(A FOOTNOTE TO YALTA cont'd)
footage constitutes the raw material of documentary film. It
contains everything the cameraman shot, usable or not, and in
the order in which he shot it. Thus it is a visual document
in its primary state, providing the historian with evidence
not only of the subject matter displayed in front of the camera
lens but also of the attitudes and intentions of the cameraman.
In the National Archive, as in most newsreel archives, cards
identify the source and content of each item and provide a brief
list of the scenes in it. The card in this case is no exception.
It classifies it as Signal Corps material. In addition to its
file number and title, it gives the sequence of shots in a professional,
noncommittal manner, and ends: "Note: Most of the prisoners
are former Russian soldiers captured by the Germans near Stalingrad.
After, many of them joined the German Army and fought against
the Russians." The film itself lasts for about seven minutes
and would seem to be all that the cameraman recorded during
the time in which what is shown in the film took place. If the
material had ever been cut together to make a story, it would
have run for barely half that time. What we see is this:
of men wrapped in heavy coats are moving across a muddy square
in front of a row of single story huts. In the background, buildings
reveal the outskirts of a small town with what might be a church
steeple and a factory chimney providing the chief landmarks.
Some of the men are carrying their packs, others are still loading
them with their belongings. It's cold; men stamp their feet
and rub their hands together. A quantity of discarded or unclaimed
personal items are scattered about on the ground. American military
police stand by, armed and carrying white night sticks, with
which they briskly encourage the men to move along. On the hood
of a jeep parked in the vicinity a loudspeaker is set up and
a Russian officer with a handset can be presumed to be calling
out names. (He's identified as such on the card - the film is
silent.) Individuals come forward to have their names checked
by a young American officer who is without a hat. The Russian
prisoners make their way to a column of trucks. They check their
names with another American officer against another list. The
hull of an American tank can be seen behind them, a white star
displayed prominently on its gun-turret. There are piles of
kitbags, cases, personal belongings. The prisoners mount the
trucks. A wintry sun casts pale shadows. The trucks move down
a mud filled road with American guards sitting at the rear and
pull into a railyard. The prisoners are searched again as they
climb into freight cars in the railyard. Others wait their turn
behind barbed wire, and the shadow of a truck passes across
them. The guards are chewing gum. An ancient steam engine slowly
pulls the freight cars away from the scene.
the conventional film-maker's point of view, the film is rather
dull. It looks like routine coverage of routine military life.
But the Archives' card identifies the scene as taking place
in February 1946 at Platting - a spelling or typing mistake
for Plattling. And what happened on February 24, 1946, at Plattling
is described by both Bethel and Tolstoy. Some 1500 Russians
from a unit commanded by a General Meandrov were due to be repatriated
that day. As Tolstoy tells it, in the early hours American troops,
equipped with riot clubs and rubber soled shoes, crept into
the sleeping Russians' dormitory huts.
the stillness of the camp was broken by the shrieking blast
of a whistle. Startled, Meandrov's men woke and looked about
them. At once a ghastly cacophony of yells burst from all around.
Without any warning, and with accompanying shrieks and curses,
the Americans began to lash with the bludgeons at each recumbent
figure. "Mak snell! Mak snell!" they shouted in pidgin German,
driving the bewildered figures out of their beds, through the
doorways and across to the camp gates. Anyone slow in scrambling
from his bed was beaten ferociously until he too fled in his
underclothes out into the night. At the gates stood a row of
trucks, their engines humming, into which the prisoners were
driven by their screaming guards. Off along darkened roads the
speeding convoy clattered and swayed. There followed a hasty
transfer to a train, and the journey was continued some hours
later. The train rattled on towards the east, where already
a pale cold light was failing in the darkening sky. Near the
Czech frontier, beyond Zwiesel, the train halted in the dripping
stillness of the Bavarian forest. Blue-capped troops were waiting;
officers exchanged brief words through an interpreter, and the
bruised and terrified men of Meandrov's Division were shepherded
down beside the railway track. Dazed, they stood in little groups
amongst the puddles. The American guards, silent and awkward,
jumped back into their carriages and prepared to make off. There
was a brief hissing and clanking of pistons, and then the blank
gaze of the Vlasov men watched swaying lights disappear back
along the line.
Americans returned to Plattling visibly shamefaced. Before their
departure from the rendezvous in the forest, many had seen rows
of bodies already hanging from the branches of nearby trees.
On their return, even the SS men in a neighbouring compound
lined the wire fence and railed at them for their behaviour.
The Americans were too ashamed to reply.