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(A FOOTNOTE TO YALTA cont'd)

The contrast between the scene portrayed in the film clip and the one described by Tolstoy is startling. One might well wonder if Tolstoy's incident took place on the same day as the filming. Apart from the personal items strewn on the ground in the film, there is nothing to suggest the violence, the noise, and the terror, or the speed with which, in Tolstoy's account, the operation was conducted. That the pictures were taken on the same day as the operation, however, is confirmed by one shot in the film, not yet mentioned. It appears toward the end of the roll, at a point where the cameraman was in the railyard filming the prisoners, who, having been brought to the train in trucks,  are being searched before boarding the freight cars. The shot is rather puzzling: a man is brought up to the camera by American soldiers, accompanied by one or two officers. He opens his coat cheerfully to reveal a bare chest with what seem to be lines or scars drawn on it. The man and his guards appear to be smiling at each other. They are all glad to pose for the camera. This shot is described in the Archives' card as: "Russian soldier who slashed himself on chest with hope that he would not be returned to Russian [sic], poses with guards."  

As it happened, an army stills photographer was also present at Plattling that day - perhaps the same man as took the film. A few days later, on March 6, a photograph was published in the American forces newspaper, Stars and Stripes, showing this same Russian. It's an identical pose to a frame in the film. The caption to the photograph reads: 

  HURT: Russian repatriate Constantine Gustonon grimaces with pain after he slashed himself on the chest some 17 times in a suicide attempt to avoid being returned to Russia. He is held by Capt. Kenny Gardner, of the 66th Inf. Regt.. Gustonon's was the first case of attempted suicide among the deportees from Platting [sic] to Russia as PWs. 

The photograph is reproduced in Bethel's book, described as "rare." It is rare indeed, carried in only one edition of Stars and Stripes and with no accompanying story, but it's enough to corroborate that the film clip was taken on the same occasion.  

As evidence, then, for what actually took place at Plattling on February 24, 1946, the visual document is clearly of dubious value. To tell the story of the repatriation of the Russians, Bethel and Tolstoy needed written documents and eyewitnesses, just as Solzhenitsyn drew on what he heard from survivors he met in Soviet camps and his own documentary research. These written and oral sources have provided the primary evidence of what happened as a result of the secret Yalta accords. No doubt Tolstoy was highlighting the extraordinary nature of the operation in the extract given above; Bethel quoted "a Russian witness" who said that "Many of us had to stand in six degrees of frost from 6 am until four o'clock that evening," which implies that the clearing of the camp went on for most of the day.  

Even so, the disparity between the pictorial and the verbal depictions of this event is striking. At this level of historical reality, the level that concerns primary evidence for what actually happened, the visual record preserved in seven minutes of Signal Corps film is ambiguous, to say the least. 

  At another level of reality, however, the very existence of the film must claim attention. What is its meaning? We can't exactly disbelieve what we see in its frames, but can we rely on what we see? It depends, of course, on what we bring to our viewing of it, what an art historian has called the beholder's share. Here the cameraman's laconic written report is an important aid to interpretation, though not in the sense that he may have intended. His words like his pictures give no hint of the drama that had taken place earlier that day or of the fate that lay ahead for these men at the end of the train journey they are shown taking. In this respect, the card's reference to the "Russian soldier who slashed himself on chest with hope that he would not be returned to Russia" is also ambiguous. If we did not know of the many other actual and attempted suicides that accompanied the policy of forcible repatriation, we might understand from this scene that the Russian was a malingerer, a type known to sergeant majors in armies all over the world. Five men did in fact succeed in killing themselves in the railroad freight cars on their journey from Plattling. There's no way we can tell from the card or the film of the plight of these Russians captured near Stalingrad - if this was where they were taken prisoner. The card is deadpan in informing us that many of them joined the German Army to fight against the Russians, but it provides no indication of why they did so.  

At this second level of reality, then, the Signal Corps film illustrates that visual records are rarely as transparent as they seem; they are not windows giving access to reality, but mirrors reflecting the mental landscape of the persons who made them. What they document is an intention, a moral reality that lies behind the camera, rather than a physical reality that happens to be in front of it. Looking again more closely at the film, one picks up clues to this other reality. Take Captain Kenny Gardner, the officer who holds poor Constantine Gustonon's arm as he bares his chest to show us his self-inflicted wounds. Captain Gardner wears dark glasses on this cold, February day. He carries an officer's forage cap on his head. His down topcoat is warmly buttoned, the hood pulled back which in its turn pulls back part of the front collar.  

 

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