Sunday 5 September 2010

A story about a lie

Katyn is a movie not so much about the infamous wartime massacre of Polish officers by the NKVD, the Russian security service, as about a lie. It's about the 'little lie' that it was the Nazis and not the Soviets who were responsible for the crime, and it's about the 'big lie' that forced Poland and the Poles to deny the truth -or face the consequences - behind the event for decades after the war in the name of 'communist solidarity.'

Directed by Andrzej Wajda, one of the great figures of post-war Polish cinema, Katyn was premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007. So far as I am aware it has never been screened in this country. I only found out about it recently from an advert in the press, immediately sending away for the DVD on Amazon.

Now I've seen it and I'm so glad I've seen it. It's not an easy movie to watch for various reasons. There are too many themes, too much ambition of scope, which makes it somewhat plodding and incoherent at points. But it is no less powerful for this criticism. It's uncompromisingly Polish, in that the message it carries is clearly intended for a domestic rather than an international audience, no bad thing in my estimation.

Take but one small example. It's 1939; Poland is conquered, savaged from the west by the Germans and betrayed from the east by the Soviets; refugees flee from the west only to be turned back by refugees fleeing from the east. In their zone of occupation, one of the bones allotted to the Soviet dog by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Russians have rounded up thousands of officers, taking them away to an uncertain fate. A large group are shown held temporarily in a ruined monastery. Their commander addresses them in solemn terms. It is their duty to survive, he says - "Gentlemen, you must endure. Without you, there will be no free Poland."

Just consider the significance of this, the dual significance. These men did not survive; there was no free Poland, not for fifty years after the end of the war, which across the whole of Eastern Europe simply substituted one tyranny for another. No Pole would fail to recognise the symbolism here.

I thought the depiction of the actual crime, carried out in the spring of 1940 on the orders of Stalin, would be the central event of the movie. Wajda's far too clever for that: it comes right at the end for good reason. For, as I said at the outset, the movie is really about a lie and the truth only appears when falsehood is finally swept away.

Instead the action, both during and after the war, focuses in large part on those left behind; on the mothers, wives, children, sisters of those who have disappeared, people who, firstly, want to know where their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers are, and secondly, want to know the facts behind an unravelling tragedy, a truth partially told, more deeply obscured by a lie, one perpetuating the pain.

There continues to be a lot of anger in Poland, possibly less now over the massacre itself as the subsequent official line given out by the Soviet and Polish governments in the days of communist control. But Wajda, whose own father was among the victims, has resisted any temptation to make an anti-Russian diatribe.

The site of the massacre in Katyn Wood near Smolensk was discovered by the Germans in 1943, who immediately tried to use it for the ends of their own propaganda. Their 'sympathy' with these victims of communism stands in sickening contrast to their own conduct in Poland, which the director alludes to in his depiction of the 1939 Sonderaktion in Krakow, when the teaching staff of Jagellonian University were shipped off to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, there to be murdered. This was the Nazi Katyn, part of a wider attempt to exterminate the Polish elite.

The wife of one of the senior officers killed at Katyn has his medal returned to her by the Germans, with official expressions of sympathy from Hitler. She is then asked to take part in a propaganda broadcast, refusing to do so, recognising the ugly cynicism at work.

No sooner did the facts of the tragedy emerge than the Soviet denials began: they were not responsible; it was the Germans. This was the position they continued to maintain even so far as the Nuremberg Trials - where it was shamefully supported by the British government - and for decades after, until the full truth was finally admitted in the 1990s.

Part of the movie is concerned with the Poles who were forced to live in the shadow of a lie, including Agnieszka, played by Magdalena Cielecka, who, in the manner of Antigone, is obsessed with paying proper rites to her dead brother, with her attempts to erect a marble headstone in his memory bearing the true date of his death - April, 1940. A time, in other words, when only Poland's 'fraternal' ally could be blamed.

Katyn was the Calvary of modern Poland. Salvation was only found, as ever, in resurrection, in the resurrection of truth. This is a bold, uncompromising movie, an excellent depiction of a great tragedy. It's a victory over the lies, little and big, a great tribute to the director's father and all the other ghosts of Katyn, hopefully now at peace.

Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła,
Kiedy my żyjemy.
Co nam obca przemoc wzięła,
Szablą odbierzemy.