Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Innocents - The Story of Madeleine Pauliac

Poster for the 2016 film The Innocents
Despite scientific research conducted by the Environmental Protection Association under the Obama administration showing that the pesticide chlorpyrifos is linked to neurological damage, earlier this week EPA chief Scott Pruitt decided not to ban it from being used on fruits and vegetables.

As the New York Times reported on Saturday, a financial disclosure report released on Friday reveals that real estate scion-turned senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and Trump's daughter-wife Ivanka control investment and real estate holdings worth $740 million - making their influence over domestic and foreign policy an ethical conflict of interest unprecedented in modern American history.

As Republican lawmakers maneuver and scheme to war against the role of government as an institution of the people, America finds itself in unknown territory.

Our democracy enables us to fight against that in 2018.

In September of 1939, the people of Poland found themselves in unknown territory too after the German and Soviet armies invaded the country and started the Second World War - an incomprehensible horror that no vote at the ballot box could have prevented.

It's there in a remote rural section of the eastern European countryside that what I consider one of the best films of 2016 is set - The Innocents is a piercing look at a little-known unspeakable war crime that gives new meaning to the words unknown territory.

The film takes place during the winter of December 1945 just after the end of WWII when Poland was still occupied by troops from the Soviet Army.

Dr. Madeleine Pauliac 
It tells the heart-wrenching story of a group of traumatized nuns in a remote Benedictine convent where a group of Soviet soldiers raped and even killed members of the order over the course of several months.

The film is a fictionalized historical drama based on the actual WWII experiences of a young French doctor named Madeleine Pauliac, deftly played by actress Lou de Laâge.

Pauliac's nephew Phillipe Maynial originally developed the idea for the movie based on research he conducted as well as his aunt's own notes from the time.

Pauliac worked for the French Red Cross and volunteered for the French Resistance where in addition to helping downed Allied parachutists, she worked on over 200 missions in the Soviet Union and Poland with a group of ambulance drivers.

The film, masterfully directed by Anne Fontaine, opens in a busy Red Cross field hospital in Poland six months after the end of WWII.

Exhausted after a busy shift, Dr. Mathilde Beaulieu, the character based on Pauliac, is stopped by a frightened Polish nun named Sister Maria, played by Polish actress Agata Buzek, who urgently begs the doctor to follow her back to the convent.

At first the doctor, who cannot understand the Polish-speaking nun, tells her that she needs to find Polish authorities to help her and sends her on her way.

Later, while taking a break to have a cigarette, Dr. Beaulieu looks out the window of the hospital and is surprised to see Sister Maria outside on her knees in the snow praying to herself.

Moved by the nun's faith, the doctor gets her bag and follows the nun back to the convent where the young Frenchwoman is shocked to find a scared young nun in the advanced stages of pregnancy.

It's there that the story really begins as the doctor must overcome the suspicions of the stern Reverend Mother, brilliantly played by veteran Polish actress Agata Kulesza, and the other nuns who are terrified and harboring a dark secret.

Agata Buzek and Lou de Laâge
As the real Dr. Pauliac described in her own words, "There were 25 of them, 15 were raped and killed by the Russians, the 10 survivors were raped, some 42 times, some 35 or 50 times each...none of this would be anything if five of them were not pregnant. They would come to ask my advice and speak of abortion in veiled terms."    

Reading such a horrific account, one would imagine a film filled with terrifying scenes of brutality.

But the brilliance of director Anne Fontaine's handling of the film and the subject matter is that she wisely opts to use the preferred method of director Alfred Hitchcock and allow the audience to imagine the terror experienced by the nuns without showing it.

As Dr. Beaulieu slowly earns the trust of the nuns and the Reverend Mother, they slowly share the details of what happened to them at the hands of the Russian soldiers.

From the standpoint of filmmaking, watching the nun's struggle to come to grips with the unspeakable violations of body and spirit that they have experienced and witnessed repeatedly, and to also reconcile their faith in the aftermath, is far more effective.

I also agree with Fontaine's decision not to make the nuns who were killed a part of the film; the trauma that's presented in the story is difficult enough.

