I haven’t found any reviews, so far, that hail this as Hollywood’s first Gulag movie, perhaps because hardly anyone noticed that there weren’t any before. Weir told me that many in Hollywood were surprised by the story: They’d never heard of Soviet concentration camps, only German ones. “If you need to explain what a film is about,” the film is in trouble – and this one almost was. Weir had difficulties getting it distributed and some problems explaining the final scene to his financial backers.
Yet that final scene is exactly what makes this movie “real”: Instead of returning home at the end of his harrowing journey, the hero is shown “walking” across time – across the Soviet occupation of Central Europe, across the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968 – finally returning home to Poland only after communism collapses. The absence of an instant happy ending also bothered some of the film’s reviewers, even though, in “real life,” there were no happy endings for anyone who lived in the eastern half of Europe after the end of the Second World War. People who escaped from the Gulag, survived the war or evaded the Holocaust didn’t necessarily live happily ever after. Perhaps that’s a truth too difficult to learn from a movie.
Somehow I suspect that the problem with that truth is not that it is “difficult” in any intellectual sense, but that it raises too many awkward questions about how twentieth century history is currently understood.