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Shoot above the crowd, then before their feet, and then shoot in the crowd

In August 20, 1968, troops of the Soviet Union, The People’s Republic of Poland, the German Democratic Republic, the People’s Republic of Hungary and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria crossed the border of Czechoslovakia. Fifty years later, the documentary Occupation 1968 shows the events from a rather unusual perspective: of these five countries rather than of the victim’s.

This is the story of all those Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian and German soldiers who had to depart to intervene in an allied country’s struggle for reforms, and to suppress the Prague Spring. Wondering what should they do if they are ordered to fire the civilians? What can they actually do?

“It’s always up to a human being to decide freely. The only question is what price they have to pay for their decision.”

These are the words of an ex-soldier in Russian director Evdokia Moskovina’s short film (The last mission of General Ermakov). Occupation 1968 is a collection of five documentaries made by directors of each occupant country. We call them occupants, and even after decades, ex-Soviet soldiers have to face locals’ frustration and anger, released by the invasion of the neighbouring countries. However, in these short films, each 26 minutes long, the labels “victim” and “invader” cannot be separated so black-and-white. At least not from an average person’s subjective point of view.

We rather see helplessness. Unity, forced controversies and vulnerability. Individual strategies to survive, letting people cope up with the moral burdens alongside the physical and psychological ones.

In the German short film with a special atmosphere (Marie Elise Scheidt: Voices in the Forest), two men are wandering around amidst trees. They are in the Saxon forest where more than 16 000 East German young men were stationed for weeks, waiting for a mission that, in the end, never came. In the monotonous waiting, one of these two men protected himself from getting crazy with his hidden pocket radio muttering in his ear all the time. He did not share his secret with his comrades, thinking that keeping a distance is more secure. The other man tried to persuade the lot to resist in case of a fire order. He was sentenced to imprisonment for twenty months. Both of them fought the situation on their own ways and overcame it somehow.

“Where can you learn courage?”

This is what the German resistor asks when visiting his old prison once again.

The suggestive and artistic Polish short film (Magdalena Szymkow: Soldiers’ Wives & Spies) also seems to deal with resistance, loud or silent, depicting the boycott of the Polish Sopot International Song Festival in 1968. However, it is more likely about the everyday life of people left behind, the fears and difficulties of women awaiting their husbands, and the work of the secret agency fighting against citizens in their own homeland.

The Bulgarian film (Stephan Komandarev: An Unnecessary Hero) is about the only Bulgarian victim of the whole operation. The young rookie went for the toilet for a few minutes, and nobody knows until today what exactly led to his death. Socialist Bulgarian history writing created a national hero of him; others raised the provocative thought if he wanted to desert. Today all these ideological questions are not relevant anymore, the unnecessary death of a young man is transformed back into a family tragedy and a part of village folklore. A boy who was taken away and never returned home. And there is his brother who replaces the fallen soldier’s statue after the original had been stolen. He also puts a handmade memorial plaque to the foot of the old official one, to correct his lost sibling’s misspelled name.

Director Linda Dombrovszky replays the story of Hungarian soldiers who were sent to South Slovakia, a region with a large Hungarian population (Red Rose – Friendship and love in the time of occupation). White haired men put their uniform on once again and sit on the plateau of that certain truck. It is heart-felt and grotesque at the same time. An old soldier visits his deceased wife’s birth house during filmmaking – they met during the Czechoslovakian alert. Hungarian soldiers waiting in “Upland” (literal translation of how Hungarians call this region) also took part in agricultural works in the summertime. This might be the most useful of all the camp activities during these insecure days.

Shoot above the crowd, then before their feet, and then, if it was no use at all, shoot in the crowd – a command, recalled by one of the ex-soldiers. We see men who were ordered to shoot in the crowd. But they ARE indeed the crowd. The fiftieth anniversary was a good timing to make this film, but its actuality means more than that. In Central and Eastern Europe, it is a part of our common history how Warshaw Pact Countries intervened in the Prague Spring. Of course, it affected these countries’ relationship and international credibility on the longer run. In a more general sense, Occupation 1968 is about decision-making in a distressing situation, showing that even then, one has had the chance to choose freely between different options. The film speaks about the realistic ways of political involvement back then, not denying at all how little the accessible knowledge was, especially in a dictatorship. The political situation changed, our powerlessness is still there.

Apart from historical and social consequences, it is also exciting to see five different approaches in all these movies: narrative and creative possibilities of the genre inspire our fantasy as well as our perception of reality.

Boglárka Cziglényi