Susan Sonntag wrote memorably in her essay Regarding the Pain of Others about a famous photograph of a still life with actors created in a studio, called “Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986)”, by Jeff Wall (1992, sold for $3.6 million in 2012):
“Thirteen Russian soldiers in bulky winter uniforms and high boots are scattered about a pocked, blood-splashed slope lined with loose rocks and the litter of war: shell casings, crumpled metal, a boot the holds the lower part of a leg.. The scene might be a revised version of the end of Gance’s J’accuse, when the dead soldiers from the First World War rise from their graves, but these Russian conscripts, slaughtered in the Soviet Union’s own late folly of a colonial war, were never buried. A few still have their helmets on. The head of one kneeling figure, talking animatedly, foams with his red brain matter. The atmosphere is warm, convivial, fraternal. Some slouch, leaning on an elbow, or sit, chatting, their opened skulls and destroyed hands on view. ..”
I strongly suspect director Jean-Jacques Annaud was influenced by this artwork in the staging of his adaption of William Craig’s book about the battle of Stalingrad – where the end of World War II for Europe was decided – Enemy at the Gates. Starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Ed Harris and Rachel Weisz, this gripping story of dueling snipers was scored by one of my favorite composers, James Horner, who was nominated for best action soundtrack – the film gathered seven nominations in total, including best director, best actor and best actress.
In this fan poem, based on the 40th Psalm, the hero is at odds with his closest comrade-in-arms, a propaganda specialist who has built him up into a larger-than-life target and, in so doing, touched off a war within a war. The Germans have sent their best sniper to defeat Vassily, Stalingrad’s newly-minted celebrity war hero, in a brutal duel that is taxing Vassily’s resolve. Instead of helping him climb down from his fame, Vassily’s friend descends into back-biting in the press, accusing him of inconstancy, as if it were treasonous to be afraid. This poem is his reply.
I urgently hoped for miraculous help.
Fate bent down toward me and heard my strained whisper,
and ushered me over the roiling Volga,
out from the clambering limbs of drowning men.
Memories of the steppe helped me find my feet,
kept my footing in the mud firm, once ashore.
And faith put to my clenched lips a brave new song –
praise for our Motherland and the Red Army.
May many see us fighting here and fear us
and trust in the People’s Revolution’s flag.
Happy the soldier in Stalingrad who puts
his trust in the hammer, the sickle, the star,
and does not yield to fascist propaganda,
resisting the cruel advance of total war.
Many mountains you have moved – Magnitogorsk,
the steelworks of the Urals – wonders of strength!
With every Five Year Plan we hurtle forward –
none can match the Soviets for speed. We rise,
and I have not the words to describe our fate:
the future arrives in the blink of an eye.
Sacrifice and ritual shrink behind us.
You opened our world to reading and science:
the mummery of penitence is no more.
Coming of age as a Soviet man means
inheriting blueprints for peace and plenty.
What I want is to do my part in all this,
to act on all I’ve been taught, to lead the way.
I acclaimed our cause in black and white newsprint.
When have I refused propaganda duties?
You, who dictated letters to me – you know,
I have never hidden my feelings from you.
The army’s faithfulness, my comrades’ rescue –
of all this I spoke with truth for all to hear.
You cannot, as my dearest comrade-in-arms,
stifle these truths, accusing me of bad faith!
Your steadfast belief in my courage and skill
has always been my protection from purges.
For all of us live and breathe under shadows
of doubt and fear of failure, here at the front.
My every mistake costs us dear in this duel
and at times, I cower in confusion’s grip –
blind to the devices of this sharp-shooter –
overwhelmed that he seeks only my own death.
Release me from this hero’s death, I beg you.
I ask only to be transferred from this duel.
Castigate the sniper the fascists sent here
to seek out a single man in all this hate,
force them to draw him off the hunt in disgrace,
for pitting himself against a hero’s fame.
Let him fall as all men fall, beaten by shame,
for relishing a murder I denied him.
Let those who turn to you for courage take pride
in how we snubbed the fascist propaganda.
May your readers praise the Commissariat
for fighting simply for the Motherland’s cause.
Let me fight as a regular, not a star,
so that my death will cost us less, should I die.
You have always been my friend here and my help.
Comrade, I need you more than ever today.