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Poland's Painful Past

Legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda talks about the Katyn massacre.
 
 
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Andrzej Wajda was 13 years old when World War II broke out. Together with his mother he lived most of his life in the vain hope that his father might have survived the war: his father's name had never appeared on any official list of Polish soldiers killed in combat. The truth, discovered years later, was that Captain Wajda had been shot cold-bloodedly by the Soviet secret police in a prison in the western Soviet Union. Andrzej and around 22,000 other people had waited for their loved ones in vain.

In his teenage years Wajda joined the resistance against the Nazis. His father had taught him to draw, which inspired him to study fine arts in Krakow, Poland. But three years later he transferred to the Lodz film school, where he found his true profession: cinema.

Now 82 years old, he is one of the most renowned Polish film directors. In the 1950s, he was a leading member of the "Polish film school," a group of highly talented individuals whose films brought international recognition to Eastern-European cinema.

His film oeuvre depicts the key historical events in Poland during the second half of the 20th century with a tragic veil that is very characteristic of Wajda: his films focus on WWII ( Ashes and Diamonds , 1958), pass through the period of political oppression and social agitation of the 70s and 80s ( Man of Marble , 1977), and continue up to the birth of Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement ( Man of Iron , 1981).

Wajda's devotion led him to stand as a Solidarity candidate in the first free Polish elections in 1989. In the early 1980s the Solidarity movement, a Polish trade union, had become the first independent labor union in a Soviet bloc country. Solidarity went on to play a central role in the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe. Wajda served a two-year term in the Senate.

His film work has been consistently praised. In 2000 he was awarded an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences for his lifetime contribution to world cinema. In 1981 he won the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film festival for Man of Iron . His latest film, Katyn, was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign film category for the 80th Academy Awards.

The Katyn Massacre

Katyn is the most personal film Wajda has made: he lost his father in the Katyn massacre. He also was a witness to his mother's desperate and hopeless efforts searching for his father and her ultimate discovery of his tragic fate.

In 1940 22,000 Polish citizens were executed under the orders of Josef Stalin in the Katyn forest in the western part of the Soviet Union. The tragedy was not revealed until the spring of 1943 when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and discovered the mass graves. The Nazis used the news of their discovery to deflect attention from their mass murders of Jews, Slavs, gypsies and other opponents. However the Soviet propaganda machine blamed Adolf Hitler for the deaths. Any Soviet citizens who spoke out to tell the truth were punished with harsh prison terms.

In Poland under the country's post-war communist regime, talk of the massacre was taboo. Consequently the film's premier last September in Poland was a major national event; around three million spectators viewed the film.

Throughout the Cold War, for almost sixty years, the secret was kept. Finally in 1990 the Kremlin confessed that Stalin's secret police had been responsible for the crime. Nearly seven decades later, for Poles, even the mere mention of the tragedy still evokes incredibly painful memories.

In Katyn, Wajda dramatizes the fate of four fictional officers and their families whose lives begin to unravel along with Poland when it is attacked on two fronts in 1939 under a secret deal between Stalin and Hitler: the Nazis struck from the west on September 1st and then the Soviets hit the country from the east on September 17th.

The script, based on Andrzej Mularczyk's book Post-Mortem: The Katyn Story , uses real accounts the victims' family members found in letters and diaries pulled from the Katyn graves. The cinematographer is award-winning Pawel Edelman ( The Pianist , Ray, All the King's Men , and Oliver Twist ).

Overall the film received passable to bad reviews in Germany, with every newspaper acknowledging Wajda's cinematographic craft but also criticizing the direction he gave his actors that made most scenes melodramatic. The prestigious German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung for example said in its review: "When even people of his authority find it necessary to adapt their style to the excessive sentimentalism present in cinema nowadays, then what does this say about the state of historical movies? Probably nothing good."

Symbolism

A recurring cinematographic element in Wajda's filmography are graphic images charged with symbolism, which are at times perhaps a bit heavy handed. For example, in the opening scene of Katyn, he depicts Poland's predicament by showing a group of Polish people on a bridge who are fleeing the Nazis; they meet other Poles coming from the opposite direction trying to escape from the Soviets.

Another charged scene ripe with metaphor shows a Soviet soldier removing a Polish flag from a building; he rips it apart and uses the white portion of the flag to wrap around his feet. The half that was red (the color of communism) is put back on the building. The message is clear: the communists are in charge.

Undoubtedly, for me the best scene of Katyn is the endless, chilling final scene, when the Soviet secret police mechanically shoot, in a calculated choreography, one Polish army officer after another in a dark cellar, washing away the blood with buckets of water. Although it is very hard to watch because it's based on true events, it's one of the few scenes that doesn't show actors suffering an emotional overdose.

Katyn had its international premiere last February at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was screened out of competition. I had the chance to talk to Andrzej Wajda about his latest film, about Polish history, and about the Solidarity movement.

Why is it still relevant to commemorate an event that occurred almost seventy years ago?

