Former Soviet citizens in Wehrmacht or other Third Reich organizations or captivity.
Friday, June 1, 2012
'Death Match': Why a Nazi-Era Soccer Movie Is Making Ukraine Angry
A scene from the movie Match. Central Partnership / Inter-Film / AP
James Marson / Kiev
The Nazi officers stroll down Kiev's main
boulevard through cheering crowds and accept the welcoming gift of bread
and salt offered by women in Ukrainian national dress. A man in the
crowd nods approvingly. "There will be order," he says in Ukrainian.
This is one of many scenes in a World War II soccer film that have
riled Ukrainians as their country prepares to co-host the European
Championship, the world's second-biggest soccer tournament after the
World Cup. The film, Match, which was made in Russia and released
earlier this month in Ukraine, tells the story of a soccer game
organized in Kiev in 1942 against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation of
what was then the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. A team of locals beats a
team comprised of Germans — and some of the players are later killed for
refusing to throw the match.
The film, which received a majority of its funding from the Russian
government, is typical war-movie fare, with a tough-talking hero, a
simpering heroine and underhanded villains. But what sets it apart from
others in the genre is the portrayal of most of the Ukrainian speakers
in the film as Nazi collaborators and sympathizers. The mayor of Kiev is
depicted as a weak Nazi stooge who tries to steal the Russian-speaking
hero's girl. Ukrainian guards help Nazi killers at Babyn Yar, the ravine
in Kiev where tens of thousands of Jews and others were massacred.
Ukrainians have reacted with outrage at such portrayals. Many call
the film an attempt to humiliate the country, which was ruled for
centuries by Moscow but is now trying to wriggle free of the Kremlin's
grip and form closer ties with Europe.
Ever since Ukraine declared independence following the collapse of the
Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has fought hard to keep the country in its
sphere of influence. Russians trace the origins of their nation back to
Kiev, which gives Ukraine a special meaning in the national psyche, and
one of Moscow's favored tools has been to appeal to the countries'
common history and culture.
"Ukrainians now think of themselves as a
nation that exists separately from the Russian nation, but the Russian
nation thinks on the scale of the Soviet Union, of an empire," says
Stanislav Kulchytskiy, a Ukrainian historian. "Russia is a great state
and wants to act like a lord. The European Union would provide Ukraine
with some defense from Russia's constant striving to swallow it."
Ukrainian film officials initially said they would ban the movie over
fears it might stir up ethnic tensions ahead of the Euro 2012
championship, which kicks off June 8. They eventually relented, but when
the film premiered in Kiev on April 26, activists from the nationalist
Svoboda party broke up the event. "Out, Muscovite occupiers!" "Shame on
Ukrainophobic films!" a group of around two dozen young men chanted as
they tore down posters advertizing the film.
Historians say that some Ukrainians did collaborate with the Nazis
during World War II. Some worked as auxiliary police; others formed
armed groups to fight for an independent Ukrainian state and briefly
hoped the Nazis would help them. But critics say the film is exaggerated
to suggest that all Ukrainians who wanted independence were Nazi
lackeys — and that Ukraine would be better off sticking with Russia.
"It's shot from the official Russian point of view that says all people
who fought for Ukrainian independence are bad," says Ukrainian
journalist Oksana Faryna, who has written about the movie for the Kyiv Post.
"It's political propaganda to bring Ukraine back to Russia, to show we
are one nation with one history. It makes Ukrainians look like 'Little
Russians' who should let their big brother show them what to do."
Even the events surrounding the match are in dispute. The so-called
"Death Match" depicted in the film took place on Aug. 9, 1942, between a
Soviet team called Start and Germany's Flakelf. According to the Soviet
version of the story, Start players were warned that they should lose
or face dire consequences. After they won the match 5-3, some of the
players were sent to a concentration camp and shot. The story became
legend in the Soviet Union, where it was used as a patriotic tale of
loyalty and resistance.
But some accounts dispute this version of events. One theory suggests
that the men were shot after glass was discovered in the bread of
German officers made at the bakery where the players were working. "It's
a film that offends Ukrainian honor and attaches Soviet myths to us
Ukrainians," Ihor Miroshnichenko, a sports journalist and nationalist
activist, said at the protest on April 26. "There was no 'death match.'
It's a fabrication of Muscovite propaganda, of Soviet agitprop."
The film's producers don't shy away from the fact they are
perpetuating the Soviet version of events, calling the movie "a
historical patriotic drama." "It's a film about all of us and our shared
Motherland," they say in a joint statement on the film's website. But
the director, Andrei Maliukov, denies any political motivation behind
the film or the depictions of Ukrainian characters. "I didn't think
about making a pro-Ukrainian or anti-Ukrainian film," he told reporters
in April. "It's a film about love, about soccer, about how tough it was
for some people to live in this historical moment."
Ukrainians, meanwhile, lament the fact that no film has been made
locally about the World War II match. "We don't have our own film
industry or any filmmakers with financing who can present real,
complicated stories with different shades to allow the viewer to
decide," Faryna says. If Ukraine could do that, it would be one way to
show Russia that it is truly independent.