Browning Cinema features Mario Damolin’s documentaries about Gulag-era Russia


Two documentary films by acclaimed German journalist, author, and filmmaker Mario Damolin graced the screen of the Browning Cinema last Thursday, November 5, as part of DeBartolo Performing Arts Center’s (DPAC) “Forms of Realism” film series.

The first film, Tightrope Walk: Remembering Eugenia Ginzburg, which made its United States and world debut at the Browning, commemorates the life of Eugenia Ginzburg, a Russian dissident during the Stalin regime, and the time she spent imprisoned in a Gulag forced labor camp.

In the hour-long documentary, Damolin accompanies Antonina Axenova, the adopted daughter of Eugenia Ginzburg, as she journeys to Magadan, where her mother spent 18 years imprisoned and in exile.

Notre Dame was honored to welcome both Damolin and Axenova to campus for the screening.

Damolin’s camera revealed a poignant scene of natural beauty and decrepit ruins where the abandoned Gulag camps remained. Voiceovers and interviews with other Gulag survivors described extremely difficult and painful experiences, but the film also drew attention to the brighter moments that gave Ginzburg hope, such as a women’s club in which she could discuss literature and share in community.

Ginzburg had been an active member of the Communist party until she was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment and brutal labor in the Magadan labor camp. Her sentence resulted from the accusation that she had participated in a “counter-revolutionary” group, a claim which she ardently denied. Coming to the painful realization that she had been cruelly deceived by communism, she spent years recording her experiences inside the Gulag system in her memoirs Journey Into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind.

Senior Claire Rembecki told the Rover that despite Ginzburg’s suffering in the forced labor camp, “her memoirs [are] very uplifting,” and she admires Eugenia’s “spirit of determination.”

Rembecki read Journey Into the Whirlwind in her Russian history class, as did her fellow classmate, junior Rose Anderson. Anderson also shared her reaction to the film with the Rover: “It’s one thing to read the personal writing of someone imprisoned in these camps, and another to actually see it … brought to light another dimension,” Anderson said.

The history class, “From Rasputin to Putin: Russia’s Troubled Twentieth Century,” is taught by Professor of History Semion Lyandres, who recently acquired notable archive material from modern Russian history for Notre Dame’s Rare Books and Special Collections.

The latest addition to these archives is a collection of material related to Ginzburg’s arrest and her life in the Gulag, as well as information about Axenova’s professional life. Axenova worked faithfully and tirelessly collecting her mother’s materials and searching for a fitting home to preserve Ginzburg’s legacy.

At a breakfast shared with Damolin and a small group of students, Axenova related how she was led to entrust these materials to the archives at Notre Dame. She said that as her mother and her mother’s friends began to pass away, she realized “that history is passing away.” She then decided that she “needed to find a good home for these papers.”

The second film, Journey into Schizophrenia: Latvia 1944 – Germany 2004, investigates a problem that Damolin first encountered in 1980, when he discovered a psychiatric ward in Heidelberg, Germany. This ward held 170 Russians who had been forced into labor camps under Stalin’s rule, all of whom had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Fourteen years later, Damolin found that 33 of them still remained.

The German filmmaker delved into the story of one particular patient named Vera Svilans, an elderly woman living in the North Barden Psychiatric Center, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman and who has remained mute for the past several decades.

Vera’s journey to her diagnosis began in her youth with a mere broken arm. Years of hospital transfers, cursory diagnoses, and missing paperwork separated Svilans from her family and plunged her into schizophrenia, although it is now unclear whether her original diagnosis was accurate.

For 50 years, Vera’s sister tried to track her down under her given name, Veronika, but had no success. Their reunion, captured on film by Damolin, was bittersweet.

Rembecki said that despite the sadness of the reunion, she admired the sister’s determination to search for and find Vera “from thousands of kilometers away.”

Damolin’s work on Journey into Schizophrenia took 19 years to be fully realized, and Tightrope Walk took 17. He currently is working on a film that has been 20 years in the making. Damolin’s care and patience over time gives his films a poignant touch.

As a filmmaker, he said, it is important to revisit subjects one has looked at in the past. “They stay with me,” Damolin told the Rover.

Victoria Velasquez is a junior majoring in English and FTT.  If you’ve been getting down and out about the cat haters of the world, just shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it off and email