmakers engaged with the Holocaust, the more likely their work was to be banned by state censors. Some films were never made while others came out in such limited release that the Holocaust remained a phantom on Soviet screens.Focusing on work by both celebrated and unknown Soviet directors and screenwriters, Olga Gershenson has written the first book about all Soviet narrative films dealing with the Holocaust from 1938 to 1991. In addition to studying the completed films, Gershenson analyzes the projects that were banned at various stages of production.The book draws on archival research and in-depth interviews to tell the sometimes tragic and sometimes triumphant stories of filmmakers who found authentic ways to represent the Holocaust in the face of official silencing. By uncovering little known works, Gershenson makes a significant contribution to the international Holocaust filmography.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6182-0
    Subjects: Film Studies, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Screening the Holocaust in the Soviet Union: JEWS WITHOUT THE HOLOCAUST AND THE HOLOCAUST WITHOUT THE JEWS
    (pp. 1-12)

    This book began with a paradox. Half of all Holocaust victims—nearly three million people—were killed on Soviet soil, mostly in swift machine-gun executions.¹ And yet, watching popular Holocaust movies, whether European or American, the impression is that Holocaust victims were mainly Polish and German Jews killed in concentration camps.² Two questions arise: Why is the Soviet Union not in the picture? And why are the camps depicted as the sole site of the Holocaust?

    It is understandable why on film the camps have become an ultimate representation of the Holocaust. When Soviet and the Allied forces liberated the...

    (pp. 13-28)

    Following the Kristallnacht pogroms in Germany in November 1938, a wave of anti-Nazi protests swept over the Soviet Union. The protests were government sanctioned, highly orchestrated, and featured celebrity writers, actors, intellectuals, scientists, and other public figures, Jews and non-Jews. A thousand people showed up for a protest in Leningrad, over fifteen hundred in Baku, over a thousand in Kiev.¹ Two thousand gathered at the most central of such protests—the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory—to express their indignation with anti-Jewish pogroms. Aleksei Tolstoy, a great Russian writer, said: “To compare fascism to the medieval times is to...

  6. 3 The First Phantom: I WILL LIVE! (1942)
    (pp. 29-39)

    A few weeks after the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, several prominent Soviet Jewish cultural figures initiated a rally intended to rouse Jewish international support for the Soviet war against fascism. The rally, which took place on August 24, was attended by thousands, broadcast on radio nationally and internationally, reported in major Soviet newspapers, and widely circulated as a newsreel.¹ Solomon Mikhoels, Peretz Markish, Ilya Ehrenburg, David Bergelson, and other Soviet Jews of international renown called for Jewish unity the world over. In April 1942, following the success of the initial rally, the Soviets approved the creation...

    (pp. 40-56)

    In October 1945,The Unvanquished(Nepokorennye) premiered in Moscow theaters. This was a noteworthy event for several reasons. Nazi crimes against Jews were at the core of the film. One of the central characters was a Jewish doctor played by the great Yiddish actor Veniamin Zuskin. A key scene in the film was mass execution of Jews by a German firing squad (this scene was filmed on location, in Babi Yar, a place that came to symbolize the Holocaust in the Soviet Union). Remarkably, this film, representing a Nazi massacre of Jews in the Soviet Union, was released in 1945,...

  8. 5 The Holocaust on the Thawing Screens: FROM THE FATE OF A MAN (1959) TO ORDINARY FASCISM (1965)
    (pp. 57-70)

    In 1953, Stalin died. Two years later, Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Party Congress heralded the so-called Thaw, often understood as a period of relative liberalization in both politics and culture. But a closer look reveals that the process of liberalization was actually rather tentative, and that new signs of thaw were interspersed with plenty of familiar freezing. In that schizophrenic atmosphere, when filmmakers constantly tried to navigate a treacherous terrain of the permissible and the forbidden, scores of significant films were made, and more scripts were in development. Several of them dealt with the Holocaust.

