WITHIN THE WHIRLWIND (Marleen Gorris, 2009)

Emily Watson gives a restrained, intelligent performance as Eugenia Ginzburg, one tough cookie, in Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris’s Mitten im Sturm. From Germany, Poland and Belgium, this adaptation of Ginzburg’s autobiographical writings, anemically written by Nancy Larson, chronicles the fate of this woman, the wife of a Communist Party official, herself a committed Party member, who is irrationally imprisoned for “counterrevolutionary Trotskyite terrorist activities” during Josef Stalin’s Reign of Terror in the Soviet Union following the assassination of Party official Sergei Kirov in 1934, which exacerbated Stalin’s paranoia, stiffening his determination to eliminate all political opposition, real or imagined, to maintain his grip on power. Ginzburg taught Russian literature at the University of Kazan. Groundlessly, she was arrested and condemned to hard labor in a frigid Siberian gulag after one of the infamous show trials of 1936-37 following her steadfast refusal to “confess” to what she had not done. During this incarceration, which lasted twelve years, her husband renounced and divorced her and was himself arrested and committed suicide, and one of their children starved to death during World War II’s Seige of Leningrad.
     Gorris, you will recall, won an Oscar for the playful feminism of Antonia’s Line (1995), while her Mrs. Dalloway (1997), despite the beauteous acting of Vanessa Redgrave, cast doubt on Gorris’s capacity to handle such complex material as Virginia Woolf’s novel handed her. Mitten im Sturm can only deepen those doubts as it is timid, sentimental and all too familiar—just another concentration camp melodrama, and one singularly lacking all social, political and historical context. The romance between Ginzburg and a German doctor, who is also a prisoner, reeks of corny pro-German sentiment and propaganda. Good grief; we are invited to applaud the fact that Dr. Walter is so generous as to overlook the fact that Genia, the woman he has fallen in love with, is Jewish! One hardly knows which is worse: the overgeneralized nature of the survival story or the reactionary atmospherics. Another Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), this is a dull, plodding film that fails to convince.
     Gorris, however, can claim one visual coup for the first part of the film: the photograph of Stalin that adorns official walls. This is all we see of “Stalin,” and yet its participation assists in conjuring the oppressive sense that the Soviet madness we watch play out is somehow a projection of the mind that the photograph represents. This excellent idea should have launched a far more interesting and gripping film—as, indeed, Genia’s best rumination ought to have done: “Perhaps, this day, to live is not the human thing to do.”

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