BY PAUL GRECH
The story is an improbable one that is typical of the industry that retold and reshaped it; a group of war prisoners who take on their captors on a football pitch and surprisingly manage to defy the odds (and instructions) to end the game in a draw. There is an American hero in the form of a rookie goalkeeper who makes a string of saves as well as the obligatory happy ending with the players managing to escape after being swept away by a jubilant crowd.
That is the script of Escape to Victory a movie that, more than three decades since its release, remains arguably the finest fictional portrayal of the game of football. It works not because the match action is particularly good (although it is done better than most) but mostly as the story draws on the powerful emotions that sport can foster. The plot itself might not be overly credible yet the idea that sport can deliver hope and instil faith where there seems to be none is totally believable.
Bearing witness to that idea is a monument that stands outside Dynamo Kiev’s stadium that portrays the players who took part in the game that would eventually serve as inspiration for Escape to Victory. The achievements of these players during the darkest days of World War II served to boost the morale of the Ukrainian people when their spirit was close to being broken.
Sadly, those players weren’t swept away to safety by the crowd but would suffer a much harsher fate.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on the 22nd of June 1941, one of their main pushes was towards Ukraine and having caught the Soviet army by surprise, they managed to reach Kiev by September of the same year.
With the benefit of hindsight it might seem injudicious but, in spite of a scorched earth policy that had left much of the city in ruins, initially the Germans were seen as possible liberators from Stalin’s oppressive regime.
Such thoughts quickly proved to be misplaced. The new rulers were just as brutal as their predecessor, showing little interest in the welfare of the locals and killing more than one hundred thousand people (most of whom were Ukrainian Jews) within a couple of months.
Their treatment of prisoners of war was equally cold-blooded. Initially held in crude, barbed wire hemmed pens, they were eventually released. Yet they weren’t given permits to work or reside in an apartment effectively condemning them to starvation and hypothermia.
Among those released prisoners there was one – Nikolai Trusevich – who was luckier than most. Before the war Trusevich had been Dynamo Kiev’s goalkeeper and this made him special in the eyes of Iosif Kordik, a Ukranian of German descent who had been put in charge of Kiev’s Number 3 Bakery.
Kordik managed to get Trusevich a job as a sweeper at the bakery and then hit on the idea of setting up a football team for the bakery. To achieve this he tasked Trusevich with searching the streets of Kiev looking for former team mates.
The first to join up was winger Makar Goncharenko who had been living illegally with his mother-in-law. Then came striker Ivan Kuzmenko and Mihail Sviridovsky who in turn put them in touch with other players.
Over the coming weeks, players from Dynamo as well as the other Kiev team Lokomotiv drifted towards the bakery where they found work, food and shelter under the guise of playing for the newly set up team.
Even so they weren’t safe. The Germans had many informants in the city and one report could see them being jailed or worse. The constant threat of torture and death, however, didn’t deter Trusevich who had been inspired by Kordik’s idea and was determined to set up the team. Having seen everything taken away from him, this task had given him hope and this was reflected in the name that he chose for his new side – FC Start – an indication perhaps that he saw in this new side the opportunity to start over for him, the rest of the team and even the city.
The new team made its debut on the 7th of June 1942 with a game against Rukh, a side that was the pet project of Nazi collaborator Georgi Shvetsov who was also the person behind the new league that was just kicking off in Kiev.
Rukh had every advantage possible given that they had better rations, had been afforded time to rest and wore a proper football kit. FC Start’s players, on the other hand, had just come off gruelling twenty-four-hour shifts, wore cut down trousers and normal work shoes yet they still came out as comfortable winners with a 7-2 victory.
Shvetsov was not pleased by this outcome and reacted by getting FC Start banned from training in their own stadium. Even so they proved to be too good for the league beating a Hungarian side 6-2 and crushing a Romanian team 11-0.
These wins started to get a lot of attention of the wrong kind, at least in the eyes of the Germans and their sympathisers. They resonated with the oppressed people of Kiev who were increasingly ready to pay to watch their new favourites beat the teams of the invading army. Especially when their opponents were the German military side PGS or the rated Hungarian side MSG Wal who were beaten 5-1; opponents who were beaten once more shortly after, although by just three goals to two.
This, clearly, could not go on as it was encouraging the belief among locals that the Germans weren’t as superior as they thought they were.
