Seen and unseen – horrors of the Holodomor

The Last Road, by Nina Marchenko

Mr Jones, 2019, directed by Agnieszka Holland

GUY WALKER admires an overdue film about a usually ignored atrocity

This film deals with a real event – the ‘discovery’ and reporting by a Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, of the Holodomor (man-made starvation) which took place in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-3. There is scholarly dispute about the degree of intent, but, essentially, Stalin’s policies caused a famine in one of the world’s most productive breadbaskets which resulted in the deaths of between three and ten million Ukrainians and the conviction of 2,500 for cannibalism. Stalin’s policies caused the famine by vindictively suppressing 6 million kulaks – enterprising peasants who bettered themselves and thus became considered as bourgeoisie – through the forced collectivisation of farms and by the requisitioning of grain – ‘Stalin’s gold’ – which he used for export to pay for the industrialisation of the USSR. One of the first journalists to draw attention to the event was Malcolm Muggeridge. He managed this in spite of working under a regime where the Press Department of the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs once told him “You can’t say that because it’s true”. Later, to convince the West that the Holodomor was not true, the USSR was aided by George Bernard Shaw who visited and helpfully reported back that he “saw no evidence of starvation”.

We live in a world where television fascist dystopias are ten a penny and every time Donald Trump uncaps his vulgar gold pen or Boris Johnson steps up to a lectern the media class hallucinate goose-stepping Nazis. The same people contrive, simultaneously, to blink at the wall-to-wall post-Gramscian Marxism with which our culture is sodden. This might mean that the rarity of a film about real events casting a 70-year Communist experiment which led to the Holodomor in a bad light is to be considered a welcome corrective. Of course one can argue that the function of art is not to redress political balances but it’s hard to argue that this fine piece of art does not intend to make a political contribution. Holland was born behind and was a refugee from the Iron Curtain and, therefore, perhaps tacitly, assumes the wickedness of the USSR as a given we all know about. This being the case the only question is, considering the need of a dumb and somnolent, Hollywood-blunted Western audience (who may be resistant to it) to have everything spelt out in ten-foot letters, does Holland pull her punches too much? The film feels on the cusp of being Polish and addressing an American audience.

She and the screenwriter, Andrea Chalupa, go quite a long way to make the politics clear. The whole is framed by George Orwell (Joseph Mawle), disillusioned by Gareth Jones’ Ukrainian revelations, tapping out drafts of Animal Farm. Jones loudly and helpfully proclaims “the Soviet union is not the workers’ paradise” and the odious American apologist for Stalin, Walter Duranty, actually mouths the classic heartless platitude about omelettes and broken eggs. In addition, there is a character, Duranty’s secretary Ada, played by Vanessa Kirby, who personifies the way in which the panic about the Nazis pushed out the ability to recognise the Communist menace. Jones, who had already interviewed and even flown with Hitler before coming to Russia, also contains the history of the period in his personal experience. Ada walks a fine line and, having promoted the USSR under Duranty’s influence, gets it in the end.

The film reeks of Holland’s directorial class. She brilliantly sharpens the contrast between the freezing monochrome of the Ukrainian famine where people live on tree-bark and human flesh, and the warm polychrome of an England where food is almost literally waved under your nose. Another contrast is heightened; this time, that between Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones. Duranty, the New York Times (famous in our time for its uncritical embrace of authoritarian, woke culture), Pulitzer prize-winning journalist in the pocket of the Soviets is a true press lizard. In exchange for a life of extravagant decadence in Moscow he detoxifies and renders the USSR palatable to his readers sufficiently to ease the delicate consciences of US businessmen so that they can feel comfortable about exploiting attractive Russian markets. The US recognised the revolutionary USSR in 1933 because of Duranty’s account of it. On the other hand there is the inconvenient truth–telling of Jones who is what a journalist should be.

Techniques are honed and the cinematographer, Tomasz Naumiuk, deserves great credit. Lovingly detailed, dark-walled Moscow interiors lit by candles oppress claustrophobically. The 1930s modernist gleam of the Hotel Metropole where journalists stay only as long as it suits the NKVD, enchants, deceives and chills. The smoke and mirrors of the Russian state is evoked by shifting, kaleidoscopic reflections of people in mirrors and spectacle lenses, and long, soulless corridors. Frantic internal emotion is suggested by speeding up film. And, in the portrayal of the Holodomor we have trademark Holland realism. Typically, she doesn’t flinch at the horror created because the horror was real and the reality was both horrific and banal. Circled Ukrainian children sing to him a ghastly song about starvation in angelic voices before swiping Jones’ food. Then, after he has unwittingly participated with some children in an act of cannibalism, he sees children as carrion creatures encircling him in the snow. Both, admittedly poetic sequences could be seamlessly grafted straight onto a horror film. This shuffling nightmare is horrific and chills most because it was real. Holland ensures that it sinks slowly into and lingers in the consciousness.

Vanessa Kirby portrays a consciousness overwhelmed and haunted by twin nightmares very effectively. James Norton, reprising his Russian associations in McMafia, is excellent as the earnest and driven seeker after truth. Peter Sarsgaard is the suitably loathsome and Mephistophelean Soviet puppet, Duranty. He conveys menace, corruption and moral abandonment with finesse. 

Some people will still need it all spelt out. Perhaps only those who deserve to understand the film will do so.