Mr. Jones, filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s 2019 account of Gareth Jones, a brave young Welsh journalist who took great risks to write the truth about the Holodomor, Stalin’s genocidal manmade famine that starved millions of Ukrainians to death in the early 1930s, is now available to watch on streaming platforms. While by no means perfect, Mr. Jones is arguably Holland’s best film since 1991’s Europa Europa, and its candid depiction of the brutality of communism and tribute to a man who remained faithful to the Eighth Commandment under extreme pressures will likely appeal to many Catholic viewers.
Previously, Holland often dealt with the Holocaust in her work. This is unsurprising given her own family story: her Jewish father was a Holocaust survivor, while her Gentile mother worked with the Polish resistance during World War II and personally aided several Jews.
The best film by Holland on this topic is without a question 1991’s Europa Europa. Don’t let the uninspired title mislead you: while countless films have been made about the Holocaust, Europa Europa is certainly one of the best. In an outstanding performance that surprisingly did not make him an international household name, Marco Hofschneider plays Solomon Perel, a German Jew who survived the Holocaust by pretending to be a Hitler Youth. Eventually, Perel increasingly submits to the Nazi ideology, and at one point the fact that he is circumcised becomes his last remaining link to his Jewishness and, as Holland once put it, saves his soul.
Holland also dealt with the Holocaust in 1985’s dark Angry Harvest, which depicts the sexual tension ultimately resulting in rape between a Polish farmer and a Jewish woman fleeing from a train transport headed to Auschwitz. Holland showed more edifying human behavior in 2011’s In Darkness, starring Robert Więckiewicz, one of the most gifted Polish actors today, as Leopold Socha, a Polish sewer inspector and petty thief who hides Jews in the human waste-filled Hades of German-occupied Lwów (present-day Lviv, Ukraine).
Having dealt with Hitler’s crimes on several occasions, Holland turns her attention in Mr. Jones to the other mustachioed butcher in Europe’s bloody twentieth century: Stalin. The film opens with shots of a field of golden ears of wheat swaying in the wind; this is a reference to the Ukrainian black earth region, whose fertile soil made Ukraine the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. In other words, a famine in Ukraine should be as likely a drought in Seattle.
When Stalin tried to collectivize agriculture in the 1920s, he was met with fierce resistance by the Soviet peasantry, especially in Ukraine and the Muslim republics of Central Asia. In response, Stalin decided to starve millions of Ukrainians to death in 1932. Ukrainian peasants were required to produce impossible harvest quotas of grain. The Komsomol combed every cubic inch of the Ukrainian countryside to requisition all the grain; watchtowers were installed to make sure that the Ukrainian peasants did not keep any wheat for themselves. Meanwhile, the borders were blocked to prevent Ukrainians from fleeing to neighboring Poland and Romania. Consequently, over the course of less than two years, between 3.9 and 5 million Ukrainian peasants starved to death.
The titular character is Jones, a twenty-eight-year-old Welsh freelance journalist whose biggest achievement up to that point had been interviewing Hitler. Through his connections with fellow Welshman and former prime minister Lloyd George, Jones gets permission to travel to the USSR in the winter of 1933 and interview Stalin about his five-year plan.
When in Moscow, Jones stays at the posh Hotel Metropol. His guide is Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent who gained infamy for denying any famine and writing puff pieces about Stalin. Duranty throws wild parties for the other Westerners in Moscow filled with morphine, naked women, and jazz bands playing decadent American imperialist music such as “Minnie the Moocher.”
Duranty is played by Peter Sarsgaard; while a gifted actor, Sarsgaard’s portrayal is one of the weakest elements of Mr. Jones. A native of Illinois, his British accent is unconvincing. His hair greased back in the style of Bela Lugosi as Dracula and sputtering cliched phrases like “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” through a devilish grin-frown, Sarsgaard’s Duranty reminded me of cartoon villains from my childhood, such as the Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Jones learns that foreign correspondents are banned from leaving Moscow. Eventually, he is given permission to travel to Ukraine under the close supervision of Maxim Litvinov, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Jones eventually jumps off the train and explores the tundra-like Ukrainian countryside.
