19 August 2013

Fortress of War movie review

Fortress of War is a Russian movie about the battle for the Brest fortress in 1941 during the first days of operation Barbarossa. Having seen a fair share of good looking but nonetheless bad Russian historical movies recently I was skeptical but the movie came highly recommended on many sites.

I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t suck, for the most parts at least. Fortress of War is a very competent war movie telling the tale of the Soviet defenders through the point of view of a couple of key characters such as a boy from the army orchestra, a NKVD officer and a border protection officer. It takes a while before the action kicks off, but you get a pretty well paced action packed movie for about 3/5 of the 138 minute running time.

The effects and CGI are very good, although there are some unrealistic sequences with bombers dropping bombs at a extremely low altitude just because "it looks cool". The soldiers look the part, the sound effects are great and the whole Brest fortress has been rebuilt in such detail that the set really looks like the real deal and it's great to see the increasing amount of destruction caused by the constant battle.



The story however is thin, it's hard to really get involved as the characters have very little going on other than trying to survive. There are some thing which could have been done better for character motivation, comparing it to the Polish movie Battle of Westerplatte (2013) which I reviewed a few weeks ago had a similar premis however it was a bit easier to understand the plot there as it focused on the two main commanders - one knowing that they would never get any help from the Polish mainland, the other one wanting to fight on at all cost hoping for reinforcements and making their defense an example. In Fortress of War we get very little explanation as to why the men are fighting to death - they only do. The Soviet soldiers learn very early on that they are far behind the front and that there are no Soviet troops left to help them. There is really no point for them to fight to the death unless it is motivated by belief in something or presented as personal determination somehow. At this point in the historical timeline the Germans had not yet mistreated any Soviet POW's or really given any cause for the defenders to not consider surrender as a possibility. Surrendering is however is out of the question, and that is not even made a threat by the commissars but simply becomes a mindset of the defenders..

Furthermore the political officers are far too sympathetic. You could argue that this is a reversal of the "Commissar" stereotype put in place to amend inaccurate portrayals in books, movies and stories- but the fact is that the stereotype had to come from somewhere. It's not like history began judging Soviet political officers at random. On the opposite end of the stereotype we get scenes of Germans gunning down civilians and using civilians as human shields despite nothing of the sort occurring during the battle.  It should also have shown the Soviet children being sent out to scavenge ammunition during the battle.

Another thing that greatly annoyed me (probably because I'm a Pole and have an interest in Early War history) was the complete lack of mention or even a hint that the fortress had in fact been Polish in 1939 and was captured by the Germans on September 17th 1939 during the first battle of Brest. The Polish defenders surrendered to the Germans after a siege and the Germans then handed the fortress over to the Soviet's - who held a joint military parade to celebrate their victory over the Polish defenders, hugged and shook hands. The Soviets then proceeded to use the fortress as a location for Polish prisoners who were interrogated and either executed on location or transported to other prisons/execution sites from there. In this movie however nothing is mentioned about any of this, and you can easily get the impression that this is some kind of Soviet heartland by the looks of it and how people act - as if it was some kind of idyllic place to live in.

Adding to that the movie tries to make it appear as if the Soviet Union didn't engage in any war prior to the German aggression in 1941, when in fact they had been busy fighting the Japanese, Poles and Finns before Barbarossa, and also annexed the Baltic states.  Everyone in the movie is surprised and shocked about the "sudden war" coming from nowhere and how they had not experienced war before. Are you serious?!

I also wish the movie had offered a bit more story, touched upon the tense alliance with the Germans which is not even touched upon, the occupation of Polish territory isn’t even mentioned or implied. Being able to show the Soviet brutality of political officers towards their own men should come as easily as showing the German brutality towards Soviet civilians who are using civilians as human shields.

Still, despite all the underhanded propaganda and tilted history - the movie manages to salvage itself through the action sequences which are as already described very well executed for the most part. For the less informed or naive viewer the many historical aspects of the movie will go unnoticed - which is quite sad. For people a bit more knowledge in history Fortress of War can still provide quite an enjoyable couple of hours of well made combat footage if you can turn a blind eye on the other aspects..



7/10 for the combat and fighting scenes alone.

4 comments:

  1. Sounds like classic Russian propaganda: at least the biases are more visible to most people than the pro-German biases common in Western cinema. Nonetheless, glad you still had fun with it!

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  2. Just a wee note - it would be ' NKVD officer' not 'KGB officer', as KGB was formed in 1954 :)

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  3. Sounds like an interesting movie, though with a lot of historical errors making the Russians look more 'good' and the Germans more 'evil' (somewhat typical of all media but Russian in particular).

    If you want a book that covers a lot of facts about the Red Army spanning from before the WWII to the end of it, I recommend 'Ivans krig' by Catherine Merridale. It does point out some of your comments, such as Soviet soldiers already having experienced battle before Operation Barbarossa but also that the Soviets were quite surprised, and crushed by, the initial German attack.

    It makes an interesting read if you want to know more about the Red Army's organization, development and culture.

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