NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE F ilm by film, Central European directors are giving us a new look at the 20th century we thought we understood, and the results are unsettling.
It is not surprising that the epicenter of this historic reappraisal is Poland, because Poland’s experience of the last century was a kind of mirror image of the West’s. Its World War I ended with the triumphant rebirth of the Polish nation-state, rather than disillusion. Its World War II ended with the Western allies’ betrayal of its political aspirations. Its Cold War was spent not fearing the outbreak of action, but enduring the grinding imposition of Communism.
Director Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones was first released in 2019 and is now streaming onto Apple TV in the U.S. and Netflix in Europe. It tells the story of Gareth Jones, a former secretary to British prime minister David Lloyd George who wants to investigate, as a journalist, the USSR’s supposedly miraculous economy as the capitalist world is falling into the Great Depression.
What he finds instead is the famine precipitated when Stalin’s goons simply stole the grain from Ukrainian farmers, which killed nearly 4 million Ukrainians. At the same time he discovers a Western press corps that is decadent, corrupt, and full of left-wing sympathy for Stalin. When he returns to the West to tell the truth about the famine, intellectuals — including George Orwell — are at first unprepared to receive the dour news that Communism is not the silver bullet its adherents claim. They are so intoxicated by the promise of Communism that they’ll excuse even enormities done to their loved ones as a small price to pay for a better future.
The opening scenes in Moscow are devastating. Stalin-friendly American journalists spend their time boozing and chasing sex, while deliberately turning a blind eye to the obvious signs of repression and injustice all around them. A viewer will notice that the character of Pulitzer winner Water Duranty only seems interested in industry gossip, airy pronouncements, and declarations of self-regard, at least until he starts openly propagandizing for Stalin in his reports. Jones is alone among the foreigners on the scene in asking about the true state of things in Moscow, or the Soviet Union more broadly.
Some critics have held that Holland’s film is meant to make people think about Trump, pointing to playful references to Hitler’s madness and assurances that he’ll be too swallowed up with governing Germany to trouble the world. But by that logic it could just as easily make us think about those who have hailed China’s rise at the expense of its citizens’ liberty and justice.
Even a journalist can tire of stories about journalists, but Mr. Jones is nevertheless compelling in its fresh perspective on the political earthquakes that shaped the world we all inherited, and in that it is not alone. Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s films Ida (2013) and Cold War (2018) give a glimpse into the horrors and snatches of humanity found in Poland under Communism. Polish filmmakers have also put their stories into popcorn flicks such as 2014’s Warsaw 44, which portrays the doomed and deeply romantic Home Army uprising against the Nazi occupiers, with the rebels poignantly unaware that the Soviets waiting outside the city are preparing to hold them captive rather than liberate them.
Moving across the border, there is the East German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose film Never Look Away (2018) is one of the most profound meditations on art and totalitarianism, from Nazi Germany through to the Cold War, in any art form — and the only possible follow-up to his 2006 masterpiece thriller about the Stasi, The Lives of Others. And from Hungary, there is the stunning Holocaust film Son of Saul (2015), directed by László Nemes.
All of these films and the many others like them are filling out a broader and murkier picture of the 20th century, one that is a bit darker and looks at Western admiration of Stalin and the allies’ WWII partnership with the Soviet Union with a much more jaundiced eye. What Central Europeans remember is not just that Americans and Britons stood against Communism, but that before they stood against it they also stood aside for it — at least when they weren’t simply standing for it. We who were lucky enough to be born in the West would do well to remember the same.
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