To combat this belief, a new team from the German Luftwaffe – Flakelf – was formed and promptly thrashed Rukh. So easy was the victory that a match between Flakelf and FC Start was organised with the Germans expecting another dismantling. Yet nothing of the sort happened. Indeed, it was the Ukrainians who ended up winning 5-1.
The result was hushed up but soon it was announced that there was going to be a rematch between the two sides. This took place August 9th, 1942 and whilst the initial game had been fairly calm it was immediately evident that this second game was going to be anything but. The ground was heavily patrolled with guards and dogs on the touchline whilst local police kept Start’s fans back using pick-axe handles as a deterrent.
Matters weren’t as malicious in the dressing room, at least not until an SS officer entered Start’s changing room to announce that he was “the referee of today’s game. I know you are a very good team. Please follow the rules, do not break any of the rules, and before the game greet your opponents in our fashion.”
This was a clear warning of what was expected of them; submission by giving the Nazi salute and also by losing the game. They needed no warning of what would happen if they didn’t conform. Naturally, this put the players in a moral quandary: should they accept what was being asked of them or should they do what they had always done and play to win?
When the players lined up on the pitch, the Germans enthusiastically gave the Nazi salute. The Ukrainians tentatively raised their arms and it looked as if they were going to do likewise. Instead, they put their arms on their chest and shouted ‘Physical Culture!’ (in the form of the Soviet slogan ‘FizultHura!’)
It was at that point that their fate was probably sealed. Not only were they rejecting publicly the Nazi regime but they had exhibited a level of patriotism that was bound to inspire others to do likewise. This, after all, was the battle cry of Red Army soldiers and its implications were clear to all those who bore witness.
The game itself quickly descended into a one-sided kicking match with German fouls being ignored by the obviously partisan referee. Goalkeeper Trusevich was the target of most of these challenges and at one point he was left dazed by a kick to the head. It was whilst he was trying to recover from this that Flakelf went a goal up.
Emboldened, the Germans became all the more blatant in their fouling yet the Ukrainians weren’t intimidated. Instead they first equalised through a free kick by Kuzmenko before Goncharenko put them ahead having beaten the whole Flakelf defence and then scored another to go into half-time leading 3-1.
Any jubilation that they might have felt quickly evaporated. Shvetsov, a man whose loyalties were tied to the Nazi regime, went into the dressing room warning them to protect themselves. More ominous was a visit by another SS officer who informed them that there was no way in which they could win the game whilst warning them to be aware of the consequences of their actions.
Despite these warning the FC Start players refused to ease off. They replied to two Flakelf goals before pulling further ahead 5-3. Such was their superiority that Klimenko took the ball past the whole defence, rounded the keeper and then kicked back to the centre circle rather than opting to score.
This completed the humiliation as the supposedly ‘sub-human’ team had come out easy winners. The referee quickly called for time even though they still had some minutes to play whilst guard dogs were reportedly set loose on the celebrating Ukrainian fans.
Legend has it that the German retribution was quick with players being arrested before they had time to take off their training kit. This appears unlikely and indeed is probably part of the propaganda that used the heroism shown on that day to push the Soviet regime’s message in the years that followed the war.
Indeed, FC Start even managed to fulfil their league commitments by beating the nationalist side Rukh by 8-0.
Once this game was out of the way and with it the possibility of any public revolt, then retribution could start.
Indeed on August 17th – just a day after this final game – the gestapo turned up at Bakery Number 3 and called up the players before taking them for interrogation. From them they wanted to extract a confession to having been saboteurs which could give them the justification that they needed in order to execute them.
None of them acceded but this mattered little for Nikolai Korotkykh. His sister had exposed him as a former NKVD officer and was tortured to death thus becoming the first fatality of this game.
The rest of the players were sent to the Siretz labour camp where only one thing was expected of the inmates: that they work until they died of either malnutrition or disease.
Some, however, did not make it that far. Early in 1943, and eager to send a message following an attack by anti-German partisans, the camp commandant ordered that every prisoner be lined up in the yard and that every third one be shot.
Kuzmenko was the first FC Start player to suffer this fate. Klimenko, the man who had humiliated the Germans by not scoring, was the next one to be thrown to the ground and shot. Next was Trusevich, the team’s main architect, goalkeeper and captain. Some of those who survived this ordeal recounted that he jumped up after being knocked down, shouting ‘Red sport will never die’. A German guard opened fire before he could do anything else, killing him on his feet and with his goalkeeper shirt still on.
