The Cold War plays at Toronto Film Festival

The Soviet Union was obsessed with two sports: hockey and chess (that’s right! It’s a sport). For decades, they held the championship in both arenas. Two new films shown at the Toronto International Film Festival bring back memories of those glorious Soviet days when they proudly displayed the accomplishments of their socialist system.

Pawn Sacrifice deals with the unbeatable Soviet chess master, Boris Spassky, and the classic world championship match with Bobby Fischer, America’s unbeatable foe. Uncannily accurate portrayals of Spassky and Fischer by Liev Schreiber and Tobey Maguire move this drama along to the well known exciting climax.

Along the way we learn of Fischer’s youth and how he got involved in chess, prompted by his “New York Communist parents,” and his growing obsessive behavior that eventually drove him off track. The Cold War is referenced often, especially by his anti-Communist lawyer manager who helps turn him away from his parents. Spassky is the exact opposite, calm and resolute, hardly affected by Fischer’s antics, but certainly fearing the young man’s talents. We know who wins, but it’s a thrilling story to follow, especially in the hands of the competent director, Edward Zwick (Glory), and a fine cast of actors.

Red Army deals with the unbeatable Soviet hockey team that took home all the trophies. With players whom even Wayne Gretzky bowed down to, Soviet teams constantly amazed the crowds, and of course pissed off the Cold Warriors. Red Army, directed by Chicagoan Abe Polsky, is a loving tribute to hockey and its thrilling competitiveness, featuring interviews with some of hockey’s greatest players. By the way, what ever happened to all those great players? And how did they accomplish the impossible? Oh, and yes, how can we get the players to defect and play on our side? These are all questions raised in a jovial manner by an interviewer who seems to prefer avoiding any political ramifications, as he goes to great lengths to get the truth. He interviews the first coach, the wives and all the players. The “A Team” of players eventually joined the Detroit Red Wings in a nostalgic reunion that lasted for years. True, it’s only a sport, but it was also the Cold War, and that’s what makes the film most intriguing.

Slava Fetisov, probably the greatest hockey player who ever lived and one of the only ones who chose not to defect from the USSR (later Russia), is featured heavily throughout this fast-paced, often funny examination of an awesome sports industry. Fetisov, who lived and played throughout the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, served as Minister of Sports in Putin’s Russia. His commitment and passion for the sport seems unending, and his youthful exuberance belies the struggles he describes in his coy interviews. Fetisov is often turned off by the interviewer’s inarticulateness, and is even caught off camera giving Polsky the finger – in a joking manner. This comical interplay is characteristic of the tone of this hearty and penetrating study of a critical chapter in world history and hockey, often displayed in thrilling archival footage of championship games with Canada and the U.S. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in January.

A certain nostalgia for the Soviet days is unavoidable for millions of people around the world who remember the positive aspects of socialism compared to the ills plaguing many of the citizens of the former Soviet republics today.

But anti-Communists now residing in those newly independent countries are enjoying the unchallenged opportunity to rewrite history, and they are making movies like In the Crosswind from Estonia. The film starts with a bold statement: “June 14, 1941 – 40,000 innocent people were deported from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The aim of this secret operation – done on Stalin’s orders – was to ethnically cleanse the Baltic countries of their native people.” That sets the tone for the rest of this bitter diatribe, forgetting that it was Hitler and the Nazis that started the war (invading the USSR just a week later) that eventually killed around 50 million people.

Film, even documentaries, can misrepresent the truth as fast as the present becomes past. In the West’s perpetual rush to rewrite history, after spending billions to distort and denigrate the accomplishments of then existing socialist countries, we get films like this. It’s understandable though, since historical recreations are passed through many stages, capitalist studio heads, anti-Communist writers, historians and academics.

Searching for the truth can be a rocky road.

On the eastern front, Soviets were fighting the Nazi scourge for a long time by itself, losing thousands of towns and villages, ultimately over 20 million lives lost. Some like to add this figure to Stalin’s crimes, implying that he started the war and was equal to Hitler. When people attack Stalin for his crimes, is the target actually one person or the entire Soviet socialist experiment?

In the Crosswind, however, is a beautiful and artful film, attempting to recreate the horrors of those forced to evacuate their homeland, for whatever reasons you want to believe. Using black and white photography, the entire film uses slow tracking shots of motionless actors holding poses, as if they were photographs. It’s a very dramatic effect, especially with the powerful musical score, but eventually becomes tiresome and pretentious.

Images recreate the narrated words from philosophy student Erna’s diary – Russian soldiers holding down and forcing innocent citizens with frightened gazes. Very little is said of Nazi atrocities, whose forces were creating gruesome scenes of horror (see Elem Klimov’s Come and See), advancing with speed and power to create more Lebensraum for the Aryan Volk.

Many Baltic citizens defected to the German enemy’s side and fought against the Soviets, providing espionage within the USSR and betraying military and state secrets. Many others escaped abroad.

The movie ends with the final attack on Soviet history: “in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, over 590,000 people were casualties of the mass repression during the Soviet occupation. Large numbers of deported women and children died from starvation and fatigue. Very few made it back to their homeland. This film is dedicated to the victims of the Soviet Holocaust.”

Ah, yes, history is written by the victors.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.