Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Stalin’

Cold War *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 13th September, 2018

Cold WarWhen the Communists took over power in Poland after the Second War — marginalising the government-in-exile in London — the country had to adjust to new frontiers, a more homogenous population following the expulsion of minorities and the gradual imposition of a new political order to fit in with the dictates of Joseph Stalin in Moscow. The febrile period of the late 1940s provides the setting for the opening scenes of Pawel Pawlikowski’s melodrama, Cold War, in which we see a handsome pianist and musical director, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), fall under the spell of a fiery blonde singer/dancer, Zula (Joanna Kulig), who is part of a troupe training in the echoing halls of an abandoned stately home. They are both free spirits and as romance stumbles along its rocky path, they find their lives and art increasingly circumscribed by the demands of philistine bureaucrats. A trip to perform in East Berlin in the early 1950s enables Wiktor to escape by walking out of the Russian zone into the West, but Zula is too insecure to accompany him. He moves to Paris, where he plays in nightclubs, unable to get her out of his mind despite other relationships. Fate throws them together later, both in France and Yugoslavia, and such is Zula’s fascination that the defector Wiktor determines to follow her back to Poland, with dire consequences. In less capable hands, this story could be a romantic tear-jerker, but Pawlikowski’s handling of both image and mood is magisterial. Shot in black-and-white, Cold War beautifully captures the atmosphere of the times. Polishness and the country’s folk culture are part and parcel of the narrative, intertwined with the political trope and the passion of fatal attraction. There are odd flashes of humour, but as the story unfurls it is clear that things are going to end badly. Logically, there is only one way the two lovers can resolve their dilemma, as what has become the prison of the system in which they now have to live becomes unbearable. By this stage most viewers will have taken both Wiktor and Zula to their hearts. Shakespearean in its intensity, Cold War is without doubt a masterpiece and visually stunning.

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The Death of Stalin ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 26th October, 2017

The Death of Stalin 1I was only a toddler when Joseph Stalin died, so his demise did not impinge on my consciousness. But I vividly remember his successor, Nikita Krushchev, and his notorious shoe-banging episode at the UN General Assembly in 1960. Yet intriguingly it is neither Stalin nor Krushchev who really stand out in Armando Iannucci’s controversial new film satire, The Death of Stalin, but rather Georgy Malenkov and Laventriy Beria. Jeffrey Tambor plays the former as a dim-witted but callous automaton incapable of human emotion, who has risen way above his rightful station, while Simon Russell Beale (without doubt one of the finest British actors working today) is truly chilling as the calculating Soviet security chief (much tubbier than his real-life character). Though some moments in the film have a slapstick quality that has resonances of Monty Python, far more striking is its exposure of the banality of evil, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s phrase about that other 20th century circus of horror, Nazi Germany. Without rubbing one’s face in gore, the film nonetheless leaves one in no doubt about the brutality and pervasive sense of fear in Stalin’s Russia, yet most of the  key figues are portrayed as being rather ordinary men, constantly watching their backs while looking for opportunities to stick the knife into others. I’m not surprised the film has divided critics and audiences, as some may feel that the subject matter is too serious to be made fun of, and there are at least as many uncomfortable moments watching it as here are laughs. The Moscow backdrops give it a sometimes disconcerting validation. No wonder the Russians have been in two minds about whether to ban the film. For me, it is something I can’t exactly say I enjoyed watching, but I am glad I did.

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Remembering the Baltic Way

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th August, 2009

The Baltic WayLast night I attended a reception and the opening of a video installation at the 12 Star gallery at the London offices of the European Commission, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Baltic Way. That was the human chain made up of well over a million people on 23 August, 1989, stretching from the bottom of Toompea in the Estonian capital Tallinn to the base of the Gediminus Tower in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, via the Latvian capital Riga: 600 kilometres of an unbroken line of people of every age and walk of life. Those demonstrators were marking the 50th anniversary of the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, but they were also demanding the right to run their own affairs, free from the shackles of Moscow. This would indeed soon lead of the regaining of independence by the three Baltic states, with Lithuania making the bold move first.

Jonathan Steele of the Guardian, who had been the newspaper’s Moscow correspondent at the time of the Baltic Way, spoke at last night’s event and reminded people that the demonstration was preceeded by moves within the local Communist parties to gain greater autonomy. Moreover, some members of the substantial Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia took part in the human chain. Even some of the state security police drove round in their cars waving the national flags of the three states. By then, Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow must have known that Soviet control of the region was in its twilight days.


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