The Innocents, a new Franco-Polish–Belgian production, comes to the screens this weekend. It is a film about a Polish Benedictine monastery at the end of the Second World War. It is fiction but is based upon real events that for years formed part of a conspiracy of silence.
(Please note the following review contains some spoilers in regard to the plot of the film.)
At this monastery some of the nuns are pregnant, others are suffering from venereal diseases, while all are suffering from what today would be termed post-traumatic stress syndrome. The reason is that the advancing army of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ‘liberating’ Poland from the Nazis had stayed at the monastery for a number of days so as to repeatedly rape the women there.
The ‘real events’ the movie depicts are based on contemporary notes taken in 1945 by Madeleine Pauliac, the Red Cross doctor who inspired the film. At the Polish convent to which she was called, 25 of the nuns had been raped, some 40 times. The Soviet soldiers were authorized to do so by their superiors as a ‘reward for their efforts’.
If you think such a proposition is far-fetched or mere propaganda then I would point you to the publication, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, by renowned British historian, Antony Beevor. In that work he details the scale of the war crimes committed by the Communist armies. Women and children, young and old, religious and lay, able-bodied and handicapped all were fair game for the Bolshevik. Rape was seen by these invading hordes as a weapon, an opportunity for subjugation, a means of revenge, and some form of a perverted triumph for the U.S.S.R. The sad irony was that their victims were often women who had had nothing to do with the Nazi war machine or had, indeed, suffered at its hands; there are accounts of the Red Army raping those women they found in concentration camps and who had emerged in rags to greet their liberators.
Naturally, the book was denounced in Russia as nothing more than the warmed-over lies of imperialists. The fact, however, is that the sources detailing these war crimes, and used by Beevor in his thorough forensic examination, were all taken from still-existing Soviet archives.
The cinematic version here of what took place in post-war Poland tells of how an atheistic French female doctor helps the convent come to terms with what has occurred. The doctor has also come to help them give birth and deal with related medical problems. That, in a nutshell, is the plot. There are multiple scenes of pregnancy and childbirth. Inevitably, there are many angst-ridden faces; there are many looks of despair as well. Surprisingly, the atheistic doctor looks benign throughout. However, there is little by way of real tension on display. There is one tense scene when the Red Army returns, but as quickly as the soldiers arrive they leave and so, too, does any sense of threat. In the end, there is too little plot for the audience left watching simply a moral dilemma. But, at just under two hours, this is hard to sustain.
This movie is ostensibly about faith and suffering. There are the inevitable discussions around how a good God could allow such things to happen, but these discussions, like the plot, go nowhere. There is a brief mention of the Cross, but it is noticeable only because it is such a fleeting reference. Yet, presumably, that is the only thing that could help these women through such horrendous experiences. The monastery and the sad nuns in it appear in contrast to the seemingly content Communist doctor. That latter part has a veneer of substance but, like all the characters, is never fully explored. Why is she helping the nuns? What does she think of the women she is treating? And, what, if anything, does she think of those political fellow travellers who perpetrated these acts of savagery? These questions are never explored.
The ending is particularly unsatisfying. A ‘happy ending’ was always going to be a tall order. This one, where these enclosed nuns, at the behest of the Communist doctor, exchange their strictly contemplative life for an ‘active ministry,’ seems wholly unrealistic on a number of levels. The fact that it is an atheist that shows these vowed religious the ‘error of their ways’ left me feeling uneasy.
What was the filmmaker’s purpose? To show us how atrocious the Red Army was? To show us how good communist humanism is? Or, was it simply another voyeuristic look at the life of enclosed nuns? It’s not clear. What does seem clear is that this film is not an exploration or depiction of how women with a deeply committed faith encounter evil and the suffering it brings. That would have been a film relying less on a simplistic ending.
Just in case there is any doubt, this film is not one for family viewing. It is not The Sound of Music, nor is it Black Narcissus for that matter. There is a superfluous, and unnecessary, scene of a sexual nature. There is any amount of blood and guts of a medical sort, as well as much discussion of the sexual assaults the women underwent. For all these reasons discretion is required when considering viewing it.
In the end, the movie lacks narrative drive. The much-vaunted cinematography starts to pale after yet more dark interiors or another frozen bleak exterior. This is classic European Art House territory: for some it is a ‘must’; for others, a definite ‘no go’. However, this movie lacks any emotional connection. There are no twists, no turns, just a long and winding road with as dour a landscape as the emotions on display. But then, given the subject matter, this was never going to be a ‘feel good’ movie.
There is, though, one aspect of the movie that is commendable. There is never any talk of getting rid of the babies conceived in violence. That the unborn children must see the light of day is not in question, whether by the nuns or the atheistic doctor. I was half expecting some tired discussion about whether such pregnancies should be tolerated. Thankfully, it never came. If, for no other reason, that would be a good enough cause for some to see this film. Others will learn about one of the darkest secrets of the Second World War, and what it reveals about the true nature of the political system that was to go on to ensnare half of Europe for decades to come.