The film is a flawed depiction of the Brest Fortress siege, but rightly celebrates the defenders’ enormous courage
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
The 2010 Russian-Belarusian film Fortress of War tells the tale of the Soviet men and women defending an exposed, antiquated fortress. As the first to be hit by the titanic German invasion of Russia in June 1941, they held out for an entire month while the Nazis devoured their country.
Featuring beautiful cinematography shot on the site of the actual Brest Fortress, Fortress of War doesn’t shy from portraying the grim toll that act of defiance exacted on the soldiers and civilians who simply refused to give up.
But despite the film’s qualities, the screenwriters commit a major sin of omission, remaining silent on a historical detail that would change our perspective on the film.
Brest Fortress was first built in the 1830s in what is today the country of Belarus, and rests on an island separate from the city of Brest itself. The fort’s old-fashioned battlements seem charming rather than formidable.
The film’s firm sense of time and place is one of its strengths. We are quickly acquainted with various buildings and inhabitants inside the fortress in its pristine pre-siege condition. Every image oozes period detail from the wire-frame glasses to portraits of Joseph Stalin and the hobnails in officers’ boots.
The opening scenes exude nostalgia — the film’s narrator is a young boy, Alexander Akimov, who plays the tuba for “the musical platoon of the 333rd Regiment,” while soldiers and young women dance in the fortress’s sunny courtyard.
There are 300 civilians among the 8,000 soldiers garrisoned in the fort. Young lovers tryst in secret while a portly commissar berates his men on how to better perform a Cossack dance.
This rosy portrait of life in the Stalinist-era Soviet Union may seem strange to Western audiences, and indeed could be called into question given that the Soviet army at the time had recently undergone purges resulting in the execution of 15,000 to 30,000 of its officers. But it’s also a reminder that there were still many in the USSR who led dignified lives before the German invasion.
Fortress of War hints at some of the political problems facing an army under the nose of Stalinist apparatchiks. In one scene, a commissar reprimands Maj. Pyotr Gavrilov for “spreading rumors” of a German attack.
Indeed, despite reports from spies and German defectors of an imminent invasion, Stalin and the Soviet high command willfully ignored evidence they received from subordinates, and even punished those raising the alarm. Desperate for their Molotov-Ribbentrop alliance with Nazi Germany to last, Stalin was stunned into complete inaction during the first weeks of the war by Adolf Hitler’s betrayal.
As Gavrilov points out in the movie, Brest Fortress was in an indefensible position cut off from the rest of the Red Army — all of the civilians and large part of its garrison should have evacuated given the possibility of war.
The film is harrowing. When the attack comes before dawn on June 22, 1941, the Nazis infiltrate commandos in Soviet uniforms to cut off water and electricity, before unleashing a violent air and land bombardment which decimates civilians and soldiers alike.
The assault leaves beautiful 19th century buildings in ruins, and the courtyard plastered with the bodies of the dead. Civilians fleeing out of the fortress gates are gunned down. The garrison is caught completely by surprise, left disorganized and virtually leaderless.
Only with the actions of Gavrilov, commissar Yefim Fomin and Lt. Andrey Kizhevatov do the Soviets organize improvised resistance units at various locations in the fortress. German assault troops overrun the perimeter, but aren’t able to crack the isolated Soviet strongpoints.
Hour by hour, day by day, the German noose tightens around the scattered defenders, who relentlessly attempt to contact the Red Army by radio or messenger, praying that it will march to their rescue.
The Soviets have no water, and the wounded and civilians slowly collapse from dehydration. Their only doctor passes out from exhaustion mid-surgery. The German soldiers humiliate, rape and execute prisoners.
The Germans escalate their tactics, using wounded Russians as human shields, employing flamethrowers and massive aerial bombs. The defensive outposts dwindle one by one. When a Soviet plane is shot down over the fortress, the defenders rescue the pilot — only to learn from him that the Red Army they were hoping would rescue them is reeling in full retreat.
They realize suddenly that their resistance is hopeless — they can either surrender, attempt to break out or fight to the last bullet.
While at turns moving and colorful, Brest Fortress is far from perfect. Many of its frenetic battle scenes are over-amped and choppy, and the general sense of realism is marred by the defender’s perplexing habit of charging out of their fortified positions to fight the enemy hand-to-hand.
The portrayal of the historical heroes, undoubtedly genuine bad-asses in real life, is nonetheless a bit over-the-top at times, and the personal convictions behind their unyielding resistance are not explored. The Germans are depicted purely as sadistic, shaven-headed monsters.
Nonetheless, Fortress of War is full of arresting images that convey both the beauty of places and people and the wretchedness of their plight. Though none of its characters are deeply drawn, the dilemmas facing them are inherently moving.
These were individuals who lived in a community with their families and friends, only to see much of it destroyed in a matter of hours. They are all forced to make heart-wrenching decisions — does family or country come first? Which is less likely to be fatal, to surrender to the Germans or attempt to escape?
The patriotic nature of the film leaves little doubt as to their ultimate choices, but the camera rarely fails to capture the anguish of its characters. Heroes they may be, the gradual loss of all they have known and loved leaves them hollow-eyed and devastated. Their choice to fight to the last is a grim and joyless one. Yet still they held.
Famously, one anonymous soldier carved into the fortress walls, “I’m dying but I won’t surrender. Farewell, Motherland. 20.VII.41.”
Like many American war movies across the ocean, Fortress of War comes unavoidably loaded with a nationalistic subtext. That should not dissuade one from appreciating the valor of the real individuals who stood athwart the Nazi tide for so long. Yet the script also conveniently ignores a historical reality that would have changed the film’s premise.
That’s because this was actually the second time the Germans had captured Brest Fortress in World War II. In September 1939, Brest was part of Poland, and the Polish fortress stood in the path of the advancing Wehrmacht.
The so-called Battle of Brest-Litovsk was not a trivial mopping-up action — the Polish army put up a tremendous fight, even though it too was hopelessly outgunned. Two Polish armored trains dueled with the tanks of the XIX Panzer Corps. The Poles counter-attacked with a company of World War I-era FT-17 tanks, successfully repulsing a German armored thrust, at the cost of losing all of their vehicles.
After three days, the Germans captured the fortress, and shortly afterwards handed it over to Soviet troops. Stalin had just agreed to an alliance with Hitler and invaded Poland from the East. Soviet troops even marched with the Wehrmacht in the city of Brest.
Thus, Brest Fortress only came under Soviet control because the Red Army had backstabbed Poland, joining the Nazis in the invasion.
If we incorporate Brest Fortress’ earlier history into our understanding of Fortress of War, it ceases to be just a nationalistic tale of heroism in the face of pure evil, but rather a story of how militaristic empires carve up nations between them — and how soldiers and innocent civilians alike are the first on the grindstone when those empires collide.
Men like Fomin and Gavrilov — a Jew and a Tartar — devoted their lives to defending the multi-ethnic Soviet Union, itself based on a mixture of communist ideology blended with a notion of Russian nationhood. But Stalin’s Soviet Union did not repay their loyalty in kind, before, during, or after the siege.
Indeed, the only one of the defenders’ leaders to survive the siege was liberated from a prisoner of war camp in 1945 — only to be purged from Communist Party, disgraced and assigned to Siberia.
Only after Stalin’s death were he and the other defenders of Brest rehabilitated and justly celebrated for withstanding, far beyond reasonable human expectation, the onslaught of one of the cruelest invasions in human history.
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