Dr. Beaulieu is quickly drawn into the plight of the nuns as she begins to assist them medically with the pregnancies and also help with their emotional trauma - and she begins to risk her own job with the Red Cross to do so as she must sneak away to travel through the forest to the convent on her own time at night.

Eventually she entrusts the aide of a fellow French Red Cross doctor played by actor Vincent Macaigne, a cynical but good-hearted senior physician who begins visiting the convent with Dr. Beaulieu to help with the deliveries and physical care of the pregnant nuns.

The nuns singing at prayer in the chapel
The script, co-written by Sabrina Karine, Anne Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer and Alice Vial, effectively captures the terror of the trauma while also demonstrating the stark beauty of the convent - set against the constant danger of the Russian soldiers who are still in the area.

Cinematographer Caroline Champetier fills the film with stunning camera shots of the nuns and the convent where they live.

It's difficult to imagine the horrors visited upon such a sacred place.

The film is also something of a mystery as well, with Dr. Beaulieu as something of a detective as the truths of what's happened in the convent are slowly revealed in layers that are complex, suspenseful and at times terrifying.

In particular, the horrifying revelation of how the Reverend Mother has tried to cover up the truth of what's happened elevates the film into a searing examination of morality and faith that's simultaneously terrifying, heartbreaking and beautiful.

My sense is that the film's subject matter limited it's commercial appeal to a degree, although it was distributed in a number of countries and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January.

It's received rave reviews, Kate Erbland wrote one of the best reviews of the film for and it earned a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes - it also made a modest profit.

Russian soldiers of the 562nd Rifle Regiment
marching in Poland February, 1945
I first read about the film in an issue of Hollywood Reporter a few months ago that was devoted to female filmmakers - a woman producer mentioned it was one of the best films of 2016 and after ordering it on Netflix and watching it I completely agree.

While it did garner a variety of award nominations in various film festivals, it eluded the Oscar nomination I thought the quality of the filmmaking, acting, script and production value merited.

But more important than accolades, the film tells the true story of what happened to those poor nuns at the hands of Russian soldiers in that convent during the summer, fall and winter of 1945.

As a well-written user review by Howard Schumann on the page of The Innocents notes, (click the link and scroll down to User Reviews) historian Antony Beevor wrote:

"The subject of the Red Army's mass rapes in Germany and elsewhere has been so repressed in Russia that even today, veterans refuse to acknowledge what really happened."  

I first read about mass rape committed by Russian soldiers in Jerzy Kosinki's controversial 1965 novel "The Painted Bird", a harrowing  account of a young boy who wanders the Polish countryside during WWII witnessing horrifying scenes of brutality, violence, depravity and sexual assault.

But The Innocents is the first time I've seen an artistic interpretation of how those horrors impacted the lives of some of the victims on a personal level - the fact that the film manages to end on a positive uplifting note is a credit to the writers.

Grateful nuns thank Dr. Beaulieu
Sadly, one of the realities of war is that atrocities are committed by all armies, but I don't think the film is meant to accuse the Soviet Army or Russians per se, although their troops did commit these heinous acts - I think the point of the film was to make sure the dehumanizing suffering those nuns endured was not forgotten.

As a student of history, I'm still struck by the fact that World War II  literally contains millions of different stories of struggle for human survival - tragically, some will never be told.

There are so many chapters of that dark period of history that are lost forever.

But fortunately, the power of some stories is so compelling, that storytellers will find a way to breathe life into them so that lessons are not lost on future generations.

In The Innocents, Phillipe Maynial and director Anne Fontaine found a way to bring the amazing story of Dr. Madeleine Pauliac, and the nuns and newborns she helped, to life in a meaningful and respectful way.

Though Madeleine Pauliac was tragically killed in a car accident near Warsaw in February of 1946 when she was only 34, her courage lives on in the memory of what she did and in the lives of the children she helped deliver into the world in the shadow of such dark circumstances.

Perhaps the most enduring message of this film is that, somehow, life always finds a way.

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