Go and see Wajda’s superb film ‘Katyn’ while there’s still time
J and I are still reeling from the effects of the film Katyn, the latest product of the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda, and indisputably a masterpiece. Watching it is a gruelling experience, but a hugely rewarding one. Although theoretically on general release in the UK, it’s not easy to track down any of the few cinemas currently showing it; some Googling may be required for British movie-goers.
The film follows the impact on four fictional Polish families of the all-too-real tragedy in the Katyn forest in Russia of the —
mass murder of thousands of Polish military officers, policemen, intellectuals and civilian prisoners of war by Soviet NKVD, based on a proposal from Lavrentiy Beria to execute all members of the Polish Officer Corps. Dated March 5, 1940, this official document was then approved (signed) by the entire Soviet Politburo including Joseph Stalin and Beria. The number of victims is estimated at about 22,000, the most commonly cited number being 21,768. [Wikipedia]
For years during and after the second world war the official Soviet (and therefore also the Polish Communist party) line was that the massacre had been perpetrated in 1941 by the German SS when the Katyn forest area was under German occupation. It was however widely known in Poland and in the west that in fact this had been a Soviet NKVD crime, committed in 1940 when the Katyn area of Russia was still under Soviet control. During the war western governments refrained from placing the blame for the massacre where it belonged, on their war-time ally the Soviet Union, for fear of the consequences for the war-time alliance against Hitler in which the Russians were playing such a vital part. After the war, with Poland under effective Soviet domination, the fiction was maintained for a long time, and in communist-governed Poland it was a serious, potentially capital, offence to allege that the murder of the flower of the Polish intelligentsia and its officer corps at Katyn had been the work of the Russians, not the Germans. During my own time in Poland (1986-88, just before the collapse of Soviet communism in Europe) we would visit the Warsaw cemetery to see the officially-erected Katyn memorial where the reference engraved on the memorial to the Hitlerite fascists as the perpetrators of the massacre was constantly defaced or gouged out by Polish patriots and the correct (and damning) date ‘1940’ inscribed or painted in its place, thus indicting the Russians. On All Souls Day the Poles would gather at the memorial and hold a candle-light vigil, softly singing patriotic Polish songs and hymns; they probably still do:
In 1981, [the] Polish trade union Solidarity erected a memorial with the simple inscription “Katyn, 1940” but it was confiscated by the police, to be replaced with an official monument “To the Polish soldiers – victims of Hitlerite fascism – reposing in the soil of Katyn”. Nevertheless, every year on Zaduszki, similar memorial crosses were erected at Powazki cemetery and numerous other places in Poland, only to be dismantled by the police overnight. Katyn remained a political taboo in communist Poland until the fall of the Eastern bloc in 1989. [Wikipedia]
The name Katyn thus has a terrible resonance in the minds of all Poles.
Wajda’s intensely moving film won’t always be easy to follow for those unfamiliar with the Katyn story or with Polish geography, requiring especially a rough understanding of the areas of Poland occupied in the early part of the war by the Germans and the Russians respectively. There are of course many accounts of the Katyn massacre on the web and I would recommend refreshing one’s memory of the principal facts and dates before seeing the film by reading one or other of them, unless you’re already fully au fait with them. The Wikipedia account is probably as good as any. But on no account miss this moving and gripping movie by one of the great masters of the cinema. (Watch out for sign-posts in the film to some of its tragic themes: the theatre to which a young woman sells her hair for use in a stage wig, in order to pay for a memorial stone honouring her Katyn victim brother, is staging ‘Antigone‘, as we learn from a poster glimpsed in the foyer: the young woman, we suddenly realise, is re-enacting Antigone’s tragic role but in real life.)
Wajda is now 83, so there may not be too many more masterpieces from him.