Flick through any of the plethora of general interest channels on satellite and cable television and it won’t take long before you come across a documentary about the rise of Hitler, the Battle of Britain or the blitz. Understandably, the majority of our coverage regarding World War II is heavily weighted towards our own national interest and participation, leaving a large portion of equally as important events uncovered. This is certainly the case regarding the conflict on the Eastern front of Germany which is often regarded as merely an inconvenient distraction to the Nazi party (despite it accounting for over 26 million Soviet deaths).
Whilst we’re all familiar with the horrific use of concentration camps during this time by the Nazi party to eradicate many deemed as ‘undesirables’ (predominantly Jewish families) there was a similar operation taking place across Russian borders which remains relatively free of judgement . Gulags, often situated in isolated areas of Siberia, were Russian work camps, a destination for many German prisoners of war who were often sentenced to 25 years hard labour. However, 25 years was an optimistic sentence with many failing to survive the freezing journey there or the unsanitary accommodation and inhumane working conditions of these glorified prisons.
As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me (originally released in 2001), like the recent Peter Weir film The Way Back deals with an improbably but apparently true account of one man’s escape from a Russian forced labour camp. We join German officer Clemens Forell moments before he boards a train leading him to the front line. We’re presented with the inevitably clichéd goodbye with his wife and child, plus the added bonus of the news that Clemens’s wife is pregnant. This combined with a promise to his little girl that he’ll write home and be back by Christmas instantly seals his fate in this highly emotive and theatrically exaggerated historical drama.
Forell is soon imprisoned in a Gulag at the furthest most easterly tip of Russia, completely isolated and destined to finish his life there, buried in this frozen desolate landscape. That is unless he achieves the seemingly impossible and not only escapes but manages to complete the implausible journey home through the treacherous weather and barren terrain of Siberia that separates this nightmarish institution from his freedom.
At a runtime just shy of two and a half hours Clemens journey certainly comes across as is intended; long and tiring. At times the poor production values, particularly the time delay on the dubbing, interrupts the films flow making viewing almost as arduous as this questionable journey. However, it doesn’t prevent the film packing an emotional punch when it’s required and the more intimate moments of the film are successfully dealt with a tremendous level of refinement, never coming across as too schmaltzy or overplayed.
This German perspective on morality, unique for its humility towards a nation normally demonised, successfully portrays the appalling level of human cruelty that can immerge from war fare. It’s certainly a thrilling trip and an eye opening adventure - just make sure you’re prepared for how long and harrowing an outing it may be.