The Battle of Russia & Undercover: How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines.
It’s 1943 and the production value has skyrocketed.
Sticking with the same two directors as yesterday — John Ford and Frank Capra — these are the next two films discussed in Five Came Back, the Netflix documentary series.
Like Prelude to War, The Battle of Russia is a history lesson. In this case, the history of Russia in wartime. We begin way back in 1242, when Russia fought back against the invading Teutonic Knights. We then track through the multiple attempts from various armies to conquer Russia — only succeeding in making Russia more and more resilient.
We then move to “present day”, where we learn about Russia fighting back against the German army.
Frank Capra worked in tandem with Russian-born filmmaker Anatole Litvak to bring the film to life, and it shows. Nearly the entire length is scored with uplifting Russian song, with choir and chanting. American narration aside, it feels more like a Russian production than a US one. But rather than alienating the movie, it actually does the opposite. Here’s a country on the other side of the globe who are as passionate about their freedom as we (the USA) are. Let’s help them.
The Battle of Russia spends a lot of time on the Siege of Leningrad, which lasted nearly two and a half years. The initial attack on Leningrad is astounding. Capra/Litvak capture the chaos and confusion of being mid-battle, with less of a focus on the heroism and more the devastation and sadness.
Post-battle during the Siege of Leningrad is all about the resilience of the Russian people. The Germans attack, the Russians keep going. The Germans starve them out, Leningrad buckles down. The Russian spirit doesn’t break — rather, the German line does.
Later, after the Battle of Stalingrad, we see German officers being arrested. They aren’t abused, they aren’t seen to be mistreated in any way. They’re just led into an office, with the narrator throwing in a cheeky dig or two.
Ultimately, the point of the movie seems to be to show that the German army isn’t invincible. The Russians have been on the back foot, beaten down, pushed back. Yet they keep finding victories. Yes, the enemy is strong. But all it takes, soldier, is grit and determination, and inch by inch we can win.
Undercover: How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines by John Ford is something entirely different again. Rather than pure propaganda, it’s an instructional film for soldiers/officers about what to do if they find themselves behind enemy lines. From disguise, to cover, to ambushing enemies.
The film is most interesting because it uses fictionalised scenes to show how best to maintain cover. We see trainee “undercover operatives” learning how to act, and have their covers put to the test. I really liked the scene where two agents were prepping another agent by going over the clothing. This jacket is too expensive, that coat isn’t authentic. It reminded me a lot of the “great actor” scene from Reservoir Dogs. Or more specifically, when Bubbles analyses Detective Sydnor’s disguise in The Wire. Even the smallest detail stands out.
Some of the advice is a little laughable to modern eyes. “That’s it! Whistle. Be as natural as you can.” Yep, a fella walking around whistling won’t be noticed at all. Nothing says “I’m trying to act casual” like whistling a jaunty tune. Others are important. You can’t just put on the right clothing and remember to answer to your assumed name, you have to “live the cover”.
Ironically, it seems like the main point of the movie is to shatter the perception of spies that movies have created. Near the beginning, Undercover makes a point to show a “movie spy” — clad in black, sneaking about in darkness, cloak and dagger stuff. A real agent behind enemy lines needs to look like an everyday person.
I’ll be honest, parts of this one are hard to follow due to the audio degradation. Narration is fine, but some of the quieter dialogue is mumbled and difficult to discern. That can’t be blamed on the film, of course, but rather the preservation or transfer of it.
These films are a year later than the first two, but already they’re more “filmic” and are trying to do more interesting things. The Battle of Russia makes a foreign country on the other side of the globe relatable. And Undercover uses performance and narrative devices to convey genuine information. Very different. I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when entirely new directors come into play.