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From the Inside

Stanley Kauffmann on Films

In 1970 costa-gavras made The Confession, a film about the so-called Slansky trial in Prague in 1952. The screenplay was based on the book of the same name by one of the defendants in that trial, Artur London; Yves Montand played London. Principally because of Costa-Gavras's stern direction and Montand's grimly interiorized performance, the film was a chilling plunge into political cruelty and mystery. Now a Czech-born American director, Zuzana Justman, has made a documentary on the same subject, called A Trial in Prague (Cinema Guild), that is more obliquely yet at least equally chilling.

Justman, who emigrated to the United States in 1948, has made three previous documentaries about wartime and postwar Czechoslovakia. She was moved to make this film when she discovered documentary footage of the trial, with which she then interwove interviews of people related to thedefendants. The result is gripping, not just because of the steamroller cruelties involved--which are reason enough--but because it illuminates, fromwithin, some of the subtler attractions of communism.

The basic facts of the Slansky trial are well known. The Communist Party took over the Czech government in 1948, murdering many of its opponents en route, and set itself up quite overtly as a satellite of the Soviet Union. Stalin was greatly disturbed when Yugoslavia broke from his control in 1948, and he took steps to strengthen his hold on the rest of the Soviet bloc. He ordered a purge in Czechoslovakia, not intrinsically very different from theMoscow trials of 1938. Those to be purged were not visible enemies of the party but Communist eminences. To purge anti-Communists would merely be expected; but for the party to purge itself--that was exemplary and intimidating.

Fourteen Czech officials were chosen--perhaps by Stalin himself--to be labeled traitors, and chief among them was Rudolf Slansky, secretary general ofthe Communist Party. Eleven of the accused were Jews. (This was a profound shock to other Jews in the party because communism was, in principle, a new order in which there would be no anti-Semitism.) The indictments were prepared, the accused were arrested and isolated, and after some months of what is politely called interrogation, the defendants all pleaded guilty. It was clear then and is even clearer now that these men had been broken and were well rehearsed in their public confessions. Eleven of the defendants were hanged; three were given life sentences. Those three, including London, were released after Stalin died.

Here is just one example of the mind-twisting that was the norm in these proceedings. One of the defendants, a Jew, had been a prisoner in theMauthausen concentration camp during the war. The Czech party now argued that since the Nazis had allowed him to survive, he must be a German spy. (In Fighter, reviewed here four weeks ago, Jan Wiener recounts how, after serving as a fighter pilot in the Free Czech force that had been based in Britain, he was arrested as a British spy when he returned to Prague and was imprisoned for five years.)

The footage of the trial would be ludicrous if it were not hideous. The vicious prosecutor is clearly a stooge fearing for his own life. The defendants sit like robots waiting to be switched on. But the people whom Justman recently interviewed are striking individuals. London's widow in France; thepresent Czech foreign minister, whose father was hanged; the widow of one executed man, who has placed a stone for her husband in the family graveyard even though his body was cremated; an Englishwoman who had been full of political passion in the 1940s and married a Czech Communist, then moved with him to Prague, where eventually he was hanged--all of them recount events that are like scenes from a Koestler novel, or a parody of one. Outstanding among the interviewees is Eduard Goldstucker, who was a defendant even though, or probably because, he had been the first Czech ambassador to Israel, and was accused of being a Zionist spy. He served four years in prison. He is an impressive man with fluent English; he and theEnglishwoman are the most explicit about the enticements and the complexities of Communist belief.

This subject of belief, coursing through the interviews and placed in the context of the footage of the trial, leads to a persistent question. The film does not specify the present beliefs of all these survivors, but it does help to clarify why, after these trials, after the gigantic twentieth-century oppressions in other Communist countries that make these trials look pygmy, many people still cling to communism. For instance, when London was convicted, his wife at first tried to divorce him so that she could remain a pure Communist. But she dropped the divorce suit when her husband was released, as if she was grateful for the chance to remain a Communist. When she and London were reunited in France, they remained Communists. All these people--the defendants and their contemporaries--came into communism at a time when fascism seemed about to gobble up the world. Communism was not merely a program for progress and justice; it was a salvation and a home, a cosmos to live in. Odd as it may sound to us, one of the chief blessings of the party was the sheer joy that it thus provided. When the party did some disquieting things, such as the Moscow and Slansky trials, these things could be seen as necessary genuflections to tactical necessity, not as reasons to forsake this ideological home. As Koestler dramatized it in Darkness at Noon, the crux was not whether the accused were innocent or guilty, in conventional bourgeois terms, but whether they would plead guilty as a public act of support for the party. Truth, in other words, was party-defined.

The film does even more in terms of latter-day clarification. A pressing question now for many of us is how, after what is known about party actions inthe world, after the collapse of so many Communist governments, intelligent persons can still be Communists. The basic reason seems to be an updated version of what it was for those Czechs in the 1940s--the poverty of alternatives, alternatives that are inspiring. The past cruelties are regrettable to them but are accounted necessary reactions to bourgeois attacks. The economic collapses of Marxist countries are seen as failures of procedure, not of theory. Besides, no alternative belief provides a home in the way that party membership does: a program, a quasi-religion, an implicit linkage with men and women around the globe who are in distress. These twenty-first-century Communists look at the terrible conditions in much of the world and, despite the depravities of Stalin and his colleagues, cannot believe that anything other than communism will fundamentally improve matters. Assume that they know a remark attributed to a former Prague resident named Kafka: "Every revolution evaporates, leaving behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy." Justman's film, though hardly made for this reason, shows why many concerned people prefer the risk of that slime to, as they think, emptiness.

The Glass House (Columbia) is worth mention for only one reason. It seems the cinematic near-equivalent of a "concept" theater production. For decades, many theater directors have dressed old plays, great and less great, in new production garments in order to bring them up to date. Thescreenplay of this thriller is literally new, but the concept is antique: an initial situation, seemingly cozy, is soon seen to be menacing (Kind Lady, Angel Street, Ladies in Retirement, and so on). The producers have attempted to freshen up this dusty device by putting it in a slick modern setting: theglass house of the title, an ultra-chic structure on the California coast. But it works the other way around. The hoariness of the plot turns the place into a creaky Victorian manse.

This article originally ran in the October 8, 2001, issue of the magazine.