Reel Life: Flick Pix
WITHIN THE WHIRLWIND
Directed by Marleen Gorris
Written by Nancy Larson, based on the memoirs of Eugenia Ginzburg
Produced by Christine Ruppert
Germany/Poland/Belgium. 98 min. Not Rated in the U.S.
With Emily Watson, Ian Hart, Ulrich Tuku, Benjamin Sadler, Agata Buzek and Ben Miller
Seen at the 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of the Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum
Within the Whirlwind, the festival's closing night film, is the epic true story of Eugenia Ginzburg who started the 1930's as a loyal Communist Party literature professor and editor, living comfortably in the Soviet Union as a wife and mother, and then spent the following decade in a Siberian Gulag.
Directed by Marleen Gorris (Antonia’s Line, Mrs. Dalloway), Emily Watson is onscreen continuously. Far from Moscow in the West, she first enjoys a warm relationship with her husband Pavel (Benjamin Sadler), her two young sons, and mother in a large apartment. (Though the film is in British English, she writes in the Cyrillic alphabet in her classroom.) Then friends and colleagues start being arrested. She too is taken to a hopeless Moscow prison and survives solitary confinement by clinging to poetry (Watson recites a lot of Russian poetry here), interrupted by the kind of interrogations that inspired Orwell. Ian Hart is no mere martinet as her Stalinist opponent who grills her -- she's accused of not sufficiently anticipating Stalin's opposition to Trotsky in her writings and friendships.
Sure she'll be shot, like so many others she knows, seen in montages, she's sentenced instead to ten years at hard labor in the frozen forests of Siberia, almost too beautifully filmed in the snows of Poland by cinematographer Arkadiusz Tomiak. In prison, she is almost unbelievably spunky, heroically mentoring younger prisoners and protesting for their rights. This is one of the few films about women political prisoners in totalitarian states and the special bonds they share and brutalities they face, particularly rapes, whether historical or fictional (such as Ryszard Bugajski's Interrogation (Przesluchanie) that Lincoln Center will be screening in "Storm Warnings: Resistance and Reflection in Polish Cinema" series in the Performing Revolution in Central and Eastern Europe Festival). Ginzburg blocks it all out as background to her daily struggle with the cold and illnesses. But she gives up the will to live when a guard teases her with bad news about her family.
Based on her two volumes of memoirs, the first smuggled out, the second published the year she died, her life, surprisingly, and the film, incongruously, turns into a warm romance that saves her life. This would seem way too much like a Hollywood rescue if the handsome German Catholic camp doctor (Ulrich Tuku, the Baron in The White Ribbon) weren't so crinkly-eyed sympathetic, let alone that it's true. Moviegoer, she married him. Watson comes across a bit too Scarlett O'Hara determined to live another day, even as the closing scroll explains she spent almost another decade in Siberian internal exile with him.
Ironically, the 1951 East German film The Axe of Wandsbek, one of two restored classics in the festival, shows the Nazis using the same techniques against the Communists when they rose to power. Though based on Jewish expatriate Arnold Zweig's novel inspired by real events in Hamburg of Communists executed for ostensibly provoking protests against the Nazis, Axe, like Whirlwind, only implies briefly in passing that Jews were singled out first as political scapegoats by both Hitler and Stalin.
January 17, 2010
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews
- Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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