Boris Sokolov never fired a shot in WWII, he used a different kind of ammunition. He was a cameraman in the Red Army. He did participate in the heat of the action, such as the liberation of Poland and the capture of Berlin, and was recognised for valour; he couldn’t keep his head down if he was to do his job.
Sokolov told us: “Our ‘weapon’ was a movie camera. We were sent to record the war on film, rather than fight. We were shooting with a camera, never with a gun.”
This year Sokolov turned 95. In Moscow’s Museum of the Second World War he showed us some of the vast resources from the archives and shared with us how he got to the front line in 1944.
“We came to Warsaw as pontoon bridges were being built and the Polish army was starting to cross the Vistula River. We shot that and then the first parade of Polish troops in liberated Warsaw.”
Military cameramen always worked with an assistant. Their prime tool, the movie camera, weighed 3.5 kilos, and each film canister was another half-kilo on top of that. Supplies had to be carried everywhere.
“The camera worked like an old-fashioned alarm clock. We had to wind a spring. This mechanism let us use 15 meters of [celluloid], which is half a minute on the screen. That meant we couldn’t take a shot longer than 30 seconds. The camera would stop and we had to wind it again to continue. “
The limitations of technology sometimes required shooting to be posed, pre-organised. Sokolov says even so this contributed truthfully to accounts of the war.
“When we were in Warsaw, we asked the army to fire on the opposite side of the river. We could film the explosions from our side. We asked the artillery if they could aim at a specific site, and after a while they phoned us up and said ‘okay, roll camera!’ And that’s what we did. But it was still shooting a real war.”
Boris Sokolov’s most memorable shooting of all in WWII was Germany’s signing of the surrender. He was specifically assigned to film the German delegation led by Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, who put his pen to the document on behalf of Hitler’s Third Reich. Sokolov keeps a May 8th photo of Keitel in his own home.
“I still remember how Keitel behaved. He was very arrogant from the start of the ceremony. He greeted the audience with his marshal’s baton but no one acknowledged him. His whole approach made it look as if Keitel was not the vanquished but the victor. “
Some experiences bordered on the incredible. For example, at the bottom of a dried-up pond in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, Red Army soldiers found a dead Hitler look-alike. The double was covered up with a blanket, and when Sokolov came to film the corpse, he put a magazine photo of the real fuhrer next to it, for comparison.
“He was dressed like Hitler, had a ribbon with an iron cross like Hitler, had his hair combed just like him, and a little moustache. So, very similar in appearance. But this double’s nose was broken and he had a bullet hole in his forehead.”
During the Second World War, 258 Soviet cameramen together shot 1,944 hours of film. One of every five was killed in action. Of all those who survived to see victory, Boris Sokolov alone is still alive.