Every so often someone in Hollywood uses his power to break the movie colony's rules. Consider this year's Total Eclipse. Odd as it may seem, this is the first serious American film set against the background of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, the deal that allied Europe's two totalitarian powers against the West and helped plunge the world into war. With an ally on the eastern front, Hitler sent his Panzers west while Stalin helped himself to the Baltic states and invaded Finland. A film like this could easily have turned out as big a didactic dud as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's 1982 bomb, Inchon, with Laurence Olivier as Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But this time the verisimilitude of the script, carried by some outstanding performances, is the source of the film's dramatic power.
Dustin Hoffman's persuasive portrayal of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin obviously emerges from his close study of how power and perversity converged in the dictator. Likewise, Jurgen Prochnow sparkles as Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim Von Ribbentrop, and so does Robert Duvall as Vyacheslav Molotov, his Soviet counterpart. Duvall's delivery of Molotov's line that "fascism is a matter of taste" is a key moment, and deserves at least as much admiration as Duvall's famous quip from Apocalypse Now about the smell of napalm in the morning. The Molotov speech has drawn some objections for being over the top, but it was not invented by screenwriter William Goldman (Marathon Man); it's an actual quote.
The sheer unexpectedness of the film is almost as shocking as its content. In one of the film's more chilling sequences, the Soviets hand over a number of German Communists, Jews who had taken refuge in Moscow, to the Gestapo. Modern audiences may find this surprising, but that incident too is taken from the historical record. Indeed, former KGB officials are credited as advisers on the film, whose cast also includes some of their actual victims.
There has simply been nothing like it on the screen in six decades. It has taken that long for moviegoers to see Soviet forces invading Poland and meeting their Nazi counterparts. Audiences would likely be similarly surprised by cinematic treatments of Cuban prisons, the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the bloody campaigns of Ethiopia's Stalinist Col. Mengistu, all still awaiting attention from Hollywood.
Total Eclipse is rated PG-13 for violence, particularly graphic in some of the mass murder scenes, images of starving infants from Stalin's 1932 forced famine in the Ukraine, and the torture of dissidents. Director Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List) deftly cuts from the Moscow trials to the torture chambers of the Lubyanka. More controversial are the portrayals of American communists during the period of the Pact. They are shown here picketing the White House, calling President Roosevelt a warmonger, and demanding that America stay out of the "capitalist war" in Europe. Harvey Keitel turns in a powerful performance as American Communist boss Earl Browder, and Linda Hunt brings depth to Lillian Hellman, who, when Hitler attacks the USSR in September of 1939, actually did cry out, "The motherland has been invaded."
Painstakingly accurate and filled with historical surprises, this film is so refreshing, so remarkable, that even at 162 minutes it seems too short.
Never heard of Total Eclipse? It hasn't been produced or even written. In all likelihood, such a film has never even been contemplated, at least in Hollywood. Indeed, in the decade since the Berlin Wall fell, or even the decade before that, no Hollywood film has addressed the actual history of communism, the agony of the millions whose lives were poisoned by it, and the century of international deceit that obscured communist reality. The simple but startling truth is that the major conflict of our time, democracy versus Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism--what The New York Times recently called "the holy war of the 20th century"--is almost entirely missing from American cinema. It is as though since 1945, Hollywood had produced little or nothing about the victory of the Allies and the crimes of National Socialism. This void is all the stranger since the major conflict of our time would seem to be a natural draw for Hollywood.
Though of global dimension, the conflict encompasses millions of dramatic personal stories played out on a grand tapestry of history: courageous Solidarity unionists against a Communist military junta; teenagers facing down tanks in the streets of Budapest and Prague; Cuban gays oppressed by a macho-Marxist dictatorship; writers and artists resisting the kitsch of obscurantist materialism; families fleeing brutal persecution, risking their lives to find freedom.
Furthermore, great villains make for great drama, and communism's central casting department is crowded: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hönecker, Ceaucescu, Pol Pot, Col. Mengistu--all of cosmic megalomania--along with their squads of hacks, sycophants, and stooges, foreign and domestic.
A few English-language films have drawn on this remarkable material, especially book-into-film projects based on highly publicized works, among them One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (a 1971 British-Norwegian production) and, of course, Doctor Zhivago (1965). But many other natural book-to-film projects remain untouched, from the story of Stalin's daughter Svetlana (who left Russia for the West) to works by such high-ranking defectors as Polish Ambassador Romuald Spasowski (The Liberation of One), KGB agent Arkady Schevchenko (Breaking With Moscow), and persecuted Cuban poets Armando Valladares (Against All Hope) and Heberto Padilla (Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden). In light of the most recent revelations concerning the espionage of Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers' Witness is another obvious candidate.
The reason this ample supply of stories remains unfilmed is not ignorance. Though its films may not often reflect it, Hollywood is filled with knowledgeable writers and producers. The reasons lie elsewhere, especially in Hollywood's own convoluted political history, a history that has passed through many stages. Perhaps the most pertinent of those stages involves the "back story" of communism's own largely uncharted offensive in the studios.
The cinema's great potential for persuasion excited Stalin and his wholly-owned American subsidiary, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), which lived off Soviet cash until it criticized Gorbachev's reforms as "old social democratic thinking class collaboration." Correspondence between American communists and their Soviet bosses can now be perused in The Soviet World of American Communism (1998). Editors John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Kyrill Anderson gathered newly declassified material from the Moscow-based archives of the Communist International (Comintern), the Soviet organization that controlled national communist parties. Members of the CPUSA made some documentary films in the 1930s, but nothing that could compete with the American commercial cinema, which the party set out to co-opt.
"One of the most pressing tasks confronting the Communist Party in the field of propaganda," wrote the indefatigable Comintern agent Willi Muenzenberg in a 1925 Daily Worker article, "is the conquest of this supremely important propaganda unit, until now the monopoly of the ruling class. We must wrest it from them and turn it against them." It was an ambitious task, but conditions would soon turn to the party's advantage.
The Depression convinced many that capitalism was on its last legs and that socialism was the wave of the future. In the days of the Popular Front of the mid-'30s, communists found it easy to make common cause with liberals against Hitler and Spain's Franco. In 1935, V.J. Jerome, the CPUSA's cultural commissar, set up a Hollywood branch of the party. This highly secretive unit enjoyed great success, recruiting members, organizing entire unions, raising money from unwitting Hollywood liberals, and using those funds to support Soviet causes through front groups such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. "We had our own sly arithmetic, we could find fronts and make two become one," remembered screenwriter Walter Bernstein (Fail Safe, The Front, The House on Carroll Street) in his 1996 autobiography, Inside Out.
During the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, for example, actor Melvyn Douglas (Ninotchka) and screenwriter-director Philip Dunne (Wild in the Country) proposed that the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, a conclave of industry Democrats, condemn Stalin's invasion of Finland in late 1939. But the group was actually secretly dominated by Communists, and it rejected the resolution. As Dunne later described it in his 1980 memoir, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics, "All over town the industrious communist tail wagged the lazy liberal dog."