The Way Back
Decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Siberia is still a byword for a place of no return.
The Siberian gulags were cold, hopeless work camps built to house the U.S.S.R.'s worst enemies—which, judging from The Way Back, seem to have encompassed pretty much everyone.
In the film adaptation of Slavomir Rawicz's 1956 book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, Janusz is sent to Siberia for speaking poorly of Josef Stalin—and officials drum up a charge of espionage for good measure. Khabarov, an actor, made the mistake of playing an aristocrat in a movie—and is thrown into the gulag for making his character look too sympathetic. Valka is the rare inmate who actually was a criminal—a hardened, tattooed bully who works the camp's inner system like the lifelong thug he is. And then there's the mysterious man known only as Mr. Smith, an American who emigrated to Russia to escape the Great Depression.
Prisoners die slowly in Siberia, day by day, worn down by the cold and hunger and misery. They haven't been sentenced to death, but few expect to dodge it.
Escape? Yeah, whatever. "Siberia is your prison—all 5 million square miles of it," the gulag master tells new prisoners. "Nature is your jailer, and she is without mercy." Indeed, anyone with hopes of escaping will need to do more than evade guards and dogs. He must endure temperatures that sink to 40 (°F) below zero, evading wild animals and watchful villagers. If he by some miracle escapes Siberia (and hopes to get to a non-communist country), he must cross the harrowing Gobi desert and then pick his way through the Himalayas before reaching India.
So it speaks to the utter hopelessness of remaining prisoners that Janusz, Mr. Smith and a handful of others opt for the near-hopelessness of escape. In a howling snowstorm, they cut the barbed wire and make a desperate dash for freedom—such as it is—the first steps in what becomes a 4,000-mile odyssey.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
"Kindness can kill you out here," Mr. Smith warns Janusz when the latter gives some of his rations to an old man in the gulag. And Mr. Smith has a point: Animalistic criminals such as Valka run the place, and most others quickly learn to adapt or die. But Janusz can't rid himself of his essential humanity. And maybe that's why, when he invites Mr. Smith to escape with him, Mr. Smith accepts.
"You have a weakness that could be useful to me," the American says. "Kindness. If anything happens to me, I count on you to carry me."
Call this foreshadowing. While Janusz doesn't physically carry Mr. Smith, he forces him and everyone else to push on to freedom when most normal people would just lie down and die already. Janusz is resourceful, brave and almost preternaturally determined.
Janusz is the escapees' conscience. Irena, an adolescent girl also on the lam, serves as its soul. Starving and alone, Irena follows the escapees for days, hoping they'll let her join them. At first Mr. Smith and others insist they need to turn her away, but when one finally lets her eat dinner with the band, she quickly integrates herself, becoming the one person the stoic prisoners can confide in and talk to. Soon, through Irena, they learn things about each other that they'd never bothered to ask, either in the gulag or during their first months on the "road." Thus, this collection of vagabonds becomes a very curious sort of family.
Valka steals things from both prisoners and villagers. But his behavior is not condoned by Janusz or the other escapees. "We are not thieves," one tells him. And when Irena embellishes her life story to make herself more pitiable to the escapees when she first meets them, Mr. Smith sniffs out the truth. He chides her, "We've all done terrible things to survive. But don't ever lie to me again. We've had enough of lies."
We learn—through Irena, of course—that one of the escapees, Voss, was (is) a priest. He's the one who first opens the door for Irena to join them, and when someone dies, he invariably says a Christian prayer as the body is buried underneath a cross.
But all is not as it seems. "You say too many prayers for an innocent man," Valko tells Voss. And later we learn that when the Soviets came in and shut down churches and massacred the priests, Voss sought out revenge: He went to his own church and strangled the guard—merely a boy—until his eyes literally popped out of his head. Voss tells this story to Irena as they walk through a Buddhist temple, itself nearly destroyed by communists. (The escapees discover skulls with bullet holes half buried in the ground.) Voss says that the carnage looks familiar: "Churches closed, priests shot or taken … religion banned."
One of the escapees jokingly refuses to gather food on Jewish holy days. Valka sports religious tattoos and has a crucifix hanging around his neck—though in his case, the symbol is graced not with Christ, but with a crudely carved nude woman. A dying man is visited by a spectral fellow prisoner. "Not far to go," the "ghost" says. When the escapees find a well in the middle of a desert, one of them says it's a miracle.
Clearly, religion, even in this supposedly atheist state, is still very much alive in the minds of these folks, if not always in their hearts. And though the film is not "religious," some of its touchstones will strike a chord with Christians. Consider Janusz' backstory and the reason he feels so driven to return home:
His wife, tortured by the authorities, is the one who turned him over to them. "She'll never forgive herself for what she's done," he tells Mr. Smith. "Only I can do that." In a sense, Janusz's escape isn't so much about his freedom, but hers—and an echo of the gospel. And though he must walk 4,000 miles and wait 40 years (until his native Poland shakes free of communism) to offer that forgiveness, he still finds his way home, walks over to his now aged wife and hugs her, letting her know with his touch that all is forgiven.