He sees the people starving, which Holland depicts in a disturbing way, but without resorting to gore. Extreme hunger is a state that can be understood only by those who have actually experienced it and strips humans of such abstract notions as dignity and good taste. In the film’s most memorable scene, Jones enters a hut with two children. They offer him meat, and so he asks where they got it. From Kolya, their brother, they respond. Jones asks if Kolya is a hunter, but quickly has a “Soylent Green is people” style epiphany.
Cannibalism is one of the last taboos in Western society, yet extreme hunger can breach this taboo; it occurred during the Holodomor and in Nazi concentration camps such as Bergen Belsen. Watching Holland’s film however, we feel disgust not for the children but for the inhuman ideology and those who implement it.
Upon leaving Ukraine, Jones naturally wants to alert the world about the Ukrainian tragedy. However, he quickly learns of the power of the Soviet state, which blackmails him by threatening to kill six British engineers working in the Soviet Union if he writes the truth.
Holland was raised in a secular family. In Poland, she is known not only for her films, but also for her frequently commenting on social and political affairs, unwaveringly taking a left-liberal stance, and participation in protests against Poland’s conservative government. However, her work frequently deals with moral issues in a way that resonates with Catholic consciences.
Apart from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (written during Stalin’s regime but not published until the late 1960s), the best parody of Soviet atheistic propaganda I have encountered is a scene in Holland’s Europa Europa. Solomon Perel finds himself in a Soviet orphanage where the teachers “prove” God’s non-existence using the most laughably primitive sophistry. The children are asked to pray to God for candy; naturally, none materializes. Next, the children are told to ask Stalin for candy; adults throw candy through an opening in the ceiling.
Likewise, although Holland’s To Kill a Priest (inspired by the martyrdom of the pro-Solidarity priest Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko) is not a great film from an artistic standpoint, it convincingly juxtaposes the Christian love of “Father Alek” with the obsessive hatred of the communist policeman bent on killing him. Harris also played a Chicago priest experiencing a crisis of faith and investigating an alleged miracle through the intercession of a candidate for sainthood in Holland’s The Third Miracle, a film so faith-affirming it is surprising it was not made by a committed Catholic.
While Mr. Jones lacks explicit references to religion, Holland does a fine job of depicting the moral dilemma faced by Gareth. The truth is not always popular, and those who spread lies often have great resources and force at their disposal. In the final title cards, we learn that Jones was killed by bandits, probably hired by the Soviets, just shy of his thirtieth birthday, while Duranty died in his seventies in Florida—famous, successful, and never having had his Pulitzer revoked. Tellingly, I had long known about Duranty, but I had not heard about Gareth Jones before I learned of Holland’s film. (I had, however, heard of another British journalist who courageously told the truth of Stalin’s crimes in Ukraine, the Catholic convert Malcolm Muggeridge, whose on-screen presence in Mr. Jones is regrettably limited to simply giving Gareth a handshake at Walter Duranty’s party.)
Of course, every viewer realizes that Duranty has gone down in history as a dishonest useful idiot, while Gareth Jones has posthumously scored a moral victory. This was not so apparent from a worldly perspective in Jones’ lifetime, yet he did what was right. Watching Mr. Jones, I was reminded of last year’s A Hidden Life by Terrence Malick, a film about Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant who was virtually alone in his community in opposing Nazism, for which he was handed the palm of martyrdom.
Unlike Jones or Jägerstätter, we might not be threatened with our own execution or that of six innocent men for speaking the truth. But do we do so in our everyday lives, especially since we live in what Pope Benedict XVI has aptly dubbed “the dictatorship of relativism,” when few people even believe in absolute truth?
Mr. Jones, while flawed in places, is a moving tribute to the tens of millions of victims of communism and the power of the truth, which often is apparent only after many years.
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