Perhaps one of the weirder rabbit holes I’ve gone down this year is the subject of Soviet films about World War II. In Russia, the war is commonly referred to as the Great Patriotic War, and throughout the Soviet era and up until recently, Russian films have used this period as a dramatic backdrop to explore many themes.
In the west, there is a LOT of pop culture emphasis on the American and British participation in the Western Front, with much attention paid to D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. But, much of the war was actually fought on the Eastern Front, and it was in Eastern Europe that the Nazis redirected much of their resources to commit genocide in the nations they occupied. The Soviet Union struggled to find a foothold against the invading Germans for the first two years, but the turning point came at Stalingrad in 1942 and 1943. The battle dragged on for months, but eventually the Soviets managed to encircle and defeat the Germans, and turned the tide of the war in the East.
It is after this point that the Liberation film series begins it’s story. Liberation was a five film, multi-million dollar production that was spearheaded by the Brezhnev regime in the late 1960s to celebrate the military victories of the Soviets over the Germans, beginning with the battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943 and ending with a two-part conclusion focusing on the battle for Berlin. These films were intended to be a response to American films of the time that made bare mention of the Eastern Front, and focused on the heroism of Americans single-handedly beating the Nazis after D-Day. The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge, and other such films were viewed by the Soviet Union as propagandistic and misleading, so the thinking was that there should be a multi-nation, high production value series of popular films to celebrate the military victories of the Soviet Union, and how Soviet blood was what ultimately resulted in the defeat of fascism.
Yuriy Ozerov was selected to direct and write the series, and the final projected budget was a staggering $40 Million. Several nations under the yoke of the Soviet Union contributed military equipment and personnel, and extensive location shooting was done to capture a realistic and accurate feel for the combat sequences. Major figures were characters in the films, and native languages for the different countries were used and subtitled. Everyone from Stalin to Hitler to Churchill to Mussolini to Roosevelt were all represented in the film, and a central role was given to the Soviet hero General Zhukov. Sequences that focused on the world leaders were filmed in black and white, whereas the sequences with the generals and on the ground soldiers and nurses were filmed in full colour.
Are these movies any good? From a certain perspective, I’d say…maybe? They are pretty workmanlike and artless, functioning more as historical retellings of events from a pro-Soviet perspective. They feel like the kind of thing that would be used as teaching aids for high schoolers, but there is something to be said for seeing a hundred T-34 tanks being flanked by full sized armies in authentic uniforms, or the judicious use of three scratch made German Tiger Tank replicas being used alongside redressed Soviet tanks to look like other advancing German Panzers. The films also have a unique distinction of being one of the very few dramatic depictions of a wide variety of very famous military campaigns from the Eastern Front, albeit in a very sanitized manner. The daring mission of the Germans extracting Mussolini from his captivity, Stauffenberg’s plot to kill Hitler, and a wide variety of other side stories are all represented here with a certain professional polish that is not commonly seen. And yes, these films do offer a certain impressive counterpoint to the American films that aimed to do the very same thing, even if there’s no John Wayne or Henry Fonda or William Holden on display to elevate the profile of the finished product.
The public reception of these films in the USSR at the time was lukewarm at best. Despite the state launching a huge campaign to promote the films, they were not really embraced by audiences with a whole lot of enthusiasm. They were received critically with a shrug as well, but most people acknowledged that they films had an impressive scope and scale. But ultimately, they were seen as nothing more that what they were: splashy, big budget, jingoistic propaganda films with limited artistic merit. And yet, I actually really enjoyed watching and learning about these films. I think they’re pretty interesting as a historical artifact, and I’d argue that they do manage to match the production values and intent of Hollywood’s big War films of the same era.
The best part about these films? They are all legally available with full English subtitles on YouTube in full HD! The Mosfilm YouTube channel is an absolute gem, offering a wide variety of Russian and former Soviet Union films in excellent quality for free.
Liberation Film One: The Salient Ablaze – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZlzMhfx2hQ
Liberation Film Two: Breakthrough – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0t5CHhsuaM
Liberation Film Three: The Direction of the Main Blow – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Glz5ZJLEPgY
Liberation Film Four: The Battle for Berlin – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEfxAE6dTDU
Liberation Film Five: The Final Assault – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqJEMXbRgdw