The soldiers who refused to die

CONFLICT / A Soviet soldier of Tatar descent captured by the Nazis during WWII leads to a story of an army caught between dictators.

«In the Soviet Union, only war heroes existed,» Sana, the daughter of a Red Army soldier captured in the Second World War, recalls. Her father had survived his gruelling ordeal only to fall into a black hole of oblivion afterwards, along with millions of other returning prisoners of war. Stalin had ordered troops to battle to the death and under no circumstances surrender — and contemptuously branded those who did as cowards and traitors, to be punished. Prisoners remained a taboo subject of discussion in Soviet society for decades, and anyone who questioned the state’s official version of history risked harsh repressive measures.

Turn Your Body to the Sun, a film by Aliona van der Horst
Turn Your Body to the Sun, a film by Aliona van der Horst

Redressing the silence

Turn Your Body to the Sun, a documentary by Aliona van der Horst which has its world premiere at IDFA, moves to redress this silence. Dedicated to the Soviet prisoners of war and their families, it draws on archival material from the era to recognise and endeavour to make sense of their experiences, restoring them to their rightful place within the broader history of the Soviet war effort. In the process, war is reframed and revealed not as a situation that naturally inspires noble idealism and valour (as the lens of nationalistic propaganda is accustomed to portraying it) but as a nihilistic void in which there are no good options. Soldiers, and indeed civilians, must often choose between abandoning their ethics in favour of desperate, cynical opportunism and collaborating or near-certain death.

Soldiers, and indeed civilians, must often choose between abandoning their ethics in favour of desperate, cynical opportunism and collaborating or near-certain death.

Sana’s father, Sayat Valiulin, was a soldier of Tatar descent drafted to fight on the Eastern Front. Especially embarrassing to the Soviet state and its claims of having an army of superhuman endurance and loyalty was that he had switched sides to fight for the Germans. He had been dropped with other Red Army soldiers behind enemy lines with the goal of retaking Smolensk. After being taken prisoner, they were starved and offered food if they would enter volunteer battalions. «I wanted to live. It’s as simple as that,» he explains in one of the many diary entries read out in voiceover. He defected again, escaping the Germans to assist the Allied forces as an interpreter. His picture is found in the Allied magazine «Yank» many years later. It’s a rare public trace, as he had dodged inclusion in registers — an avoidance of being categorised and pinned down that enabled him to blend in with whatever survival required. In 1945, he was sentenced as a traitor and sent to a Soviet gulag, or «up there,» as it was referred to euphemistically by citizens who were fearful of speaking frankly about where such people had disappeared. The director accompanies Sana by train to find out where her father had been sent. It is a journey, both literal and psychological.

Turn Your Body to the Sun, a film by Aliona van der Horst
Turn Your Body to the Sun, a film by Aliona van der Horst

The legacy of trauma

Sana stands in silhouette before projections of archival footage of prisoners in a formally innovative film that seeks not only to shed light on the repressed facts of history but to revitalise the link between those who had been erased from official memory and a new generation who need to know where they came from to recover an authentic sense of identity and belonging. A richly layered soundscape seems to bring the images back from forgotten vaults to urgent, palpable life. The rhythmic clacking of trains on the tracks, crackling fire, and the howling wind of Russia’s far-flung expanses impact our senses as if we were right back there.

Though Sana has lived in the Netherlands for thirty years and is used to communicating in Dutch, she prefers to speak in Russian for the film — as she puts it, because she wants her father to understand her. The notion that Turn Your Body to the Sun is a dialogue not only with the audience but with an ancestor now deceased in order to come to terms with their life underscores that documentary cinema not only records the past but has the cathartic potential to reconfigure its meaning and heal its legacy of trauma. As she addresses her father as a traitor, we sense her complex relationship to his actions, which are difficult to justify on moral grounds, and made more incomprehensible by a prevailing culture of silence and shame. The limits of possible resistance, and the ultimate culpability of the state for the lack of a future left to men who had been drafted against their will and risked their lives in an operation they had not been able to win, are thorny areas the documentary presents with frank openness but makes no pretense of ethically resolving. By the close of this powerful exploration into the meaning of allegiance and identity in wartime, one question by Sana’s father remains hanging in the air: «Did I betray my fatherland? Or was I betrayed by my fatherland?»

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Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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