Garri Urban died in 2004, he should have died several times before. His life was extraordinary- captured by both the Nazis and the Soviets, he went through unspeakable torture, lost his first love to the Gulag, worked for Nikita Kruschev and died in suburban Britain, a doctor, one son Newsnight's diplomatic editor, the other a respected film maker. If anything can sum up the transition of the 20th Century, its awful middle and its benign end in the West, then it is the life of this man. Like so many for Garri Urban the moment of truth was the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Soviet Empire and the ending of the second world war on the continent of Europe- not as many people think an event which happened in 1945 but one that happened in 1991 with the fall of the monstrous communist tyranny (one that may be stretching out its dead hands, the siloviki, in Russia oncemore but that is another article!). In 1992 Urban decided to go back and find his file and find out why he had been arrested and what had happened- or at least that's the story that he told his son- and that's the story his son filmed to make what I saw last night at the British Film Institute.
But of course, that is not what happened. This film is about two journeys- one which takes us through the Soviet Union- the Ukraine, Moscow, Tashkent and back again and again and again- the second journey goes into the past and is conducted on film by the director Stuart Urban. The first journey supplies the structure of the film and reminds us that in the ex-Soviet Union it is still the practice to boil one's political opponents alive, to lose documents and to hide the past. The journey into the past though is more fascinating. Garri Urban was born in 1916 in the Ukraine. As a young man, he was a pugnacious womaniser, fearless and intelligent. At one point accosted by a Ukrainian mafiosi and told that the girl he was dating was not worth piss, he knocked the gangster to the ground, took out his penis and lubricated the astonished thug's face- unsurprisingly the next morning he had to flee town. But the story brings out what Garri Urban was and to an extent what he was till the day he died- a sonofabitch to use the American expression who would not give at all to anyone, no matter what.
Fleeing the Germans in the 30s he came to Russia. Then in 1940 he was captured attempting to escape from Russia, swimming across the border to Rumania. He was shot- jumped into the freezing water- they dragged his body out and a KGB agent stooped to find out whether he was dead. Garri Urban shouted 'Tovarisch (Comrade) I am not dead', punched the guy in the face and attempted to get back to the crossing- he was captured and brought to the local KGB headquarters and put in the Gulag. But incredibly he managed to escape- somehow getting hold of a KGB uniform and taking the train to Moscow- where he became a man about town and seduced the editor, model and photographer in Moscow's only fashion magazine- Noka Kapranova. But once again he was captured- tortured horribly- and placed inside the Gulag. He managed to end up though, promoted as a medical supervisor in a whole area of the Ukraine and then he escaped by dressing up as a German POW and fleeing to the allies- to freedom and to Austria in 1946. His family were all shot in the Holocaust- by the Ukrainians before the Germans arrived and in the case of his sister, after they had left. One brother survived- whose story is equally incredible- for his brother escaped the Germans and fought in the Jewish resistance to the Holocaust before leaving to become a commando in the Isreali Defence Forces, fighting the Palestinians.
Back to Garri, his journey into the past is a journey into ambiguity. He never is granted his file completely- and the Russian officer who refuses to hand it over says to his son that there are secrets about Garri in that file that would make his hair stand on end. Indeed the remnant of the file is eventually destroyed in uncertain circumstances- perhaps by Garri himself. There are various loose ends. In 1946 as she waited at a post office, Noka was given a letter from Garri by a woman telling her that he had escaped to the West and was fine- the letter was definitely from Garri but who knows how it got there. His brother implies there is another story here- perhaps a story that Garri under the hideous tortures of the KGB actually worked for the organisation briefly. There are other parts of the story which are just unknowable- how did Garri know the private number of Karimov, the Uzbek President, and why did he hate Kruschev so much as to wish the Soviet leader was kicked even in hell. The scars of torture remain on the frame of this old Jewish man- he was hideously treated- tied for hours to blocks of ice, broken and blasted. The woman he loved was taken from his life- and he never saw her again- he remarried but she did not. There is a tragedy here- moral, personal and private- that we can never guess at. Suffering- both in terms of promise betrayed, the life of a lie and tears- which is unimaginable in these days of plenty.
The most incredible moments in this film are the reunions- both of Garri and his brother and of Garri and Noka. The first we only hear discussed- but we don't need to see it- there is so much emotion in it. So much emotion in the way the two talk of each other that you get the sense of a really strong family love. When Garri talks about what happened to his mother- she died before the war- he tells her gravestone that in the Jewish cemetry over her body, thousands of Jews were massacred by the Nazis. Garri and Noka's meeting is equally emotional- this time it is the desperation of the Communist era that is at the heart of the matter. And then there is a last reunion where Garri goes back to the village in which his parents lived and finds people who knew them- people who we know and he knows may have killed them. Its again an amazing piece of cinema- because the history of Eastern Europeans and Jews is not a happy one and beneath the bonhomie there is definitely an edge about that and an emotion about the fact that these are Garri's people, this is his home. His forgiveness for them is a refutation of the cosmopolitan Jew beloved of Nazi and Soviet propaganda.
And yet, and yet I do not think we should leave the film with a message of hopelessness. For the film has a different purpose. Ultimately Noka says it better than anyone- its better to survive and to love, than to die and to hate. These two old people are truly indomitable. They have been warped and possibly betrayed themselves- but tovarisch they survived, they were alive to see the empires that wrecked their lives disappear like Ozymandias into the desert sand of history. In that sense the miracle of their lives is not that so much was lost but that so much survived- its a miracle of much more- a miracle that Europe survived the nightmare of this century- the cost though was dramatic and terrible. It cost Garri Urban his past- both in the sense that he was tortured and treated horrifically and in the sense that so much of it was bound in the ambiguity of what he had to do, which we will never know, in order to survive.