I consider it enormously important because if there are topics that are not being talked about or that are hidden, then they remain secret or taboo and that is very dangerous. Besides, I strongly believe that it is unbelievably important to make films like this one, in order to improve Polish-Russian relations. It's also important that this movie is screened in Russia (author's note: it was released there last March 2008. And a similar situation goes for the Polish-German relations. They've become better after our film was screened in Germany. (Author's note: German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended a screening during the Berlinale last February.)

How do Polish people remember the massacre now?

Historical memory becomes less and less visible with time. Especially for the younger generations who live with completely different issues and with completely different lives.

But I think that it is crucial to have knowledge about our own history because it is educational for us. It was also important for me to show young people the kind of worries we had in the past, what we felt, how big our hope was.

What was the reaction in Poland to the film?

For Poland it was like bidding farewell to the topic. It was an elegy to the subject.

Is it still taboo in Russia to talk about Katyn?

Obviously there are two angles to the story. Not that all Russians find it taboo. Lots of artist friends there understand the problem and agree with the fact that we want to show it, and with the fact that this was one of the biggest European crimes in the 20th century. But there is another faction of people who still admire Stalin for his power. And a few are maybe sentimental about him.

Would you say it is a patriotic movie?

Partly yes, because this mass murder shaped our national identity. But what was extremely painful for us was that the crime was not addressed by western countries like England or the United States.

Was it possible for you to keep a distance when making the movie, since you were emotionally involved?

Yes, it was possible, because it happened so many years ago, in 1940, and now we are in the year 2008. And it is important to keep a certain distance. In this context I think I succeeded to keep it, although I had some memories and was emotionally involved.

What questions did you want to raise internationally with the movie?

First of all, I want the film to be understood. My aim was to involve the audience, even those who maybe have never heard of Katyn. In order for the film to be understandable for everyone, we had to provide some historical background. But we'll have to wait for the release in other countries abroad to see what kind of impact it may have internationally. But I mainly made this film for a Polish audience: that was my main target group.

During the elections last September, the Polish government tried to use the movie for its campaign. Is it true that you protested?

That's true, but they did not succeed. It was a good moment to use the film, because it was before the elections in Poland. I protested because this is not the film's purpose. This was not the aim of the film, this is not why I made it. It was not made to generate political discussions or to suggest political issues. This is a film to commemorate, to give a hand to people who still remember their family members or friends who were killed in 1940.

Why did you become a member of the Solidarity movement?

That was the most beautiful moment in my life. I joined Solidarity because it was the first movement that fought for freedom in Poland; it conjoined the forces of workers and members of the intelligentsia, like writers, politicians, doctors and film directors. Before that it was either the ones or the others who were uprising. They never had united before.

Was it worth it, fighting for freedom?

Freedom creates other difficulties, those of choice, but choice is good. When people have no choice or when they have to make their decisions according to someone else's will, then there's something wrong.

On your website you say that escape is one of the most important themes in your life. Why?

We always have a laugh with my friends when we tell the following joke: it's always good escaping forward, but never good escaping backwards. Because when you escape forward, you can have new experiences. This topic is very much present in my more political movies.

Besides, it's important to have an element of surprise for the audience. My film The Man of Iron , has an unexpected turn that no one is able to foresee.

What's your new movie Tatarak about?

It's a beautiful film that takes place in the sixties; it's about a woman who falls unexpectedly in love and that totally surprises her. I want to leave politics. I'm not a maniac ( laughs).

***

Before watching Katyn I had no knowledge of the massacre and perhaps that is the film's greatest achievement: to offer the world a history lesson. Furthermore, the beautiful photography and the slow rhythm of the film make the film a pleasure to watch. At times, though, the style seemed maybe a little too old-school.

In general, older generations in Poland still have a deep-rooted mistrust of both the Germans and the Russians due to the historical reasons mentioned above. Unfortunately, the younger generations also feel that way as well, although perhaps not so strongly. I recently talked to a Polish acquaintance and when I asked him about how he felt about the Germans and Russians, he responded quickly that what happened in the past is still very much present. He also added that Poles feel more embittered about the Russians than the Germans.

While Wajda himself said during the interview that the Katyn massacre is part of Poland's identity, he also said that it is important to look forward. It is very clear to me that it will take more than one generation for the wounds to heal completely.

Vera von Kreutzbruck was born in Argentina. She started her career in journalism at the English language newspaper, Buenos Aires Herald. After a fellowship in Germany three years ago, she decided to settle in Berlin. She currently works as a freelance journalist contributing to media in Europe and Latin America. Her articles focus on international news and culture in Germany and the European Union.

Vera von Kreutzbruck was born in Argentina. She started her career in journalism at the English language newspaper, Buenos Aires Herald. After a fellowship in Germany three years ago, she decided to settle in Berlin. She currently works as a freelance journalist contributing to media in Europe and Latin America. Her articles focus on international news and culture in Germany and the European Union.

 
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