International Film as a Teaching Tool

by Kenneth Rayman on June 10, 2019
Thinking of how I sometimes use movies for content pieces or just say that I’m watching them on my social media, I sometimes wonder how it comes across to the new reader. Do they see an unsexy picture of a tv screen and pass me up as they scroll since, when looking without intent, the nature of the medium is the flashy highlight reel? I wrote about the Valkyrie plot on July 20th, 1944 recently for my Facebook and how a simple revisit of a documentary gave me further desire to visit Berlin, a place I until recently dismissed. As I thought more, I was reminded of a quote from a childhood comedy movie, “Captain Ron.” When the characters accidentally land in Cuba the daughter says, “it’s no big deal.” The father argues with his agreeing wife by admonishing the daughter for dated world views, telling his wife, “Her world view is based on “I Love Lucy” reruns. The world’s changed a lot since Ricky Ricardo.” I wondered if people see this, glance at the caption, and micro-judge because they lack context.

When I make a social media post such as this it is, in fact, to “highlight” something I think will have, does have, or did have narrative value. I uniquely view history as a tool to contextualize what connects us instead of just a collection of dates, times, and faces that most people “data dump” on a test sheet and forget after. I learned key aspects of the human existence from historical film, such as never knowing about racism as a child until watching “Tuskegee Airmen” and asking my parents “What does he mean by ‘this whole base is colored’?” I got my love for foreign film, I think, from my father who loved irritating my mother to no end, monopolizing the tv on occasion with a subtitled film as she asked, “Why watch it if you have to watch the words instead?”

Movies like “12” and “Битва за Севастополь” taught me key aspects of not only my own culture but of the Russian culture. “12” was a remake of the American classic “12 Angry Men” and just like the American version, pitted twelve jurors against a defendant that society had deemed guilty before the trial began for his ethnic background. I remember news reports of the 90s wars in Chechnya but never understood the cultural aspect until this movie, as the undertones forming the jurors’ opinions pitted themselves against each other’s regional, cultural, and professional differences exposing prejudice of the defendant through their own experiences with ignorance. The Estonian film, “Tangerines” would teach me of the religious component of the Chechen conflict, never knowing of the Muslim majority, myself. “Battle of Sevastopol” introduced me to the Russian sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko and her legendary story within the annals of Russian military history and WW2 tragedy. It showed an unlikely friendship born between two women as she relived her war experiences while being used as a “philosophical” pawn between the Soviet government and Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor was purely curious how a woman could fare in war when such a thought was unthinkable in American society with connection growing as Lyudmila appreciated the brief ability to be a woman instead of a “woman-soldier.”

Movies such as “Battle of Sevastopol,” “Attack on Leningrad,” “Miasto 44,” “Anthropoid,” and “A Woman in Berlin” can give an American audience a glimpse at a life experience of which they’ve been fortunately isolated from. I routinely remark when I speak on Russia that aside from Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States was last invaded by the British in 1812 whereas countries like Russia have dealt with invasion and occupation for centuries. When I traveled this past January, someone finding out I was in Poland called it “the battlefield of Europe” for its location during the Napoleonic Wars, WW2 and other regional conflicts. While the two Russian movies and the Polish “Miasto 44” focus on war’s brutality, the Czech movie “Anthropoid” and the German movie “A Woman in Berlin” tell the story of occupation and life underneath it. “A Woman in Berlin” is based on a now anonymous book detailing the accounts of women navigating the immediate aftermath of Soviet occupation in 1945, Berlin’s desolation, and gang rape. The book is one woman’s diary, who unfortunately had to withdrawal her name from publication after local backlash at the reveal of such German immorality. For the viewer, it’s shocking to watch as normal greeting gestures are socially replaced with the phrase “How many?” as women share survival efforts between rapes. “Anthropoid” is the portrayal of the assassination of German Reich-Protector Reinhard Heydrich that showcases the brutal surveillance and interrogation methods as well as responses to any subversion and effectively the end of Czech resistance.

“John Rabe” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” are examples of the heroism and humanitarian efforts during WW2. “John Rabe” is a German film showcasing a man’s efforts at sheltering and protecting Chinese citizens during what is known to history as “The Rape of Nanking” by Japanese occupiers in 1937. With no prior knowledge of the story, the usual Nazi-framed rhetoric on ethnicity at the beginning can mislead, but its nature is soon revealed as a long-held cultural view when John faces opposition from a colleague who is a staunch Nazi Party member. John, with the aid of British and American businessmen and women, establishes a zone surrounding the foreign embassies in Nanking that was to be free of Japanese aggression and as World War 2 hadn’t broke out yet, the future adversaries worked together to save the civilians from Japanese brutality. John selflessly worked through humanitarian concern with his kindness being repaid, being blacklisted after the war, by his Chinese benefactors who donated money and food to him and his family. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” follows a Polish couple’s efforts to save Polish Jews from the Nazis after Warsaw’s occupation and their zoo becomes a base of 
German operations with the wife becoming a personal romantic interest of a German zoologist. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of the couple was incredible as was the welcome departure of not using pure violence to depict the Polish experience.

National pride and heritage were exhibited in the Norwegian film, “The King’s Choice” as the Danish-born elected King Haakon VII battled internally with his official role of symbolism while the son, Olav V, wanted to be more proactive in his involvement in defense of Norway. It was portrayed as if Haakon VII had contended with the fact that he could not act above his station legally and his foreign birth seemed to play into it as well. However, the fumbling of Norwegian traitor Vidkun Quisling declaring a coup, blowing the Germans’ “defense of Norway” cover story, opened a new question; the Norwegian people had been betrayed, could they accept their first ever chosen ruler giving in as well? Even if political power didn’t lay with him legally? This allowed him to fully express his will to the cabinet that he could not accept the surrender of Norway as it would be against the people’s interest and, should the political power decide to acquiesce to German demands, he could not symbolically represent the chosen will of the people and would abdicate the throne and monarchy. To me, it showed the moment when he stopped being Danish-born Carl of Denmark, elected King of Norway, and became King Haakon VII of Norway.

Each of these movies connects me more to my fellow humans regardless of their nationality. I go back to walking the streets of St. Petersburg, Warsaw, and Oslo and reminisce for articles like this, bringing deeper connection to the memories and context for what I didn’t understand before. They foster dreams of walking the streets of Berlin, Prague, Nanjing, London, and all the others my shoes have yet to touch. Movies can conveniently leave things out for plots and storylines, but they can also inspire and make you ask, “Is that true? Did it really happen?” Movies are just pieces of the puzzle in the way we see ourselves and each other in the bigger picture of humanity.