History on the (European) Silver Screen

For the last three weeks, some of the really interesting films coming out of Europe have been playing in Silver Spring, at the amazing AFI Silver, which brings the magic of the movies to lower Montgomery County. For a history hound, it has been a dazzling buffet. With various members of my indulgent family, I took in three interesting films, in descending order of fun.

Defenders of Riga
(Latvia) — The highest-budget movie in Latvian history (!) and the highest grossing film in that same history, this is a flat-out hoot. The subject is a little-known (to me) weird episode in the aftermath of World War I.
A battalion or so of the Kaiser’s troops got stranded in Latvia at the end of the war with no money and no way home. In that fetching Teutonic style, they figured, “What they hey! We’re here, so we may as well conquer something.” So they marched off for Riga, capital of the fledgling and not-very-competent Latvian republic, which had just struggled out from under Russia’s thumb in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. The new nation had no real armed forces, however, which was a real problem.
Riga, capital of Latvia and cinematically defended
What to do? Call out the people! Led by our hero, Martin, the simple folk of Riga (who, luckily, included a healthy sprinkling of the czar’s former troops) take on the Krauts. With the intrepidity of the Hardy Boys and the patriotism of a people that has not had a nation for 700 years, they spanked the Bosch, showed up the cowardly Allies, and cemented their nationhood for 20 years (until the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement). Plenty of clips on Youtube, but put this on your Netflix list. It’s like a John Wayne movie with really strange politics.
Katyn (Poland) — Well, “fun” is not the word for this skillful and powerful film from Poland. As the cultural attache from the Polish Embassy told us, “This is the movie that Poland has been waiting 60 years for.”
Many know the basic story. At the beginning of World War II (September 1939), Germany invadek Poland and seized 2/3 of it, imposing the customary brutal repression. Under the Molotov Ribbentrop Agreement (see above), the Soviets walked in and took the Eastern third. Even though the Russians never declared war on Poland, they sent 15,000 Polish military officers to concentration camps. In the spring of 1940, the Soviets murdered most of them and dumped them in mass graves.
Reading the lists of the slaughered
The crime stands out for two reasons. First, it was a cold-blooded attempt to decapitate Poland’s leadership class, though the Germans and Russians had worked from that playbook all over the sad lands that they ravaged in that evil time. Second, though, the Poles were forced to lie about it for forty years. The Germans found the mass graves when they invaded Russia in 1941 and tried to make propaganda hay with them, against the “bestial” Soviets. When the Russians swept back through the area in 1944, they decided to blame the Nazis. And when Russia subjected Poland to communism for the next four decades, Poles were forced to swallow the lie.
It’s grim stuff, but it’s the real deal about Polish history. The good guys die, and the survivors are not allowed to honor them. Belongs on the Netflix list for those days when you’re feeling too chipper.
El Greco (Greece — where else?) — A visually beautiful movie, with great locations in Greece, Venice (looking better than ever), and Spain, this one’s a little bit slow. El Greco, who has this unpronounceable Greek name (neither the Venetians nor the Spaniards can pronounce it, so I won’t even try to type it), turns out to have been descended from Cretan freedom fighters (against Venice) and a crusader against the Inquisition in Spain.
El Greco, being tempestuous
The history’s a bit doubtful. (When Variety questions your historical accuracy, you’re in trouble.) But a feast for the eyes. Maybe not for the home screen. Better in a movie theater.

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