Jul 302009


Alexander asked for some comments on Seventeen Moments of Spring.

I’ve only watched the first four episodes so far, but our slow going is not because we don’t like the film. We just don’t get in as much movie-watching at this time of summer.

I have been meaning to say something about this part in episode 3, though, though wasn’t sure just how to say it without being misunderstood. And it may be that I misunderstand, too.


The English subtitles are as follows:

Looking at Werner who was standing near the coffin, Stirlitz only now realized how the two brothers resembled each other. Karl’s younger brother, Werner, didn’t know that Stirlitz had got him released from the camp where he had been thrown on a denunciation.

Whoa! A denunciation? I thought it was the Russians of that time could get someone thrown into a prison camp on a denunciation. Germans and Russians both used informers, but I thought this system of easy denunciation was a unique feature of certain episodes in some communist regimes. Here are some possibilities I can think of for why this film series has the Germans doing it.

  1. The Russian filmmakers are projecting their own system on the Germans, probably not realizing it.
  2. The distinction I’m making between informers and denunciations is not a real distinction.
  3. The translation into English is all garbled. (I certainly can’t follow any of the Russian I hear in this part.)
  4. The Germans really did denunciations, too, and I just didn’t notice it in any of my reading.
  5. Other.

If choice #1 is correct, it wouldn’t be at all surprising. That sort of thing happens all the time, and probably goes back at least as far as Aristophanes. American filmmakers are especially bad at projecting their own sensibilities on everyone else, which is one reason I can’t stand to watch many American films. When I see it in American films I’m irritated. But when I see it in Russian films, I’m amused.

For example, I was once amused to see a show on RTR Planeta in which the American bad guys, in a plot hatched in the White House, poisoned one of the Russians. And I thought, no, no, no, that’s not right! Russians are the poisoners. It’s a common theme in Russian movies of all kinds, and in real life (see Alexander Litvinenko). Russians even joke about it. It’s not that Americans haven’t been involved in their own nasty assassination plots (see, for example, what happened to Ngo Dinh Diem) but poisoning is just not a standard part of the American repertoire. It’s not the American MO. But it was amusing to see Russians projecting that technique onto Americans.

Maybe something like that is happening with denunciations in Seventeen Instances, too. It doesn’t really matter to the plot, but this blog is mainly for superficial remarks, so that gives me license to talk about it.


  • It’s interesting notes…
    Now I can’t answer more detail, but I have a question too:

    what do you mean speaking the “system of easy denunciation was a unique feature of certain episodes in some communist regimes”?
    There was system of denunciation in Natist Germany – you may remember the case of Anne Frank or elseone yet…

    On another hand, even Leni Rifenshtal was a target of a lot of denunciations, though, in this case she didn’t became the their victim… Btw, the informers wrote own denunciations on Leni Rifenshtal even to Rudolf Hess.

    In these English subtitles I saw that they (I don’t know why) changed the name of Professor – in Russian original version he is Pleyshner…

  • Reticulator


    Anne Frank was ratted on by an informer, I think (as they say in the old gangster movies). Corrie TenBoom and her family were ratted on by an informer in her neighborhood, so off they were sent to the concentration camps.

    I think of a denunciation as something done more openly, in public, but maybe that’s not a true distinction. I’ll try to come up with some examples when I have time to look them up, say, in Orlando Figes’ book.

    What you say about Leni Riefenstahl is interesting. I didn’t know that she had people denouncing her to the regime. I’ll try to learn more about that.

  • As for Werner/Plechner, I think the filmmakers (and writer Yulian Semenov) meant the cases like ones that I read about situation in University of Freiburg (after 1933), where philosopher Martin Heidegger worked.

    /// For example, I was once amused to see a show on RTR Planeta in which the American bad guys, in a plot hatched in the White House, poisoned one of the Russians.///

    an interesting plot 😉 I didn’t see. Was it modern Russian TV series/detective/thriller?

    Honestly, I see new Russian TV series very seldom. As a rule, they are quite banal and low art quality.

    But I recommend yet classic spy TV mini of Soviet period (1984) – “TASS upolnomochen zayavit” (“TASS Is Authorized to Declare”). About the confrontation between C.I.A. and K.G.B. in one African country, but the events go in Moscow too. In this film, there are scenes of poisoning…
    It’s well-done spy-political thriller based on real cases (KGB Generals were as consultants).
    Anyway, you can see how American spyonage was pictured in classic Soviet movies.



  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Regarding Werner/Pleyshner: Werner is his given name, Pleyshner is surname (his brother was Karl Pleyshner). Re: the issue of denunciations/informers, I was a bit confused by your question in the post, but having read the previous comments, I think it’s the issue of a bad translation. IIRC, the Russian word used is “donos”, which is what an informant would write to the Gestapo/KGB etc. Not a public denunciation. But yes indeed there’s a lot of projection of Soviet relaities here, though fully intentional. I’ve read in some interviews with the director about that.

  • Reticulator

    Asya, that’s fascinating to hear that the director was doing intentional projection. If those interviews are in print or online video, maybe I’ll run across them somewhere.

    I sometimes pick up a few interesting tidbits at a web site I first learned about from Alexander: http://www.kino-teatr.ru/ I haven’t done that for this series. (I can’t actually read very much, but I can sometimes make out enough to decide whether it’s worth getting Google Translate to help me with the rest.)