His body, along with those of others who had suffered the same fate, was thrown into the ravine at Babi Yar.
Goncharenko, Svidovsky and Tyutchev were luckier as they avoided the whole nightmare having that day been chosen to form part of a work squad to go to the city. Even so, on hearing the news they quickly realised that they would be better off risking escape; that their profile made them easy targets for prison wardens eager to demoralise the other inmates. So escape they did and thankfully made it out alive by hiding in Kiev until its liberation.
Details are murkier in so far as another player – Pavelo Komarov – is concerned. The main suspicion is that he had agreed to act as an informant to the Germans and then disappeared from view after being allowed to escape from the camp once the Red Army was on the verge of recapturing the city.
It would probably be unfair to judge him too harshly if he did actually do so. Indeed, for all that they had been through, the other surviving players had to suffer the harsh interrogations by Stalin’s own police force who were suspicious of anyone who had come into close contact with the Germans.
Even once the war was over the story of the heroism shown by FK Start players was supressed. It was only in 1959, almost twenty years after the event, that it started gaining prominence. And, once it did it became a tool for Communist propaganda to the extent that the story was changed to better fit the Communist narrative and, rather than months later, the players’ deaths were said to have happened immediately after the game. It is this version that still holds sway in most people’s minds.
It was a narrative meant to exemplify the heroic spirit which the Communist ideology imbued in people. Whether any such ideological thoughts went through the players’ minds before the game was debateable – Ukrainians had hardly been well off under Stalin’s repressive regime – and it is more likely that they were playing to fortify the morale of those who had stayed in the city.
Whatever the thinking, they kept alive both their honour and that of their people. They knew what fate awaited them and must certainly have wondered whether it was worth it over a game. Certainly there were those who afterwards questioned whether they should have been playing football with the enemy when others were losing their life trying to free their country.
Ultimately they decided that there was more at stake than that. And that is what makes them heroes.
There have been a number of movies based on the FC Start story of which ‘Escape To Victory’ is probably the most famous (although it is also the most loosely based). Tyler Gooden is looking to revisit the story although there is a major difference in his case: he’s going for animation rather than acting.
How did you learn about the FC Start story?
I read a short paragraph about it in a guidebook. I thought someone should make it into a film. Later I decided it should be me.
I was summoned in some way, I suppose.
The story has already been portrayed in a number of movies. Have you watched these? Will you take anything away from them?
I haven’t watched them. I am sticking to the questions and answers that move me in a personal way.
Does it make your job harder given that others have told the story? What will set your movie apart?
My challenge is the wave, not the other surfers. If I was making a film about another subject, I would still be faced with the same challenge of how to compose form, express beauty and communicate ideas. The audience enjoys the result, but for me, the subject matter is no different than staging a painting. I am not trying to do something to set it apart from something else, I want to bring forth truth.
How have you done your research? Obviously you’re aware that the game was used as a propaganda tool by the Soviet regime: how have you dug into the true story?
I read a lot. I had old newspaper articles from the era translated. I watch films and look at art from the region and era. I lived in Eastern Europe. I met and made friends with Ukrainians. I researched the true events, but I find the poetry is not in the facts.
Who wrote the script?
Why an animated movie?
It was the surest way I knew the film would get made!
Visually – from what has been shown so far – the movie looks stunning. How long does it take to prepare each frame? What is the process?
Thank you. It’s still in progress, so we will see. The screenplay leads to storyboards. Storyboards help determine what assets are needed. Assets, such as sets and characters, are created. Anything animated must be rigged like a puppet is rigged. Camera layouts and animation is done, blasted to low-res movie files, which are put together in a rough cut.
Somewhere in there, we begin working on colour and painting of all of this. Lots of art direction and planning. Then we light it based on all the art direction and concept designs, then we render several passes of each frame after it’s all been lit. Then we composite each shot, composed of those passes of light, for example. The passes of light combine with other render passes to give us the final result. Then we render those shots out. That comes together into the final edit, putting the shots together. Then we must do any final audio, voice over recording, sound mixing, music, sound design. It takes longer for us than a big studio because we are currently just a couple of people doing all the work.
Financially, how have you raised funds?
Money grows on trees. Every once and awhile, I just go pick some off!
When do you plan (or hope) to have the movie finished?
When the last frame is done. That’s all I can say for sure for now. But it will be done.
More information about this project can be found here: http://www.thefcstartmovie.com/