Cold War: Stories from the Big Freeze

In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries.  Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists.  I wonder what she got paid!

This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening.  Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part.  It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland.  There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.

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Kolya

This 1996 film from Czech film-maker Jan Sverak is a wonderful exploration of how a life can change and find meaning in an unexpected way.  The director’s father Zdenek plays the central role of Louka, a dedicated bachelor who earns his living as a cellist, or struggles to by playing at funerals; his previous job with an orchestra was lost when he was considered to be politically unreliable.  This is Czechoslovakia in the late 80s and, although the Soviet bloc is disintegrating, the regime is still a totalitarian one.

Louka struggles to make a living and agrees to marry a Russian woman for cash.  Things go wrong when she uses her new citizenship status to esacpe to the West, leaving her five-year old son behind.  The boy is the Kolya of the title.

The story is one of a growing bond between man and boy, despite the language difficulties and the other problems of an inexperienced bachelor trying to look after a young boy.  What becomes clear, though, is the sense that both need each other.  For Louka, in particular, the change to his life is positive; he finds purpose in the role of parent.

Towards the end of the film, the events of the late 80s in the Eastern bloc affect both man and boy.  The ending plays cleverly on the idea of freedom and loss, for both individuals and groups.

The film is never sentimental but it is affecting.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Last Emperor

This British- Italian film from the 80s is the type of film they don’t make any more, or at least they don’t make them in the same way anymore.  The most amazing thing about this film is the scale; all crowd scenes were done without any special effect, just human beings!

It is the story of Puyi, the last Emperor of China, from his ascent to the throne to his fall at the hands of the Chinese Communists. He was imprisoned and re-educated so that he could take his place in the new China.  One of the themes the film covers so well is the transition from one form of prison to another, the Forbidden City being as much of a cage as the one he later found himself in.

Bernardo Bertolucci directed the film and co- wrote it with Mark Peploe but the producer Jeremy Thomas, the British independent producer who saw the project through to completion despite many obstacles. It was the first western film authorised to film in the Forbidden City and, despite the subject matter, was supported by the Chinese government, at least in the sense that they did not ban it.

John Lone played Puyi as an adult and Peter O’Toole appeared as the tutor to the young emperor.  As the film is told in a series of flashbacks we see the way political forces have always determined the course of Puyi’s life.  From the start of the twentieth century through to 1967, when he died, we see how one life reflects political changes.

The film won nine American Academy awards as well as the 1989 BAFTA for Best Film.  ‘The Last Emperor’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

Das War die DDR

This television series from Germany is a fascinating insight into the world of East Germany.  I watched a version with an English translation of the commentary as my German is not good enough to follow completely in the original language.

The series was made up of seven films each covering an aspect of daily life in the DDR. The sub-title, ‘A History of the Other Germany’, suggests that West Germany was better known to us in the west and life behind the Iron Curtain was, for me, something of a mystery.

The films were made in 1993 when the people most affected by the regime were able to talk.  What struck me was the mixture of the historic and the mundane.  Daily life is daily life wherever you live, regardless of political regime.  Some complaints were about the restrictions of living in the country but others were about the loss of things since the unification of Germany.  Of most importance, though, were the voices of people who felt the full force of the state.  Some actively sought to be provocative but there were also the people who did not understand why they had fallen out of favour.

As the series progressed, I got the sense that any country which is so scared of its own people that it had to suppress any dissent does not deserve to survive.  This point was most clear in the episode which explored artistic expression in the DDR.  I also gained a clear idea that the country was not as independent as it pretended; the power from the Soviet Union acted as big brother on the playground. When fortunes changed there, the writing was on the wall for East Germany.

History is told by the victors but this series is worth seeing because it does not take a simplistic approach to the subject; many voices are heard and no easy answers are given. The final moments of the last episode prove these points.  Figures, famous and not, provide a one sentence answer to the question of what the DDR meant to them.  It was a powerful ending to a fascinating series.

 

Nicholas and Alexandra

Seeing this film from 1971 in the cinema remains a vivid memory from my past.  I saw it when I was ten years old and remember the shock of the ending staying with me for days. I suppose, because I knew little of Russian history, I was not expecting the final scene. Now, whenever I watch it, I know what is coming and wait for the inevitable.

This film was directed by Franklin J Schaffner and starred Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman as the Tsar and his wife.  Some of the historical figures I was aware of, Stalin, Rasputin and Trotsky, for instance, but this was mixed in my mind with a parade of the great and the good of British acting, many of whom I had seen on television.  It made for quite a spectacle at the cinema.

The film relates the last few years of the reign of Tsar Nicholas 11, a Tsar who was generally regarded as weak but who was high in my estimation mostly because he was played with such regal authority by Michael Jayston.  The events of a volatile country as it slipped towards a disastrous war were well told but alongside it ran the story of a family trying to cope with the illness of their son, the youngest in the family, who had hemophilia.  The care with which they treat him and the lengths they go to to keep him from danger act as a contrast to the way they treat their country.  Chaos mounts as reasonable arguments for reform are refused and the conditions of ordinary people ignored.  The communists make the most of the volatile situation and we see the Tsar fall into further trouble when he decides to go to participate in the First World War.

Rasputin makes an appearance. Tom Baker clearly enjoyed the role and his influence over the Tsarina showed that royalty’s grip on the country was weak.

Roderic Noble played Alexei, the Tsarevitch, with the blood condition.  As the film moved to the terrible conclusion, it is his scenes with his father that address the questions of how a weak Tsar could have caused such a fate for the country and the family.

This film was an epic.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?