Watch towers, barbed wire, brutality and starvation at every turn. Those signature images are familiar to viewers of the many Hollywood films about the Holocaust. But when it comes to the Soviet gulag, the silver screen has long been blank -- until this month, with the premiere of Peter Weir's "The Way Back."
The film, starring Colin Farrell, is loosely based on a memoir by former Polish soldier Slawomir Rawicz, depicting his imprisonment in Siberia, escape, and subsequent 6,000 kilometer walk to freedom in India.
Journalist and writer Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning book "Gulag: A History," served as a consultant on the project. She spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten about the movie.
RFE/RL: As a test, I did a search for "Holocaust films" on Google. As expected, the offerings were rich -- from Hollywood blockbusters like "Sophie's Choice" and "Schindler's List" to smaller gems like "Europa Europa." When I typed in "gulag films," Google didn't come up with much. Why this striking imbalance, in your opinion?
Anne Applebaum: I think the difference in the making of the films reflects a difference in cultural understanding of these two events. Until very recently, there were no [accessible] archives on the gulag, there was very little information about it. Only in recent years have historians begun to excavate the Soviet archives and produce really good descriptions of what happened. I think there is also a lack of understanding in the West. People talk about a "left wing bias" and how the left didn't want to talk about the gulag. But I think it's even more complicated than that.
The fact is that, certainly in the United States, Britain, and France, we have the sense that we won the war and we won the war in alliance with Russia, with the Soviet Union. Stalin was our ally and it's very difficult for us -- even now -- to think about Stalin also being a genocidal dictator and also somebody who committed crimes against humanity. Thus, people have been less enthusiastic about portraying [the gulag] in films and in novels.
RFE/RL: You served as a consultant on "The Way Back." Can you describe the degree of your involvement in the movie and are you satisfied with the final result?
Applebaum: My degree of involvement in the movie -- I don't want to overplay it. I had some contact with Peter Weir before he wrote the script. I sent him a copy of my book when I heard that he was looking at this subject. He and I had a number of phone conversations. He went to see some acquaintances of mine in Moscow, some gulag survivors. I helped him come up with a reading list. I've almost never worked with anybody who was so fanatical about historical detail. He wanted to know very specifically, what life was like. He wanted to be able to use incidents that he knew were real in the camps.
Prisoners at work in the gulag in the1930s.
Among other things, as he began to make the film, he would make these phone calls and so the phone would ring at 11 o'clock at night and I would pick it up and it would be Peter Weir calling from Sydney. And he would say: "Anne, I just need to know: Would the guards who were guarding the prisoners on the train and bringing them to the camp be wearing the same uniforms as the guards who were standing at the camp or would they have been different uniforms?" And I was fortunately in a position to be able to tell him that they were different uniforms.
He used me as a kind of sounding board. I read the script a couple of times. I know that other people read the script as well. He sent it to another historian at Stanford and he sent it to a couple of the survivors whose names I'd given him. And I have to say I thought the result was superb. You know, there may be little licenses you have to take in order to convey to an audience that doesn't know the story, what's going on. Sometimes the guards say things they might not have said because they are explaining things to the audience. But given that he needed to do things like that, I think it's extraordinary. It's amazingly real. You understand exactly how claustrophobic it was.
Many of the incidents that you see in the movie come from real stories or come from [gulag survivor and writer Varlam] Shalamov or come from other gulag writers. I can see them almost exactly. I think it's an extremely well-done film and about as true-to-life as you could make a movie.
RFE/RL: You just mentioned Shalamov. There's quite a bit of source material from camp survivors who have written their memoirs based on their time in the gulag -- including those by Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, and many others. What makes Rawicz's account -- on which the movie is based -- so special?
Applebaum: I think Peter Weir was intrigued not only by Rawicz's account of the gulag but also by the account of his escape. The Rawicz book is really an adventure story. I actually gave it to my 13-year-old son to read and he thought it was great. It's a proper adventure. You don't know that it will come out well in the end. The prisoners leave the camp. They are in the middle of Siberia in the wilderness and they walk across Siberia and then across Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert, and across the Himalayas into India and it's a classic journey in which there are different phases of it.
The characters learn things about one another on the trip. We learn more about them and about their history and in fact even about the gulag system and the Soviet system while they're walking. I think Peter Weir's always liked these battles of men against nature and these extraordinary feats of courage and I think that's what appealed to him about the book.
Although Rawicz himself was in the gulag, there are some doubts about whether he did that journey himself or whether he stole the idea from somebody else. But he's a very good writer and he makes it exciting. It's got a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's got a plot and I think that was what attracted Peter Weir and I can certainly understand why.
RFE/RL: I wanted to ask you about that. As you just said, there were doubts raised over key elements of Rawicz's story and whether it is all true -- whether it happened to him or whether he was released from the gulag, along with other Poles, in 1942. What were you able to determine?
Applebaum: I think, actually, it has been determined. He was released. He was in the gulag, he was let out with the Anders Army -- part of the Polish prisoners were let out in order to fight the Germans in 1941 and 1942 and he came out that way -- and there are actually records of him coming out. So I don't think there's any doubt that this is the case. His description of the gulag is certainly authentic. It seems what he did is that he heard about the walk that another group of prisoners did and he may even have seen an account of it that was written down for the Polish authorities in the 1940s and he seems to have taken that story and used it.
And there's some evidence -- both witnesses and there's one person who says he's a survivor of that actual walk. There are enough stories that it does seem like somebody did it, but it doesn't seem that Rawicz did it. But I think Peter Weir decided in the end he didn't care. He isn't calling it a true story. He says it's based on a true story and he's changed some details. It's not exactly like the book, the movie. He's changed the title, he's changed the main character's name. But I think he was inspired by the story because, as I say, it's extremely well-written, it's a rollicking adventure story and it's hard not to find it appealing. In fact, it was a best-seller in England in the 1950s.
RFE/RL: And in a sense, I guess the message is more important as is the authentic characterization of the gulag. What do you hope audiences will take away from the movie?
Applebaum: It's an exciting movie, so I hope people can enjoy it. I think they'll take away some understanding of what happened in the eastern half of Europe in the 1940s and the 1950s. I think they'll have a better sense of what being trapped in a camp, in the middle of nowhere, months' walk from anywhere else, actually meant. I think they'll have a better understanding of the politics and some sympathy for those kinds of characters.
The main character is a Pole but there's also a Russian, there's a Latvian, there's a Yugoslav character. At one point, they jokingly refer to themselves as a mini-UN. You get some sense of what happened in the region from what you learn about these people's lives, which I think is very valuable -- aside from the fact that it's just a cracking good movie.
RFE/RL: You've talked a lot about the Western audience but I guess there's also a message for the new generation in the East, which is also not very familiar with what went on in those days?
Applebaum: For the new generation in the East, it's a chance to see what life was like in their part of the world 50 years ago or 60 years ago. Why are things the way that they are in Russia? Why is life structured as it is in the former Soviet lands? This is part of the explanation. If you don't understand how we got to where we are [you can't understand the present].
History didn't begin 20 years ago when the Wall came down and communism collapsed. It starts earlier than that, and this movie is part of the key to understanding how things came to be the way they are in Eastern and Central Europe.