February 3, 2024

1943. Foreign Press Preview Soviet Film "The People's Avengers"

"Partisans in Action"
Soviet partisans in the forest near Polotsk, Byelorussian SSR (source)

 From Newsweek, August 30, 1943, pp. 80-82:

Partisans in Action

The obscure paragraphs at the end of Russian communiqués—those dealing with the incredible Red guerrillas—have come to life on the Soviet screen. Here Bill Downs, Newsweek and CBS correspondent in Moscow, tells how the Partisan film was made. It probably will be shown soon in the United States.

Moscow—The foreign press has just seen a preview of "The People's Avengers," a new documentary which promises to make cinema history. It is surely the best war film that has been produced by the Russians.

This story of Soviet guerrillas was made by sixteen cameramen sent behind the German lines early this spring. They stayed from two to three months, shooting thousands of feet that covered every phase of Partisan life. Two of them were killed in accidents getting to and from Guerrilla land—and one liked the place so much that he sent his films back but decided to stay himself. So intent was the government on doing a good job that the director, [Vasiliy Belyayev], took a camera and went along—and the composer, Dmitri Astradantseff, likewise went behind the lines to get the spirit of the thing for his excellent accompanying music.

The film covers guerrilla life from Karelia to the Black Sea. It ranged from the Leningrad district through whole Partisan-controlled districts in Byelo-Russia; from actual scenes of bridges being blown up in the Ukraine to raids on German headquarters on the Kuban. For an hour and a half it practically makes guerrillas out of the audience. And for the first time the world is given a clear picture of what the word Partisan means—what kind of people the guerrillas are.

There are kids of 12 and 14, grandfathers over 60, and women of all ages. There are shocking views of villages ruined after visits by German punitive expeditions, followed by the guerrillas' revenge. There are such human touches as a woman darning a sock and using a grenade for a darning egg. Memorable episodes show the surprisingly quiet and uneventful way in which a sniper's bullet kills a German railroad sentry, and the execution of a traitor by a calm three-man firing squad. 

But the film's greatest moment is a full-scale attack on a town by a large detachment of Byelo-Russian Partisans, using captured German artillery and weapons flown in by plane.

The cameramen who came back were full of stories of their adventures. Since most guerrilla operations are conducted at night, the photographers had to beg for daylight operations which they could film. One, somewhere in the central sector, got more than he bargained for. A guerrilla leader placed him behind a bush overlooking a village and told him to wait. Then the guerrillas attacked the other side of the village and drove the Germans straight toward him. Several machine-gunners at his side waited until the Germans were almost atop the camera before they fired and killed them. But that was all the luck the cameraman had that day. He had forgotten to open his shutter and the film was a blank.

The film gives only the nicknames of the Partisan leaders—their real names will be revealed after the war. I asked the director if it wasn't dangerous to show their faces, in case the film fell into enemy hands. He replied: "We got permission of all the Partisans before the pictures were taken. Their attitude was: 'Send the Germans a marked copy—then let them come and get us'."