Fading memories of 20th century horrors are leaving European society less resilient to similar evils that could lie ahead, Polish director Agnieszka Holland said at the premiere of “Mr Jones”, her film about the 1930s Ukrainian famine.
The film, one of 17 competing for the festival’s Golden Bear award, tells the story of Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist who escaped the gilded cage of 1930s Moscow to discover that the facade of a thriving Soviet economy rested on Ukrainian corpses.
The famine of 1932 and 1933, when leader Josef Stalin killed millions by diverting train-loads of wheat to prop up the Russian heartlands, still burdens ties between Russia and Ukraine, which is fighting a war against Moscow-backed separatists in its east.
Holland said the story of Jones, who risked his life to tell the world of peasants eating tree bark and orphaned children eating their own siblings in Ukrainian villages, was especially important in an age of “fake news”.
Written by Andrea Chalupa, a New Yorker of Ukrainian descent, the film contrasts Jones’s heroism with his more successful rival Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), whose initial compromises become lies as the New York Times correspondent seeks to preserve his status as doyen of Moscow society.
“The story I was telling myself was I have access,” said US actor Sarsgaard. “I was the gatekeeper for the Western world and if I went away there’d be no access. I betray myself and my profession by degrees.”
Duranty’s drugs-, drink- and sex-fueled orgies, clearing houses for journalists seeking gossip, are shot in rich colours that contrast with the unsaturated whiteness of wintry Ukraine.
In one scene, starving Ukrainians look on ravenously as Norton eats an orange, its peel the one dab of colour in the frame.