Within the Whirlwind (Gorris, 2009) is a screen-adaption of Eugenia Ginzburg’s written memoirs, the book of the same name and the earlier Into the Whirlwind in which she tells of her experiences during Stalin’s Great Purge and beyond. Although these books recount two distinct periods of Ginzburg’s life, before and during the years she spent as a GULAG prisoner, the film, directed by Marleen Gorris, seamlessly merges them into one uninterrupted whole.
The film begins by setting the context surrounding Ginzburg and her family and then showing the months leading up to her arrest. Both Ginzburg, played by Emily Watson, and her husband hold positions in respected organisations and are party members. They have two young sons and a seemingly idyllic life. However, following the murder of politburo member, Sergey Kirov, and as part of a wave of repression that swept the country throughout the 1930s, Ginzburg is summoned for interrogation numerous times, falsely accused of disloyalty to the party and of fraternising with a terrorist group.
Watson plays the scared, confused but dignified Ginzburg well, balancing her authority within the university with her protective mother role at home, and further with her status as a wife. We see the futility of Ginzburg’s efforts to prove herself innocent and stay with her family – the gradual breakdown of her relationship with her husband runs alongside the demolition of her life in other ways. Viewers who have read Ginzburg’s first memoir will recognise the significance of her angry last words with Alyosha, her son, and the closing door behind her as she enters the government building where she is arrested.
From this moment in the storyline, Watson’s task in re-enacting the physical and psychological torment Ginzburg experiences becomes all the more significant. That the horrendous events she’s acting out are true gives the plot an additional layer of gravitas; often in films we find comfort in knowing that it’s just a story, yet this comfort is non-existent here.
As in the book, there is a continuous threaded theme of literature through the film, with Ginzburg’s psychological survival depending heavily on her relationship with the Russian classics. However, the film doesn’t quite recapture its prominence in her life – often her citations of deeply significant literary works come across as incoherent ramblings or mere chanting, which would mean very little to viewers unfamiliar with Russian literature.
However, what does come across clearly is Ginzburg’s slow demise – scene by scene in Watson’s skilful performance we see her becoming less herself and more just another prisoner, as if along with losing her identity as a mother, wife and respected academic, she is increasingly comatose and numb to the world around her and its harsh political climate – this, with the lifeline of literature, is her way of surviving. That said, there are aspects of her performance that seem problematic: while in the memoirs Ginzburg comes across as inwardly determined and resilient, the film represents her as emotional and even fiery – thus missing one of the key aspects of her personality. Ginzburg’s silent strength in the face of hardship is integral to the memoir and to the reader’s grasp of her inner nature, and it’s a pity this important part of her is misconstrued.
Given the inevitable abridgements often found in book-to-film adaptations, Gorris attempts a sensitive portrayal of real life events under one of the most brutal political regimes the world has seen, staying mostly true to Ginzburg’s story in the process. Turning her memoirs into a film was always going to be difficult and in many ways an adaptation could never do the original text justice, whatever the depth of research that went into it. Within the Whirlwind, it’s worth mentioning, never had a theatrical release, something about which Watson herself was deeply disappointed. However, in the context of other films based on the GULAG, it’s perhaps easy to understand why this was the case – the mid to late 2000s saw a spate of television and film releases on the same subject: Dostal’s Lenin’s Will, Volodarskii’s Major Pugachev’s Last Battle, and Vladimir Iakanin’s Lucky, to name just three. Around the same time too that Within the Whirlwind was being produced, Alexei Uchitel’s The Edge as well as Burnt by the Sun 2 (Nikita Mikhailov – sequel to the 1994 original) were in production: the latter particularly long-awaited and eagerly expected. Perhaps, then, Gorris’s GULAG film came at a moment when the market was saturated: it was simply one of many.
But while the film may not have enjoyed the success of its peer releases, Gorris and her team, merely by recounting the experience of a woman in the GULAG, have made an important addition to the genre. Watson’s task in playing the writer of these memoirs is to some extent insurmountable – but she does it with sensitivity and discernment, giving viewers a portrait of Ginzburg herself they can relate to. If the film helps knowledge of the era and understanding of the people, and particularly draws attention to the plight of women who lived through it, then it has contributed to the ongoing conversation about the country and its history – one that we can’t ignore.
Marleen Gorris’s Into the Whirlwind (2009) is available from Amazon.co.uk, at £17.00