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Movie Review: Within The Whirlwind 2009

Marleen Gorris

Movie Review by: Adnan Zahir                        

The events of "Within the Whirlwind" take place in the second half of the thirties of last century in the "former" Soviet Union, now Russia, during the communist era and the reign of Stalin on the party and the state. It is set, specifically, in the period between 1934 to 1939 in which thousands were killed in concentration camps in various parts of the Soviet Union. It is believed that, under Stalin's rule, a million people had been killed in those camps known as the "Gulag", most of them were artists, writers, poets, scientists and politicians. This so-called Great Purge was orchestrated by the chief of Secret Police Nikolai Yezhof.
Artists, scientists etc. in the Gulag
The screenplay, written by Nancy Larsen, is based on the autobiography by the Russian writer Euginea Ginsburg (1906- 1977) who spent about 18 years in Soviet prisons in that period and later published her memoirs in two books.
The movie is directed by one of the most distinguished filmmakers of our time, Marleen Gorris who is a feminist and a rights activist who won the Oscar for best foreign film (1996) for her movie Antonia's Line.

In 1934, following the assassination of one of the party leaders (Sergei Kirov) and the accusation of the Trotskyites of killing him, many communists and intellectuals were either executed or sent to concentration camps. The film tells the story of a professor of literature at the University of Kazan named Ginea (portaryed by the British actress Emily Watson) who was arrested and accused of participating in the alleged plot against Kirov merely because she had defended one of the detainees with whom she had a working relationship. She was charged with spying and espionage, with being anti-Communist and not vigilant to her partisan duties. These charges were easily thrown at anyone and at those suspected of not being loyal to the party or the state. In a trial that lasted seven minutes she was sentenced to ten years in prison and sent to a concentration camp in Siberia. Her husband was also arrested and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, where he died. Her eldest son died of starvation during the Nazi siege of Stalingrad. Her youngest son went to live with her sister.
In the prison Ginea meets a Russian doctor of German descent, Dr. Walter (portrayed by the German actor Ulrich Tukur) who was detained just because of his German origin.
Genia enters a romantic relationship with Dr. Walter who pracises in the prison and after their release into freedom, their relationship culminates in marriage. Of course, there are some events and facts in the memoirs which are not, as per artistic and technical rationale, mentioned in the movie.
There are many movies that tackled this period, but what distinguishes this one, in my opinion, is that it is oriented to a humanitarian display of facts and events of that period without going into sloganistic lecturing and definitive denunciation of communism as seen
in many other films. The movie, through small events, touches on places that 'hurt' in the experience and the Soviet system, that later factored in the eventual collapse of the socialist system in Russia, without this being said directly. It should be noted that the movie is primarily a German production released in 2009, i.e after Germany was united.
Emily Watson
Now, here are some glimpses of the story told by this movie in bullet points. No spoilers for those who have not yet seen it!
  • The psychological pains experienced by the professor (Ginea) in detention prior before her trial and how bewildered she was by the stance of her colleagues who chose to condemn her despite their knowledge that she was doing what moral and partisan commitment had required.
  • In the detention camps we see professors and intellectuals from all the rare specializations living in situations more fit for animals than humans. They log for lumber in temperatures approximately fifty degrees below zero and suffer hunger and humiliation.
  • The scene when a Caucasian guard puts a piece of bread infront of the women. His 'game' is to have sex in public with whoever takes the bread! The woman who could not resist the bread returns in the night and is heard nibbling the bread on her bed by her mates who pretend they are asleep but they are sad and silent and have no blame for her. 
  • The person who sentenced Ginea to prison, when he himself is brought as a detainee insists that he is innocent and has no remorse for sending people to the Gulag!
  • The insistence of  those wretched women to continue living and have devotion to hope in circumstances devoid of favorable possibilities under persecution, rape and murder.  
What sets this movie apart, although it raises a subject much talked about, is that it is made with simplicity that neither compromises film techniques and aesthetics nor addresses immediate issues or disadvantages of the system in that period which makes it worth watching.
    "Within the Whirlwind" 2009 Also Known As: "Mitten im Sturm"
    98 min, Color. English.
    Genre: Biography/Drama.
    Director:  Marleen Gorris (award-winning German filmmaker)
    Cast: Emily Watson (an English actress who was nomitaed for an Oscar
    for her role in "Breaking the Waves 1996" and "Hilary and Jackie 1998". Ulrich Tukur: award-winning (9) German actor.                                                      



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