Monday, January 25, 2010

NYJFF ’10: Within the Whirlwind

In 1934, Sergey Kirov, one of the few Soviet leaders willing to challenge Stalin’s hard line policies, was very conveniently assassinated. It became a handy pretext for Stalin to purge anyone not sufficiently loyal to dictatorial rule. While addressing a group of Kazan Party members, Evgenia Ginzburg assures them the conspirators will soon be brought to justice. As a faithful Communist, she is soon shocked to find herself among the accused in Marleen Gorris’s Within the Whirlwind (trailer here), the closing night selection of the 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival, based on Ginzburg’s memoirs.

As a professor of Marxist-Leninist theory, a card-carrying Party member, and the wife of a local Party official, Ginzburg never imagined she could fall under suspicion. Of course, given Stalin’s widely reported anti-Semitism, her Jewish heritage probably did not help. Still, there seemed to be a Kafkaesque arbitrariness to Stalin’s purges, leading one of her friends to ruefully remark to her: “if it can happen to you, it can happen to anyone.”

Considering herself lucky to be sentenced to a Siberian gulag rather than summarily executed, Ginzburg struggles to endure the harshest of conditions. She was fortunate in one respect, catching the eye of Dr. Anton Walker, an ethnic German prisoner serving as the camp doctor. While working together in the infirmary, Ginzburg and Walker inevitably fall in love. Of course, love is forbidden by the Communists, who quickly moved to separate the two prisoners, transferring the doctor to another camp. As a result, Whirlwind ends on a truly Zhivagan note, as Ginzburg wonders if she and Walker will ever find each other again if and when they are finally released.

Gorris (best known for helming the Foreign Language Oscar winning Antonia’s Line) mostly focuses her lens on the Soviet degradation of humanity rather than the grand historical crises unfolding at the time (with WWII only obliquely intruding on the events on-screen). While she rarely deviates from a conventionally straight forward approach to historical drama, she vividly captures a sense of the horror of the gulag in one swirlingly operatic scene of camp guard running amok.

Two-time Oscar nominee Emily Watson effectively carries the lead, convincingly conveying Ginzburg’s transformation from arrogant apparatchik to emaciated prisoner. However, the greatest revelation is German actor Ulrich Tukur in a rare English language role as Dr. Walter. Often seen in German imports as the heavy, including his truly chilling supporting performance in The Lives of Others, Tukur expresses Walker’s humanism and dignity, without ever overplaying the nobility card.

Whirlwind is a very good film with a great cast. To its credit, it faithfully represents the tenor of Stalin’s purges, in which nobody was safe. Such is the nature of totalitarian regimes that they always turn on their pure-of-heart true believers. An excellent selection to conclude a particularly strong slate of films, Whirlwind concludes this year’s NYJFF with screenings at the Walter Reade Theater this Wednesday (1/27) and Thursday (1/28).