Filmmaker Klayman pays tribute to Soviet’s Night Witch in short film

Nadezhda Popova, or Nadia, was a commander of a squad of the Soviet’s all-female bombing regiment which flew a Polikarpov – Po2 biplanes made out of plywood and canvass in over 852 missions.
Alison Klayman, one of the “20 Directors to Watch” by New York Times film critics, created “The Night Witch” to pay tribute to a World War II Soviet heroine.

“The Night Witch” is an animated Op-Doc which depicts the life story of Nadezhda Popova, also known as Nadia, who was part of the Soviet Union’s all-female bomber regiment during the Second World War.

There are five films, including “The Night Witch”, commissioned in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine’s The Lives They Lived issue. All the films pay tribute to significant historical figures who died this year.

Director Alison Klayman saw inspiration in making the film about a World War II heroine being a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors herself.

By middle school I had checked out every available book from the surprisingly vast canon of young adult Holocaust and World War II literature at my local library. So when I read the obituary this year of Nadezhda Popova, known as Nadia, I was surprised that I had never encountered the story of the Night Witches before,” said Alison Klayman. 

Nadia and her female comrades-in-arms were part of the an all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Union Air Force. She was also among the world’s first female combat flight pilots who flew in very dangerous bombing sorties each night with very limited technology.

At night time, these amazing female pilots would surprise their enemy by cutting their engines and hovering close to ground in a silent and deadly attack. At stealth mode, the soft “whooshing” sound of their planes, to the unknowing Germans, was like a witch’s broom.

The Nazis, then, started calling them Nachthexen, the German term for night witches. They were feared and hated by the Nazis that any pilot who luckily downed a “witch” was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.

“In making a short film to honor Ms. Popova, who died in July, I sought to emphasize the fairy-tale quality of the Night Witches’ story,” said the filmmaker.

The amazing female pilots of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew their planes only in the dark, cutting their engines and hovering dangerously low to hit their targets. The whooshing sound of their planes made the Nazis think of witch’s broomsticks. Thus, the female pilots were called “The Night Witches”.
Klayman teamed up with an animator, Dustin Grella, in the making of “The Night Witch”. Dustin Grella is a known creator of another opinionated documentary and short film, “Prayers for Peace”, which was about his brother who was killed in action in Iraq. 

He draws each frame of his animations in pastels on slate, providing a stark quality that complements the historical narrative,” said Klayman of Grella’s work. 

The director did in-depth research of the Night Witches going through history books and interviews with Ms. Popova and the other Soviet female combat flight pilots who were said to make accounts of their service “with a striking degree of matter-of-factness”. The women took pride of their achievements during the war and expressed their love of country and flying.

“Yet many also commented that they wouldn’t wish to do it again. Rather than reading this as a sign of a weaker feminine constitution, as some critics of women in the military claim, I saw a courageous acknowledgment that war was terrible for all who experienced it,” said Klayman.

The New York Times reports that the Night Witches also held useful propaganda value for the Soviet Army as Reina Pennington wrote in “Wings, Women and War”.

But after the war, the contributions of the women were downplayed due to the cultural and political views on women during that time. It was seen that women were said to be unsuited for combat.

It was only 45 years after when the United States Air Force allowed women to fly fighter jets and bombers. It was then 1993. Today, after 20 years, the number of female pilots is about 2 percent of the total Air Force fighter pilots. These women are at the ranks lieutenant colonel and below.

And it was only this year that former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the lifting of the exclusion rule on the military’s ground combat. But, the world has yet to see concrete changes in military rules and practices.

Alison Klayman has made previous Op-Docs including “An Attack on Equity” and “Ai Weiwei: Evolution of a Dissident”. The filmmaker is based in Tokyo.


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE