Gulag: Forgotten Prisoners Of WWII (aka Eternal Winter) (Örök tél)

Hungary (2018) Dir. Attila Szász

When discussing the atrocities committed during World War II, the Nazis are naturally going to be the first on the list. Yet, it is a fact that they were not alone in executing vile acts of cruelty on other nations. Interestingly, the Russians, seen by many as saviours for defeating the Nazis in many territories, also have a stain against their name.

Christmas 1944 and Soviet soldiers occupy Hungary. They round up all the women with any German origins from the smaller villagers and transport them to the Gulags, Russian concentration camps. Living in squalid conditions, they are forced to work in the coalmines until the end of the war, and only then will they be allowed home.

Among the latest recruits of women is Irén (Marina Gera), desperate to see her young daughter again. When Irén is punished for a misdemeanour with three days in a solitary pit without food or water, she is hospitalised, where a male prisoner Rajmund (Sándor Csányi) helps with her recovery through bribes to the Russians. They become close but can the relationship survive?

I’m not exactly sure why the title of this film was changed for its UK release, maybe it was felt Eternal Winter didn’t have same dramatic hook as Forgotten Prisoners Of WWII. This may be true and the latter title does reflect the content more accurately but had this been Attila Szász’s intent, surely he would have chosen it over the more romantic sounding Eternal Winter.

The basis for the script is the novel Girls, Time is Over by Hungarian journalist Havasi János, which in turn was based on letters and stories from her mother and other genuine sources. A postscript in the coda informs us that 300,000 Hungarian women were taken by Russian forces to the gulags, many never returning, whilst the survivors were told never to speak about their experiences.

Separating this act of barbarianism from those of the Germans or Japanese during the war is the rationale behind this mass internment – this is actually about restitution for the crimes and widespread destruction committed by the Nazis. Stalin has decreed that to atone for this, the Germans most work to restore and rebuild the landscapes ruined by the actions of their countries army.   

Perhaps the most fascinating fact is that both Churchill and Roosevelt gave Stalin their approval to this programme, though whether they knew the extent of his plans is open to speculation. The women find the absence of benevolence straight away, when forced to undress and wash in the cold then transferred to dirty, over-occupied huts before being forced to trudge through the snow to the mines.

Irén takes a deaf girl Anna (Laura Döbrösi) under her wing, possibly to suit her maternal instincts, and works with her in the mine but in taking too long to meet their daily quota, they miss dinner. Lack of nourishment making them weaker means they get slower, not that the Russians care, nor the other prisoners for that matter. Blackened from the soot and grime, malnourished and tired, this is a living hell for the women.

Despite being in the same boat, the need to survive makes some of the women selfish, one in particular, Éva (Diána Magdolna Kiss) getting in with the camp commander from being bilingual. But as soon as she contracts scabies, Éva is booted out of his hut to the comparative slums of the women’s huts, where sympathy is understandably thin on the ground.

Rajmund’s impact on Irén’s life doesn’t occur until almost an hour into the film – in fact, he is mostly a non-descript background character up until Irén’s health scare. Rajmund is a bit of a dealer, bribing everyone with handmade cigarettes for a price, which benefits Irén during her recuperation period. Rajmund then teaches Irén the tricks of trade, which includes the ironic practice of using pages from the bible as rolling papers to make cigarettes.

Having made it clear nothing will happen between them, Irén does eventually succumb to Rajmund’s charms, cementing the union with a cheeky romp under the watchful eye of Stalin in the camp commander bed! Though things are better for them, this doesn’t mean an end to the horrors of their imprisonment until Stalin finally lets them go (four years after the war ended) and a new life awaits them.

And this is where the film starts to lose its lustre. The romance was far too swift to give Rajmund’s apparent love for Irén any credibility, as is her capitulation to it. Had it been introduced earlier its importance and gravity would have been felt more deeply, instead the last thirty minutes is tear jerking melodrama, albeit well played melodrama.

Closure is necessary for this tale and is delivered in a powerful and emotional way, but our investment in it comes solely from Irén’s experiences before Rajmund’s arrival. Before this, we had a gritty, stark, and bleak look into the hitherto unseen world of the gulag camps and the effects on the prisoners, providing familiar but engaging viewing that could have easily carried the entire film.

This is not to decry the romantic subplot since it offers something akin to a glimmer of light in what is a grey and unforgiving scenario, but Rajmund not being established and integrated into the story sooner feels clumsy. Thankfully Sándor Csányi turns in a solid performance as Rajmund and proves a compelling presence, but it is Marina Gera who carries the entire film on her withered shoulders in her stunning portrayal of Irén.

It is possible Attila Szász was aiming for prestige movie status with Gulag: Forgotten Prisoners Of WWII and he nearly made it too. It’s superbly shot, convincingly acted, and achingly realistic in its recreation of the period but stumbles by succumbing to the need to make the romantic element accessible for mainstream sensibilities. As a historical war drama regarding a lesser-known event though, it is worth a watch.