OUR RUSSIAN FRONT (Joris Ivens, Lewis Milestone, 1941)

Joris Ivens and Lewis Milestone did not really direct this U.S. documentary but, rather, both supervised the editing of the material that Soviet crews had shot and produced the film. It is a trenchant, folk-rich record of Soviet resistance to the Nazi invasion during World War II. Elliot Paul’s commentary is read by one of the most recognizable American voices of the time: Canadian-born Walter Huston’s. The object is propaganda on two fronts: to remind Americans that Stalin’s nation was our ally in the war (Stalin: “In this fight we will not find ourselves alone”); to offer Americans hope, since the Soviet people were resisting Hitler to a degree others had not resisted Hitler’s invasions.
     An entire nation is geared up to reclaim its self-determination: “factories and mines [the copper mines now were womaned rather than manned], backing up the fighters.” Occasionally Paul’s commentary is embarrassingly corny, such as when we are told that the Russians were fighting for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Get it?) But the images of “brave guerrillas fighting behind enemy lines” are indelible—and even more so are images of the result of Stalin’s determination to leave “scorched Earth” so that the invaders are left with nothing to occupy and no way to coordinate communications over distance. The scenes of combat, while not at the level of what Ivens shot in The Spanish Earth (1937), his brilliant documentary about the Spanish Civil War, grip.
     Apparently history is no longer taught in U.S. schools. A few years back a survey of American highschoolers revealed that a majority of them somehow believed that the U.S. and the Soviet Union were enemies in the Second World War. (What do U.S. teachers teach nowadays? Anything?) Somewhere, in some review, I quip that there is a measure of poetic justice in this, given Stalin’s and Hitler’s earlier mutual non-aggression pact. But it is also an appalling display of ignorance that as clearly points to a malfeasance of American parenting as to the lackadaisical nature of the American classroom.

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