'Katyn' Massacre at the Berlin Film Festival: History Lessons from Poland

By Olaf Sundermeyer in Warsaw

Until now, no one has managed to force open the darkest corners of Poland's "sealed memory." Andrzej Wajda's new World War II drama, "Katyn," succeeds. It tells the long-taboo tale of the roughly 14,500 Polish military officers murdered by the Soviet army in 1940.

When "Katyn" opened in Poland last fall, a nation remebered its dead. Polish students were obliged to see it, and a candlelit vigil was held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw.

The vigil featured a reading of the names of each of the 14,500 Polish officers murdered at Katyn. It took almost two days. Television and radio stations covered the event live.

The first name was spoken by Polish President Lech Kaczynski. Well-known journalists and actors from the "Katyn" cast also helped read the names of those victims who had been positively identified. Some 7,500 names were absent from the list, including that of Jakub Wajda, the father of Andrzej Wajda, the famous director whose World War II drama "Katyn" depicts in vivid detail a massacre indelibly engraved on Poland's collective memory.

It happened in early 1940 in a birch forest near Katyn, a town not far from Smolensk. They were mostly officers, all prisoners of war, all shot -- execution style. The NKVD, the Soviets' dreaded secret police, took care of the other ones, killing them in prisons in eastern Poland, where they had been held since the Red Army invaded Poland the previous year. For decades after the war, the massacre was blamed on Hitler and the Germans and would affect postwar Poland for decades to come. In addition to the officers who died among Katyn's birch, there was a large proportion of the Polish elite: lawyers, doctors, professors. Inept bureaucrats would assume their positions after the war. Their loyalty to Moscow was deemed far more valuable than competence.

The film shows how things went in Poland after it became a subjugated satellite state following the war. "The double tragedy of Katyn is the pairing of crimes and lies," Wajda says. The lie of Katyn -- that German soldiers committed the massacre, rather than the Soviets -- could not be broached in Poland during the half-century that the country spent as a part of the Eastern Bloc. One crime followed another. So many in Poland -- and especially the young -- did not know the truth. They hadn't even learned it in school. So, when the movie came out, it was a national sensation. Over three million people in Poland went to see the movie.

Polish director Andrzej Wajda has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category for his new film, "Katyn."
AFP

Polish director Andrzej Wajda has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category for his new film, "Katyn."

Wajda prefers to take his artistic cues from important moments in Polish history. "Canal" (1957) was set in the final moments of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, and he explored Poland's Solidarity movement in "Man of Iron" (1981). That film marked the last time he was nominated for an Oscar -- 26 years ago. "I'd like to show the world glimpses of Polish history," Wajda said after "Katyn" was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category this year. And that he does.

Sometimes Wajda gets a bit overdramatic, especially when it comes to how he depicts the suffering of the wives and families of the imprisoned officers before they meet their deaths. But the last 20 minutes of the film number among the most impressive of any film based on World War II. The execution of the officers is depicted in great detail. Handcuffed men are kicked off a truck and driven into a forest. Then comes the shot of the military pistol in the back of the head. By the dozens. Lifeless corpses fall with a thud into sand pits dug for this very purpose. A bulldozer stands by to fill in the mass grave.

No documents from that time, no work of literature has yet managed to capture the memory of Katyn. The event lay buried for decades, hidden in "sealed memory." Polish historian Adam Krzeminski, who is often quoted in Germany, believes "Katyn" is a film that "closes a huge gaping hole."

This gap relates more to Poland's neighbors to the east. To that end, "Katyn" dramatizes Poland's eternal struggle as a nation caught between two aggressors: Germany to the west, Russia to the east. Above all, this film explores Russia's historical responsibility for Polish oppression. But surrounding that struggle are problems with Germany. In awakening the horror of one atrocity, he invites one to revisit all that Poland has suffered.

On the Russian side, Mkhail Gorbachev, former General Secretary of the Communist Party and head of the USSR, admitted in 1990 that Russia bore the guilt for the Katyn massacre. Nevertheless, important powers in Russia continue to cast doubt on Gorbachev's assertion. Even today, Russian authorities refuse to track down those who participated in the Katyn murders or to recognize the event as a war crime.

Even this film will not change that. But the cathartic power of "Katyn" in Poland is not contested. The silence is broken. And it hasn't been replaced by any revanchist chauvinism. Last fall, the Kaczynski brothers tried to use this film during their nationalistic election campaign. But the Polish didn't take the bait.

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