Fading memories of 20th century horrors are leaving European society less resilient to similar evils that could lie ahead, Polish director Agnieszka Holland said at the premiere of “Mr Jones”, her film about the 1930s Ukrainian famine.
Holland, who during a decades-long career has made films about the Nazi Holocaust and Communist tyranny in eastern Europe, pointed to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union as a sign lessons from the past were being forgotten.
“I think that the experience of World War Two, the Holocaust, gave to Europe especially some kind of vaccination out of fear that things like that can happen again, but it evaporated in the last few years,” she told reporters at the Berlin Film Festival before her film was presented on Sunday.
The film, one of 17 competing for the festival’s Golden Bear award, tells the story of Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist who escaped the gilded cage of 1930s Moscow to discover that the facade of a thriving Soviet economy rested on Ukrainian corpses.
The famine of 1932 and 1933, when leader Josef Stalin killed millions by diverting train-loads of wheat to prop up the Russian heartlands, still burdens ties between Russia and Ukraine, which is fighting a war against Moscow-backed separatists in its east.
Holland said the story of Jones, who risked his life to tell the world of peasants eating tree bark and orphaned children eating their own siblings in Ukrainian villages, was especially important in an age of “fake news”.
Written by Andrea Chalupa, a New Yorker of Ukrainian descent, the film contrasts Jones’s heroism with his more successful rival Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), whose initial compromises become lies as the New York Times correspondent seeks to preserve his status as doyen of Moscow society.
“The story I was telling myself was I have access,” said U.S. actor Sarsgaard. “I was the gatekeeper for the Western world and if I went away there’d be no access. I betray myself and my profession by degrees.”
Duranty’s drugs-, drink- and sex-fueled orgies, clearing houses for journalists seeking gossip, are shot in rich colors that contrast with the unsaturated whiteness of wintry Ukraine.
In one scene, starving Ukrainians look on ravenously as Norton eats an orange, its peel the one dab of color in the frame.
Holland said she hoped the film would spark a reevaluation of the importance of journalism and its ability to tell the truth, blaming Britain’s Brexit vote on “essential lies” and “manipulation” by wealthy financial backers.
Now, she said she was worried about the efforts of Steve Bannon, former adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, to mobilize politically in Europe. “He is financed by the richest industrialists,” she said. “The only tool we have is free, courageous media.”
But the film’s immediate task was to remind the world about the least known of the massacres that disfigure Europe’s 20th century, said British actor James Norton, who plays Jones.
“There are ghosts calling for this spotlight to be shone,” he said. In 1935, Jones, not yet 30, was murdered by Soviet agents while reporting from Mongolia.