8,000 miles is a long walk home.
Distributor: Second Sight
Time: 153 minutes
Region: 2, German language, sub-titled
“Truth is stranger than Fiction” could describe several DVDs that have recently been released. While film producers almost certainly embellish their stories for maximum effect, some of the core material can be remarkable.
One of these stories is the account of Cornelius Rost – here re-named Clemens Forrell (Bernhard Bettermann) – who starts this 2001 German-made movie saying goodbye to his pregnant wife and young daughter on a railway platform in 1944. He is about to leave for action at the Russian Front in the Second World War.
Almost before we know it, he is on a train bound for Siberia, sentenced to 25 years of hard labour at a Gulag. On the long train journey, prisoners take turns to kneel on front of a small fire that keeps death away from most of them. Several die from the cold and they may be lucky that their fate comes swiftly.
Once at the Gulag, the commandant, Lieutenant Kamenev (Anatoly Kotenyov) takes exception to Forrell and makes his life even more difficult. Although his first escape attempt fails, with the help of the medical officer, Dr. Stauffer, he eventually succeeds and the film follows his 8,000 mile journey towards home.
This is where it turns into a road movie, as the trek takes in a variety of cultures and different stories emerge. He meets gold prospectors, Chukchi herders, loggers and an unpredictable Jew. He finds theft, death, love and betrayal on the way homeward, with a couple of surprises near the journey’s end.
Despite the true story, there are elements that suggest a spin that may have come from the novel that is also based on the same real events. The rivalry between Forrell and the commandant would be plausible in the camp, but not after Forrell had been gone for some while. That Kamenev would trail him over such a long distance undermines the plot and is unnecessary.
The warm, summery shots of Forrell’s daughter waiting for her father also feel manufactured, although the contrast in tone usefully accentuates the cold that he is suffering.
The story has a decent tempo and despite the length, it holds the attention well. It is the reality of the story that gives it an edge.