Crimes and Survivors: The Way Back and Nuremberg

The past was a terrifying place.

Three weeks ago in our “Ten Best Movies of 2010” piece, the name of Peter Weir came up, by association, as an example of 1980s prestige Australian filmmaking, for his work on Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli. It’s not as if he’s been sleeping in a cave since then.

After The Year of Living Dangerously in 1982, Weir made the move to Hollywood for a series of American-set films that seemed to decline in quality with each succeeding project, from Witness down to The Truman Show. The one exception to that iffy list, and a concept that seemed to reawaken writer-director Weir’s storytelling flair, was 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, an adaptation of one of Patrick O’Brian‘s series of historical seafaring novels. A few snippy reviewers at the time derided it as a “boys’ adventure,” but its rousing tale of life in the British Royal Navy in the 19th century seemed to fit better with the Weir we admired from The Last Wave and Gallipoli than did dreck like Green Card.

We thought of that while watching Weir’s latest, The Way Back. Only his second film to be released in the 21st century, it’s a splendidly roughhouse yarn complete with heavy doses of violence, unforgiving terrain, extreme weather, and characters whose very existence seems to be defined by struggle against overwhelming odds.

As the opening graphic informs us, in 1941 a bedraggled party of trekkers arrived in Northern India from the Himalayas and announced they had traveled on foot all the way from Siberia, across an incredible 4,000 miles of snowy mountains and tundra, Mongolian steppes, the Gobi Desert, and Tibet — to escape from a Soviet gulag. In the screenplay adapted by Weir and Keith R. Clarke from Slavomir Rawicz‘s novel The Long Walk, the tale begins in 1940 when a Polish POW named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) arrives in a Siberian labor camp to serve a twenty-year sentence for thought crimes against Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.

Life in the gulag is a living hell of frostbite, starvation, hard labor in the forests and mines, brutality by guards and “common criminal” inmates, and the gnawing paranoia of official Soviet injustice. It so happens Janusz is an experienced outdoorsman, so when he, American political prisoner “Mister” Smith (Ed Harris), Russian gangster Valka (Colin Farrell), and four other inmates crash out one night during a blizzard, they have a reasonable expectation of making it to Lake Baikal, 500 kilometers to the south. From there it’s on to anywhere outside the USSR, or death. At least they’ll die as free men.

En route, the escapees meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a young Polish woman fleeing from forced labor in a collective farm — the only female in the little band of misfits. They also encounter wolves, mosquito swarms, thirst, freezing cold, blazing desert heat, hallucinations, and the disheartening feeling that Uncle Joe Stalin’s empire covers half the world.

The well-cast characters are uniformly brave and defiant; the scenery — shot in Bulgaria, Morocco, and India, with nicely executed CGI — is harshly magnificent; and long before they reach the tea fields of Assam, we come to believe in them. In the spirit of such films as Rescue Dawn, The Truce, and Akira Kurosawa’s wonderful Siberian survival adventure Dersu Uzala, The Way Back takes us to wild and unforgiving places and introduces us to extraordinary people, with absolutely no irony. Welcome back, Mr. Weir.

One of the biggest growth industries in film in the past several years is the so-called “outrage documentary,” a nonfiction production that points out a social, economic, or similar public policy problem, or problem-to-be, that needs to be addressed immediately. The guiding principles of this particular strain of advocacy film are: 1) The more outrageous the better, and 2) Act now or the world as we know it will crumble.

Global warming (An Inconvenient Truth), predatory Wall Street financiers (Inside Job), unhealthy foodstuffs (Food, Inc.), racial prejudice against illegal immigrants (9500 Liberty), nuclear proliferation (Countdown to Zero), poor public education (Waiting for Superman), poor public health care (Sicko), unrepresentative government (Gerrymandering), America’s unjust war in Vietnam (The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers), America’s unjust war in Iraq (Taxi to the Dark Side), and the effects of greed and corruption on the democratic process (Casino Jack and the United States of Money) are just a few of the ills covered by recent outrage docs. Seemingly no subject is too far-fetched or too insignificant, as long as it exposes a wrong to be righted.

Now it’s time to revisit the granddaddy of all outrage docs, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, the history of the Nuremberg war crimes trials (1945-1946) of German Nazis conducted by the Allied occupation forces after World War II. Beside this film, commissioned by the US War Department and written by Hollywood screenwriters (and brothers) Budd and Stuart Schulberg under the direction of documentarian Pare Lorentz, practically all other documentaries on the subject of injustice come up short.

In grainy black and white, a group of ashen-faced, middle-age men sit in a heavily guarded courtroom, and the Nazis’ own government-made documentaries — meticulously detailing their crimes against humanity — begin to unspool. We’ve seen most of the images because they’ve been reused in various docs in the years since, but in 1945 this was brand new material, captured footage, the proud record of the Master Race conducting its business: hostility toward civilians, death camps, slavery, institutionalized racism and intolerance, war profiteering, and wholesale murder. The film offers 78 minutes’ worth of horror and guilt, with the condemned conspirators having fashioned their own celluloid noose.

This timely revival of the film originally titled Nürnberg und seine Lehre — restored by Stuart Schulberg’s daughter Sandra Schulberg and Josh Waletzky and with a narration by actor Liev Schreiber — is about more than piles of corpses and bombed-out buildings. If nothing else, the words of Nuremberg prosecutor (and US Supreme Court justice) Robert H. Jackson should stifle Holocaust-deniers: “There is no count in the indictment that cannot be proved by books and records.” But let’s also remember the book burners, and the fact that defendant Walter Funk’s Reichsbank claimed all the gold wrenched from victims’ mouths. Learn the history, read your Orwell, and never forget. Sandra Schulberg will speak at select January 21 screenings at Lanndmark’s Shattuck in Berkeley.


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