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.


5 Responses

  1. Dave says:

    Newbury Corn Exchange is one venue that will be showing the film.

  2. john greenwell says:

    Completely agree this is a film which should not be missed. I was particularly interested in your visit to the cemetery and the altered dates of the massacre.
    It is probably worth googling ‘Katyn’ before attending the film, if you are not familiar with the details of the  history. But it is an important film.

  3. Andrew says:

    Should you chance on it, in Kensington Cemetery at Ealing , where many of Polands diaspora elite are buried, the polish exile community erected in the 1970’s an imposing 20ft monument – in black marble, bearing the inscription, “Katyn 1940”. I was there for its unveiling, which was attended by one of the Churchill sons, whose presence drew applause, and some British military in uniform., as well as Polish ex-combattants

    The Poles then were divided between those whose families were murdered by the Germans, and those murdered by the Russians. At Yalta, the West abandoned the Poles to their fate. Not a noble period in our past.

    Brian writes: Thanks for this, Andrew. J and I shall make a point of visiting the monument in Ealing, not that far from where we live, and we’re grateful to be told about it. As to Yalta, I don’t think that by then Churchill had much choice: Poland couldn’t have been wrested from Soviet control without a new world war, this time against the Russians, which was manifestly out of the question (especially as the Americans would have been adamantly opposed). The real betrayal, I believe, was the pre-war guarantee of Polish independence and security against German attack given by Britain and France when we should have known that neither of us was in any position to honour the guarantee. We thus gave the Poles a false sense of security — they understandably assumed that we would come to their rescue in September 1939 and were devastated when we sent not an aircraft nor a soldier to help them — and simultaneously (and predictably) failed to deter Hitler. By expanding NATO eastwards in the way we are doing, I believe we are up to the same old self-deluding tricks again.

  4. CB says:

    […] by 500%.2. Norfolk Blogger on being phone canvassed by Labour in Norwich North. Twice.3. Brian Barder recommends you go and see Katyn.4. Bruno Waterfield reveals EU whistleblower Marta Andreassen has […]

  1. 21 July, 2009

    […] by 500%.2. Norfolk Blogger on being phone canvassed by Labour in Norwich North. Twice.3. Brian Barder recommends you go and see Katyn.4. Bruno Waterfield reveals EU whistleblower Marta Andreassen has […]