Television: Last Night

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Most television viewers cannot endure much privation. Threaten to take away their comfort for too long and they will often turn elsewhere. So how many people, I wonder, felt their nerve fail at the beginning of Channel 4's True Stories film about the construction of the Great Stalin Railway, a deadly folly hacked across Siberia by political prisoners?

"I lost all joys," said an old man and you sighed a little, dreading what was in prospect - survivors choking on undigested memories; the quiet revelation of cruelty; mournful landscapes; grainy archive. The film contained all these, and other conventional touches, too - the almost obligatory motifs of 20th-century atrocity: the vanishing point of a railway line pointing ominously into birch woods, a tear of rainwater trembling on a spur of barbed wire, abandoned buildings vandalised by time. (There was even a borrowing of that grave soundbite about the Burmese railway built by Allied prisoners: "one sleeper for every corpse".)

The pathos of such details was first fully exploited by Claude Lanzmann in his film about the Holocaust, Shoah, which illustrated the spoken testimony of victims and criminals with the numb geography in which the crimes had taken place, an empty terrain which offered a kind of image of the very amnesia his film was fighting against. Tom Roberts followed an almost identical procedure, interspersing and overlapping his interviews with repeated compositions of human technology and nature: a discarded boot in autumn leaves, an abandoned locomotive wallowing in a small woodland clearing, broken glass set against spring foliage.

There is something forlorn about all dereliction - a sense of defeated endeavour and universal mortality - but here the pictures were far crueller because they were evidence of an enterprise that never could have succeeded. At least in the case of those who died in Burma something remains to mark their passing. It may not have been worth dying for, but it has a continuing use.

In the case of the Great Stalin Railway, the Siberian tundra has reclaimed virtually everything. The few short patches of rail that remain rise and fall like a roller-coaster, buckled by ground heave; collapsed bridges span marshy lakes, connecting nothing to nothing.

As Roberts clearly knew, though, such scenes, melancholy as they are, cannot compete with the pictures in the survivors' heads. One man recalled the way in which the steam of men's urine would congeal against the sides of the cattle trucks taking them north, and how prisoners would scrape at the frost to ease their thirst. Another described the moment when a prisoner cut off his own hand so that he wouldn't have to work any more - the severed part twitched on a log, slowly turning blue until the tattoo between thumb and finger disappeared.

But the most surreal vision was summoned by an account of a guards' party, for which the electricity was supplied by six bicycles attached to a generator and pedalled by exhausted prisoners. One of the guards, in a rare moment of generosity, gave the prisoners some vodka, which they drank immediately. Unused to the liquor, they fell asleep at their posts. All six were found next day frozen in the saddle.

Roberts did not emulate Lanzmann's self-denying decision to use archive footage of the original event - and in the case of the wildly hagiographic propaganda footage about Stalin, this was understandable; it showed you the hysterical, unquestioning adulation which permitted such horrors to arise. (Even the prisoners did not abandon their reverence for Stalin - one recalled weeping inconsolably when his death was announced.)

I was less sure about the footage of men at work on the railway, which presumably came from Soviet propaganda films. It contradicted the accounts of malnutrition, with scenes of men who appeared to be in good health, triumphing over intolerable conditions rather than succumbing to them. The words, faltering and fallible though they might be, were a better memorial than such images.