    At first, cinema was...

  9. 6 The Holocaust at the Lithuanian Film Studio: GOTT MIT UNS (1961)
    (pp. 71-81)

    “Manuscripts don’t burn,” wrote the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. This phrase proved to be prophetic many times in Soviet history, when books, films, and other works of art that were seized, banned, rejected, or simply lost in archives came back to life in more liberal times. This chapter tells one of those stories—a banned screenplay that came back from the dead of the archives.

    The story starts at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI), a depository of, among other materials, lost or forgotten screenplays. I was there in early 2009, going through lists of rejected screenplays,...

  10. 7 The Holocaust without the Jews: STEPS IN THE NIGHT (1962) AND OTHER FILMS
    (pp. 82-90)

    The rejection ofGott mit Unshad profound consequences for Lithuanian filmmakers. Film tsars in Moscow not only rejected it but also made it clear that even considering such submissions was completely out of line. This frightened Julius Lozoraitis, a head of the Lithuanian Film Studio.¹ The result was increased selfcensorship in Lithuania, so that some screenplays never even reached the level of an offi cial discussion at the local Artistic Council. They were simply rejected informally, not only because they were sure to be rejected at the next level but also because the reputation of Lithuanian culture bureaucrats was...

  11. 8 Kalik versus Goskino: GOODBYE, BOYS! (1964/1966)
    (pp. 91-101)

    The biography of film director Mikhail Kalik seems to encompass the entire Soviet Jewish experience of the twentieth century—hopes for communism, World War II, Stalin’s purges, the gulag, opposition to the regime, and finally emigration to Israel. Today, Kalik is in his eighties; he lives in Jerusalem, seemingly out of sync with his present environment. His apartment, full of mementos and memories, is like an island, floating in the sea of the ultra-orthodox life of contemporary Jerusalem. Like other great filmmakers, Kalik is a wonderful storyteller, with a keen sense of dramatic tension, and a talent for enacting various...

  12. 9 Stalemate (1965) between the Filmmaker and the Censors
    (pp. 102-114)

    Mikhail Kalik’s filmGoodbye, Boys!was reluctantly released after a prolonged delay, but his next project, a screenplay set in a Vilnius ghetto, was never even given a chance to become a film. The screenplay was based on a novel entitledStalemate(Vechnyi Shakh) by Icchokas Meras, which was itself such an extraordinary text that it merits discussion.

    The novel was first published in 1965, in a popular Soviet literary magazineDruzhba Narodov(Friendship of the Nations), translated from the Lithuanian.¹ This was not unusual: the magazine specialized in literature of the Soviet republics, and routinely published translations of ethnic...

  13. 10 Kalik’s Last Phantom: KING MATT AND THE OLD DOCTOR (1966)
    (pp. 115-126)

    In the mid-1960s, around the time of his ordeals withGoodbye, Boys!andStalemate,Mikhail Kalik, along with many other filmmakers and writers, moved to the “Metro Aeroport” area of Moscow. It was a new neighborhood, made up of tall Soviet-style block buildings of a ghastly pinkish hue. New residents aptly named it “a pink ghetto” because so many of its residents were Jews, and because it contrasted so much with its “Red” working-class surroundings. Despite its remote location, Kalik liked Metro Aeroport because writers and filmmakers would run into each other in the street, and visit each other. Among...

  14. 11 The Film That Cost a Career: EASTERN CORRIDOR (1966)
    (pp. 127-144)

    Wartime Belarus was a site of the most horrific, unprecedented violence. Not only soldiers were killed in military combat between the German and Soviet armies but also civilians, Jews, and partisans—or people loosely affiliated with them. Killing of Jews, and retaliation against the partisans, took genocidal proportions: the population of whole villages was burned alive. Entire communities were razed.¹ A film by Valentin Vinogradov,Eastern Corridor(Vostochnyi Koridor), captures the all-encompassing horror of that war.Eastern Corridoris not just a phenomenal war film, remarkable for its honest depiction of the complex and contradictory reality of occupied Belarus. It...

