Nick Holdsworth
Journalist, writer, author, filmmaker and film and TV industry expert – Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

Filmed in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the outbreak of civil war in Ukraine’s eastern Russophone provinces, this is a timely warning of the remilitarization of education and society in Europe as the post Cold War optimism crumbles.

Teaching war

Adela Komrzy

Czech Republic, 70 mins. 2016

Teaching War opens with a simple, but deep quotation from two American sociologists whose ‘Thomas theorem’ became a standard concept in 20th century sociology: «If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.»

When the film opens in a school gym – the kids clustered on benches as a couple of large, uniformed men fuss around a toy cannon to demonstrate an “eight pound shot” – it is clear where this definition of reality is going.

To anyone who grew up in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union before the Wall came down, military training at school will be a familiar memory. A Russian friend once boasted of how she could, blindfolded, «strip an AK47 down and reassemble it in less than a minute». I never put her to the test, but had no reason to doubt her dexterity.

Display of force. Adela Komrzy’s film is a welcome and timely warning of the creeping remilitarization of education and society in Europe, as the post-Cold War optimism of a brave new world united by capitalist consumption crumbles beneath refreshed super-power friction (and alleged collusion) and fears of a renewed Russian threat rise again.

If the opening shot – pun intended – seems like, well, child’s play, the sequence that follows the titles leaves viewers in no doubt about how the Czech Republic’s Civil Defence Programme (CDP) for schools views reality. A group of heavily armed men enter the gym and aim their automatic weapons at the kids as the teacher asks what they know about NATO. It is uncomfortable viewing, particularly for those of us who grew up in the post-war years with parents and relatives who had served in World War II. As a child I remember my father refused to buy my brother and I toy guns, and when we made our own, forbade us to ever point them at anyone.

It was a wise warning, and, as many youngsters in America, for example, will have learned to their cost in fatal encounters with the police, one worth observing.

Teaching War is filmed in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the outbreak of civil war in Ukraine’s eastern Russophone provinces, when NATO put on a display of force by sending armoured brigades across central Europe to the Baltic states. Jingoistic political and media statements – from both NATO states and Russia – are peppered throughout the film.

«Young people have forgotten how to act in an armed conflict. They aren’t able to assess danger, that’s the problem.»

Love thy gun. Russian defence ministry films talk up the strength of their forces and glorify the sacrifice of the generation that fought what it still calls the Great Patriotic War. Children in Red Army uniforms talk of «Germans» and «fascists» in the same breath. And from seeing Trump rallies replete with girls in stars and stripes skirts singing his virtues as a defender of all American values, we understand this is a global problem.

At a time when centennial observations of war and revolution (and post-war declarations of independence, such as that which the Czechs will mark next year) are in the headlines, Komrzy’s film carries a resonance once so eloquently spelled out by British First World War poet Wilfred Owen: «Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.»

Teaching war by Adela Komrzy

Hinged around the school, its CDP classes and other manifestations of militarization (such as newly reintroduced cadet training camps, a legally-questionable anti-NATO private civil defence unit and a border guards veterans association) Teaching War is polemical with a small «p»: the director lets her subjects talk for themselves.

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