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Under Jakob’s Ladder: The Story

CubeCity Entertainment Inc., A Moon Brothers Film, 97 minutes, 2012, DVD.


The film is set in the Soviet Union prior to World War II. It features the lives of the ethnic minority Germans from Russia.

Under Jakob's Ladder is based on a true story and was inspired by the life of a real teacher who lived in the Soviet Union in the 1930s: Jakob Seel. His life story is representative of so many others who lived during Stalinist great purges. He belonged to an ethnic minority called the Germans from Russia.

During the 18th century, Seel's German-speaking ancestors were among those invited by Catherine the Great (and her son Paul and grandson Alexander who ruled after her) to settle the Russian territories. Communist rule was established as a result of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and Joseph Stalin came to power in the late 1920s. In the 1930s, Stalin began his political purges. The secret police would always come at night in a vehicle that was nicknamed the Black Raven. Men became scarce in the villages and it wasn't long before Seel himself was arrested—after praying a simple prayer at a funeral.

Under Jakob’s Ladder is the story of a vendetta that began because of a game of chess. It all started when a country teacher named Jakob Seel (played by Jeff Stewart) defeats a Russian grandmaster. The grandmaster's young son, Nikolai, secretly vows to take revenge on the teacher.

Twenty years pass by. Unaware of the vendetta, Jakob is now 60 years old. With the Soviet regime solidly in place, Jakob has been dismissed from his teaching position in the community. Jakob struggles with his growing sense of worthlessness. So, when a neighbor asks him to publicly speak at the funeral of her brother, he agrees, even though he knows the government forbids it.

Later that night comes the ominous knock on the door. Jakob has been reported. The secret police take him from his home and his beloved granddaughter, Marta.

Thrown into a Soviet detention camp, Jakob finds himself under the heel of the ruthless warden: Nikolai (Christopher Elliott). While Jakob is unaware of Nikolai's identity as the grandmaster's son, little by little, Jakob begins to put the clues together. The prisoners are forced to play chess with the warden. If they win, he promises to free them. But if they lose, they face torture. And Nikolai always wins.

Suddenly, during the night, some of the prisoners mysteriously disappear. The prisoners turn to Jakob for help. Jakob sends a message, offering to play a game of chess with Nikolai. But Nikolai has one more trick up his sleeve...


Under Jakob's Ladder

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North Dakota State University Libraries
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
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