One of the escapees is an artist, and he's commissioned while inside the gulag to draw nasty pictures of women for Valka and his comrades. (One sketch features a woman on her hands and knees, her backside facing the viewer. Another depicts a woman in a straddling, full-frontal pose, her hand clasped to her genitals.) A playing card also features a drawn image of a naked woman.
The gulag can turn its prisoners into animals, making Valka ideally suited to thrive there. He's named his knife Wolf, and he uses it on a fellow inmate who refuses to give him his sweater. He stabs the sweater-wearer in the gut, then strips the garment off and hands it to one of his many gambling creditors. The man grabs it and finds that it's covered in blood.
But while Valka's knife is a horror inside the gulag, it's an indispensable tool outside. Valka alone is armed, and he apparently dispatches the occasional meal with it. One night, he sneaks off by himself and comes back laden with meat, his clothes soaked in blood. He tells his fellow escapees that he had to kill a dog to obtain it. "Don't believe me?" Valka challenges. "Don't eat."
In the beginning Valka sees his fellow travelers as not much more than bags of meat, cynically suggesting that Janusz brought them along so that, when they die, they might be eaten. He threatens people with his knife on occasion and nearly kills Irena with it when they first meet.
While the deaths we see are sad, they're not graphically violent. One man dies in Siberia, frozen in place not 20 feet away from the fire. Two others die in the desert, victims of the heat. Travelers suffer from the sun, the wind, the cold, and terrible plagues of mosquitoes, and we see them develop horrible sores on their faces, hands and feet. They chase wolves away from a fresh kill and eat an animal's raw innards.
We hear a great deal about those oppressed and killed by the Soviet regime. And we see a guard point a gun at Mr. Smith's head.
Crude or Profane Language
Two f-words (one subtitled) and one s-word, along with uses of "a‑‑" and "d‑‑n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Valka and others smoke cigarettes. Indeed, tobacco is the currency of the gulag's black market, and prisoners trade it for food and other things. Valka takes a bottle of vodka from a settlement, telling his compatriots that its his birthday; when Russians celebrate a birthday, he adds, they drink. Later, Irena grabs the bottle from Valka and takes a big swig, coughing violently after she swallows.
Other Negative Elements
The prisoners, naturally, defy all manner of authority by escaping, and they spend the rest of the movie eluding the law. Knowing what we know about the U.S.S.R during the movie's time period, most of us would be hard-pressed to call this negative. In fact, I'd assert, most would consider the whole thing quite heroic. That said, I'll note that Jesus never told His followers to defy or reject the violently oppressive Roman government of His time.
The Way Back takes on some of the characteristics of its plot. It's long and wearying, and sometimes I just wanted everyone to plow through the desert already so we could all go home. But, in the end, I found myself affected by the trip.
Before I explain, let me restate some of the problems this film has: the sexual drawings, the sparse but strong profanity, the flashes of violence. But The Way Back isn't about doing what you must to survive; it's about doing what you can to live. And there's a big difference.
We find that difference distilled in Mr. Smith and Irena. At first, Mr. Smith is adamant that the band reject her. She'll eat our food, drink our water, slow us down. And he's absolutely right. Irena is too young to serve much practical purpose.
But God uses the most impractical people sometimes for His purposes, and we find that in Irena. Through her influence, these prisoners become people, these bags of meat become men. She serves as the mortar that cements them together, even finding a way into Mr. Smith's distant heart: One afternoon, while they rest, she sees Mr. Smith's bloodied, battered feet … and she begins to wash them. And Mr. Smith cries.
I don't think it's an accident that the escapees eventually weave Irena a twig-laden hat of sorts, which she says looks like a bird's nest but also bears a resemblance to a crown of thorns. In her weakness, she helps her fellows—her friends—find strength. She, in her own way, saves them—allowing them to see who they were, and who they could become.
She dies in the desert, her feet swollen, her once smooth face pocked with blisters. She asks Voss to lay her in the sand, and she stares into the faces of her friends as they silently mourn her vanishing spirit. The final face her eyes rest on is that of Mr. Smith. "It's OK," he says. She closes her eyes and she's gone, her hands held tightly by the others, forming a chain.
The prisoners escaped together. But only through Irena did they come together. So it isn't Valka's animalistic drive or Mr. Smith's pragmatic push to survive that proves to be the stronger. It's Irena's deep understanding of the power of community—the understanding that we truly are better when we're not alone.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jim Sturgess as Janusz; Ed Harris as Mr. Smith; Gustaf Skarsgard as Voss; Colin Farrell as Valka; Saoirse Ronan as Irena; Dragos Bucur as Zoran; Alexandru Potocean as Tomasz; Mark Strong as Khabarov
January 21, 2011
April 19, 2011