  15. 12 Muslims Instead of Musslmans: SONS OF THE FATHERLAND (1968)
    (pp. 145-157)

    Simultaneously with the release ofEastern Corridor,another film was in the works in the distant land of Uzbekistan. This wasSons of the Fatherland(Syny Otechestva,1968), directed by Latif Faiziev. Although it might not be immediately apparent, this film has much in common withEastern Corridor.Both deal with the theme of the Holocaust, both are filmed in the tradition of the 1960s poetic cinema, both present suffering and violence graphically, both rely on eclectic religious (though mainly Christian) symbolism, and both are made in republican studios, far away from the metropolis of Moscow. To an uninitiated viewer,...

  16. 13 Commissar (1967/1988): THE END OF THE THAW
    (pp. 158-172)

    In 1937, Sasha Askoldov was five. He was growing up a happy child until the day his father was arrested. One night soon after, the secret police also came for his beautiful mother. Little Sasha overheard that in a couple of hours they would return for him. He pulled himself together, figured out how to unlock the door, and escaped. He walked for hours in the streets of nighttime Kiev. It was spring, and the air was full of the aroma of blooming chestnut trees, a smell that Askoldov could not stand for the rest of his life. Finally, he...

    (pp. 173-189)

    In 1941, the famous author and journalist Ilya Ehrenburg wrote, “I grew up in a Russian city. My native language is Russian. I am a Russian writer. Now, like all Russians, I am defending my homeland. But the Nazis have reminded me of something else: my mother’s name was Hannah. I am a Jew. I say this with pride. Hitler hates us more than anyone else.”¹ Soviet Jews had a personal score to settle with the German forces. As one Jewish officer wrote, “The German thugs massacred my relatives who were living in Odessa and destroyed our happy quiet life....

  18. 15 The Last Phantom—the First Film: OUR FATHER (1966/1990)
    (pp. 190-205)

    By all accounts, Boris Ermolaev was an unusual person. After being trained as a medical doctor, he developed an interest in supernatural powers and practiced hypnosis and teleportation. Perfectly reasonable and sane people in Moscow recall that he was able to keep a handkerchief floating in the air. One day, however, Ermolaev got tired of his psychic career and decided to study filmmaking. He went to the prestigious VGIK, where his first student film,Sunshower(Slepoi Dozhd’), ended up on a censorship shelf and was destroyed. But his real trouble started when he decided to dramatize “Our Father Who Art...

  19. 16 Perestroika and Beyond: OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES?
    (pp. 206-222)

    The year 1986 was a game-changing one for Soviet cinema. The Filmmakers’ Union Congress demoted the old leadership, and Goskino lost its tight grip on the film industry.¹ Soon small production companies, calledkooperativ,sprouted like mushrooms. By 1988, Soviet censorship ended, and films on previously untouchable subjects, many of them made bykooperativs,flooded screens.² These films were rarely masterpieces—more often than not they had low production values and sensationalist plots, which exploited their subjects for commercial purposes. Nothing was off limits: Stalin’s purges, Khrushchev’s voluntarism, rock ’n’ roll, prostitution, youth counterculture, and anything Jewish. Together, they formed...

  20. 17 Conclusions
    (pp. 223-228)

    The received wisdom today is that the Holocaust simply was not represented on Soviet screens—the assumption is that films about Jewish suffering during World War II would have been banned just likeThe Black Book.However, the films analyzed in this book are evidence to the contrary: the Holocaust was represented on Soviet screens. Not only that, but paradoxically, the Soviets were actually ahead of the curve in representing the Holocaust: in 1938, they were the first to make films exposing Nazi anti-Semitism; in 1945, they were among the first to depict a mass execution of Jews in a...

  21. Abbreviations and Acronyms
    (pp. 229-230)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 231-268)
  23. Index
    (pp. 269-275)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 276-276)