The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998

 
Eastern Europe, 1939-1953. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1998, 60-minute VHS video. Produced by Cinémathèque Gaumont. Presented by Gaumont. Historical Advisor and Commentary, Henry Bogdan; Editor, Caroline Roulet; Music, Robert Viger; Narrator, Mike Marshall. Second in a three-part series on Eastern Europe (Eastern Europe, A Century of Trouble) that uses archival footage to trace events from 1900 to the fall of communism and the rise of democracy.  

Post-WWII Rumania
A view of Post-WWII Rumania.
From Eastern Europe, 1939-1953.

As the opening footage of Germans overtaking Polish cities in the fall of 1939 intimates, Films for the Humanities and Sciences’ newly released video, Eastern Europe, 1939-1953, focuses on Hitler, Stalin, "high politics," military operations, and Poland. The film, now available on video, chronologically traces the political history of Eastern Europe and the Balkans up through Stalin’s death in 1953. The black and white original archival film, drawn primarily from Polish repositories, is visually arresting. Images of the dazed starving children of the Warsaw ghetto, mass graves of the Katyn Massacre victims, and the piled corpses of Polish resistance members are powerful. Nonetheless, precisely what a ghetto was or the motivations behind the Katyn Massacre and its cover-up remain unclear; the text does not do justice to the images.

This film demands a great deal from its viewer. That is to say, individuals lacking a strong background in Eastern European and Balkan history will find this film frustrating. Undoubtedly, the unfolding narrative would be easier to follow if maps were included. (The sixty-minute video features only one unlabeled map). As a result, place references such as "in the Carpathians," "Bessarabia," "in Silesia," and "on the Baltic" will confound some viewers. Similarly, some viewers will have difficulty recognizing or identifying Edvard Benes, Josip Broz Tito, Miklos Horthy, King Carol II of Romania, Ion Antonescu, or Jozef Tiso. Individual names, like place names, should appear on the screen when a figure is introduced. Complex terms such as the "intelligentsia," "the NKVD," "Chetniks," and "the Polish Government in exile" are used but never explained or placed in broader historical context.

The film falls victim to the classic conundrum encountered by Eastern European and Balkan observers: how to balance breadth and depth? Suffering, revenge, and death emerge as motifs, but analysis of these themes remains unsatisfying and vague at best. Conceptually, Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, is depicted as a region at the mercy of alternately Germany and the Soviet Union. Promising to trace "how both Hitler’s and Stalin’s quests for power left this vulnerable area of the world permanently destabilized," the film overlooks that degree to which the Great Depression had already economically and politically ravaged this region. Eastern Europeans seem to react en masse to the actions of the Germans, the Soviets, or alternately the Western powers and lack individualized agency, aspirations, and motivations. Such a treatment superimposes a veneer of ethnic, class, and political homogeneity that never existed. The cold war is oversimplified. For example, we learn that at Yalta, "Stalin won the sweepstakes" and that at Potsdam, "Poland was discussed." The cold war’s reverberations were and are far-reaching and merit deeper analysis.

Woman weeping over Stalin's death in 1953
Woman weeping over Stalin's death in 1953.
From Eastern Europe, 1939-1953.
Viewers seeking historical background on recent events in the former Yugoslavia will be disappointed. The film glosses over ethnonational tensions; the complexity that was Yugoslavia, like the cold war, cries out for more attention. Tito’s partisans, much more than simply "anti-Fascists," remain abstractions, as do the predominantly Serbian Chetniks and the Croatian Ustasa. What was "Titoism" and why did the Soviets attempt to discredit Tito, resulting in Tito’s eventual break with Moscow? What became of the Chetniks? Why did Benito Mussolini support the Ustasa?

The region’s women are virtually ignored, save for a brief segment on urban Bulgarian females attending a fashion show to indicate the relative return of "normalcy" and a postwar Polish propaganda film’s use of a naked female form to symbolize "Western decadence."

Like all general surveys, Eastern Europe, 1939-1953 must omit certain events and condense developments. It will be most helpful to students who are already acquainted with Eastern European and Balkan history and, more specifically, for classes studying wartime and postwar Poland.

Jacqueline M. Olich
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill  

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Video Review of Eastern Europe, 1939-1953
Copyright © 1998 by the Journal for MultiMedia History.

Comments to: jmmh@csc.albany.edu

Contents: JMMH, Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998