Filming the war: The memories of a Soviet cameraman

Boris Sokolov. Source: Personal archive

Boris Sokolov. Source: Personal archive

A total of 258 Soviet cameramen were embedded with the Red Army during World War II. It is through their eyes that the world saw many of the events of 1941-1945 on the Eastern Front. Only one of them is still alive in Russia today – 95-year-old Boris Sokolov. In an interview with RIR, Sokolov, bearer of two orders and 31 medals, talked about life as a cameraman at the front.

On the profession

In 1941, I was 21. Because of the war, the students from the institute (the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography – RIR) graduated early, while I was already doing my internship. That's when they started to form frontline film crews. I began to beg, but was told "no." Of course, I understood that experienced cameramen were sent first. However, filming under the conditions of war was not taught anywhere. It was in the German army that they had training courses for military cameramen, but we did not.

I was first sent to the defenses near Moscow, and then I went back to the studio, and it was evacuated to Alma-Ata [the capital of the Kazakh Soviet republic at that time – RIR]. I was with my friend, cameraman Misha Poselsky. A couple of months later, he managed to get to the front in a film group, while I remained in the evacuation zone.

I kept begging to be sent to the front. The whole country lived the war. "Everything for the front, everything for victory," the slogan went. And I wanted to be a participant in these events. Unfortunately, this desire was not fulfilled until 1944. It was the last recruitment campaign. The front stood near Warsaw. It remained there for three months, and we filmed the everyday life of the army.

Boris Sokolov, 2015. Source: Pavel Inzhelevsky / RIR

On the losses

There was fear, but we forgot about it as we were working, although our losses were great. Throughout the war, 258 people worked at the front and used more than 3.5 million meters of 35 mm film. One in five died. Some were wounded or shell-shocked. I've been asked if we were guarded when filming. There were no guards; we were left to ourselves.

On his camera

There were no zooms then, you needed to change lenses for different scales. The camera itself weighed about 3.5 kg [8 lbs]. Well, then, we also had rolls of film. Thirty meters of film, while the winding mechanism could roll only 15 meters [50 feet] at once – this is only half a minute of screen time. You had to replace it in a bag or in a dark room in order not to expose the film. If it was replaced in the bag, it was all done by groping around. Replacing the roll took about 5-10 minutes or even more.

We filmed either on an American Aimo camera or on its Soviet version – the KS. And we could film everything, but it depended on censorship whether it made it to the screen or not. I wasn’t yet at the front when we were suffering defeats [in 1941 and 1942 – RIR], but, according to my comrades, the retreat was barely filmed. I know of cases where cameramen tried to capture the retreat, but soldiers and refugees asked them not to, often with threats.

On memory

Of course, my most vivid memory is the signing of the act of surrender of Germany. Poselsky and I were given the task of filming the German delegation. I was particularly struck by the behavior of Field Marshal Keitel [chief of the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht – RIR]. It was as if he were not the defeated, but the winner. When he exited the aircraft, he greeted those who met him with his marshal's rod, though it was only guards who met him at the airport. None of the officials came. He also welcomed with his rod those present in the room for the signing, but none answered. When Keitel signed the act, I thought that was it, that the war had ended at that point. Relief was the general impression. Unfortunately, I was wrong. But at the time this was the feeling that I had.

On staged filming

During the Battle of Berlin, Soviet flags, more than 10 of which had been distributed, gradually appeared on different floors of the Reichstag and were stuck in the windows. On the night of April 30 to May 1, it appeared on the dome. But we could not film at night – there wasn’t enough light, even despite the fires. Therefore, some moments were staged, shot in the daytime. Many believe such filming is deception, but it is just the restoration of the facts.

On the use of chronicle in feature films

I saw some of my footage in the film The Great Patriotic War, which was called The Unknown War when shown abroad. Also in Andrei Tarkovsky's film Ivan's Childhood – a prison in the city of Poznan, Poland.

We filmed a guillotine in one of the rooms of this prison. And we didn’t even know that Tarkovsky had used it. I was told only later.

On war in color

The wartime films that have been now transferred from black and white to color impress me less. At that time, I imagined the material visually in black and white, we thought in black and white. I have no desire to switch to color.

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