Women in War Films

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Subject essay by Denise J. Youngblood

In September 1941, with the German army rapidly closing in, the Moscow and Leningrad feature film studios were relocated to Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, although facilities for newsreel production remained in Moscow. Censorship was dramatically streamlined; under these emergency conditions, the country could not afford the time-consuming process of endless script revisions. Nevertheless until summer 1942, production consisted mainly of newsreels, documentary compilations, and short fiction films very much like the agitki of the Civil War.

By mid-1942, the newly relocated studios began releasing films, and by the end of the war Soviet filmmakers had completed 102 fiction films, seventy of them full-length features. Forty-eight of these were directly related to the war. War films enjoyed great prestige during the war and dominated the Stalin prizes for 1943 and 1944. Of the nine Stalin prizes awarded to films, six went to war pictures.

In the first two years of the war in particular, Soviet combat films ignored the regular army to focus on the partisans, especially on the role of women in the partisan movement. The canonical movie of the war years came in 1943: Fridrikh Ermler’s She Defends the Motherland (Ona zashchishchaet rodinu, released in the U.S. as No Greater Love). The film represents the prototypical narrative for the heroine films: halcyon days on the eve of the war turn to terrible tragedy as the bestial Germans kills husband/children/parents while the mother/wife/lover survives to be transformed into an avenging angel. The “she” of the title is Praskovia (Pasha) Lukianova, a lovely young wife, mother, and champion tractor driver. Characteristically confident, calm, and self-sacrificing, she organizes the evacuation of her village. Her self-possession evaporates when she discovers her husband’s body on a truck carting dead and wounded soldiers, then her baby son is killed by a demonic German. She is dragged away and raped. After these horrors, the pretty, vibrant young woman has been transformed overnight into the stone-faced icon of the popular “The Motherland Calls You” recruiting poster. Pasha quickly emerges from her nearly catatonic state to reassume her leadership role with the surviving villagers, forming a partisan band. As Comrade P., Pasha picks up an ax to lead her followers into hand-to-hand combat with the Germans. Under her leadership, the partisans become the scourge of the occupying army, attacking convoys, burning buildings, even kidnapping a German general. She exacts poetic justice by running down the German who killed her child with his own tank.

As stereotyped as this film sounds, signs of Ermler’s considerable talent are obvious throughout. Pasha is far from a wholesome cheerleader for Soviet power. Religious symbols and references abound, in keeping with the wartime relaxation of the constraints against religion. Ordinary citizens are presented as defeatists, demoralized by the shortcomings in Soviet society. In the end, however, despite the heavy losses the little partisan group sustains, positive and activist thinking dominates. Comrade P.’s loyal followers rescue her just as the hangman’s noose is tightening around her neck. Pasha lives to fight another day. The message was clear and inspirational: ordinary people, especially women, had an essential role to play in their country’s defense. Years later, Vera Maretskaia, who played Pasha, recalled her role, noting: “I would say that in this picture, she won the war.”

Comrade P. was followed by other partisan heroines, like Olena Kostiukh in Mark Donskoi’s The Rainbow (Raduga, 1943, released 1944) and Zoia Kosmodemianskaia in Leo Arnshtam’s Zoia (1944). By mid-1944, however, women warriors were gradually being displaced by male soldiers, sailors, and pilots. Light hearted or hackneyed films began to predominate, like Ivan Pyrev’s Six o’Clock in the Evening after the War (V shest chasov vechera posle voiny, 1944) and Igor Savchenko’s Ivan Nikulin: Russian Sailor (Ivan Nikulin, russkii matros, 1944). The traces of artistic freedom that were visible in Soviet wartime cinema were about to disappear.

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