In the new Russian World War II documentary “Ost Front” (“Eastern Front”) Nazis are painted with their own very human brush. Stitched together almost entirely from official WWII Nazi propaganda footage, audiences are treated to scenes of Nazis skating peacefully on a frozen river, reading letters from home and passing around photos of their babies. In one segment, as their tanks advance into Soviet territory, the soldiers frolic with a black puppy that came along for the ride.
The film was financed by Russia’s Ministry of Culture and screened last month at the Russian Documentary Film Festival in New York.
Director Andrey Osipov scoured Russian archives, watching over 167 hours of German footage to cherry pick never-before-seen moments like these from the German campaign in the Soviet Union. Osipov told The Times of Israel that he wanted to get an emotional response from the audience, to bring the WWII era alive, and to raise the question of how a civilized nation could lead its army to murder millions.
“Because most filmmakers don’t have the patience or the money, the same WWII footage gets reused from one film to the next,” said Osipov. “I worked a lot in the archive, and when I watched this stuff, I realized that there are a lot of things that no one saw before. These films also show our territory, our war – even though it was recorded from the other side.”
During a telephone interview, it was clear that Osipov is no Nazi sympathizer. He has a personal connection to the war — his grandfather, who was in the Red Army, was killed in Ukraine at the age of 37, leaving behind three orphaned sons. For decades, his fate and his burial place were unknown.
“This is the case in every family. Every family [in Russia] lost someone,” Osipov said. “So I wanted to show the price that we paid for victory, to show the strength of the enemy that we defeated. There were 5 million Soviet prisoners of war, and 3 million of them were murdered.”
At the same time, the film, which presents beautifully-shot Nazi footage without any commentary, depicts the Germans in a sympathetic light. Sometimes it appears as if the soldiers are on a camping trip, enjoying the camaraderie of their buddies. They work together to pull their trucks out of the mud, warm their feet on a snowy day, and treat themselves to fresh honey from a honeycomb.
While watching the documentary, viewers wait for the Nazi war crimes to be revealed — but that moment never comes.
Osipov said that in all of the official Nazi footage from the Eastern Front, he found nothing about prison camps or ghettos, or about the execution of civilians.
“They understood that they were sinning, that they were breaking the commandments – and they didn’t film it,” Osipov said.
For the documentary, Osipov used the official Nazi footage the Soviets captured and brought back to Russia after winning the war. There is another archive in Munich, he said, of footage shot by amateur German filmmakers. He assumes it likely contains films revealing Nazi war crimes in the Soviet Union. However, Osipov said he had neither the time nor the funding to get to Munich.
“Maybe it was necessary to include their evildoings in the film, but I had deadlines, and by the end of the year I was so tired,” said Osipov. “I just didn’t have the opportunity to go to that archive. But I made the film for our generation, and everyone already knows about the crimes of the Germans.”
Why make a film of fake history?
Boruch Gorin, spokesman for the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, said that a documentary about the Eastern Front that fails to mention the murder of millions of civilians amounts to falsifying history.
“The SS actively filmed what they did to civilians, especially what they did to the Jews,” said Gorin. “So [the documentary is] missing the central part of the story that explains what made this war different — it was about the intentional extermination of civilians. Because the footage of the atrocities is missing, the film seems fake to me.”
According to Gorin, such footage should be accessible. There is, for instance, film footage from Babi Yar — the ravine in Kiev where approximately 100,000 people, most of them Jews, were gunned down in 1941. There is also German footage of exhausted Soviet prisoners of war in a prison camp near Minsk.
“I don’t know which boxes they looked in, but they had to try hard not to come across even a single scene of the Nazi crimes in the Soviet Union,” Gorin said. “By not including even a minute of footage about the Holocaust, they are helping to hide the evidence of Nazi crimes.”
Still, Gorin does not think the documentary should be banned. And he agrees with the main premise of the film that explores how ordinary men turned into killers.
“The Nazis were not monsters who were born with horns. They were ordinary boys. I’m against turning soldiers into Satan, because it makes it seem like the Holocaust wasn’t organized by humans, and in that case that it could never happen again. But it can happen again,” said Gorin.
What’s in a voiceover
It appears that the Russian Ministry of Culture, which financed the film, was also skeptical about a documentary that presents Nazi propaganda without commentary.
The ministry initially wrote text that was supposed to go along with the footage, but when the film was screened at festivals accompanied by the voiceover, it failed to such an extent that The audience walked out in the middle, Osipov said.
“When we first completed the film, the historical society told us that we must write the text to go with it. So I asked them [at the Ministry of Culture] to write the text for us. I was taught that every film director must have both confidence and self-doubt. I thought maybe I was wrong [to think that the film didn’t need any commentary],” Osipov explained during a recent discussion in Moscow about the Russian government’s censorship of the arts.
“But when we saw that the film with the voiceover failed at festivals, we realized that we were right after all. We began to screen our original version and all of a sudden this film began to be in high demand,” he said.
The Russian Ministry of Culture did not respond to a Times of Israel request for a comment.
While “Ost Front” has won awards at festivals in Russia, it has so far had limited distribution in other countries.
The screening at the Russian Documentary Film Festival in New York, a small event that attracts a mostly Russian-speaking audience, was so far the only presentation in North America. The documentary was also shown in Poland and Hungary, though not in Germany or Israel. Osipov said he does not have the funding for submission fees at international film festivals.
“Also I fear that many people abroad might not understand the film. It might not make sense, especially for the younger generation,” he said.
For now, Osipov is once again spending his days in the archives. The film he is working on now will be about the Stalinist era — and the influence it has had on what Russia has become today. Osipov said he is looking for bits of footage that were rejected by film directors decades ago either for ideological or technical reasons. He wants to make a film out of these never-before-seen cuts.