In mid-September, 1939, on a bridge in Poland, groups of people flee from opposite directions. The Germans invade from behind, and the Russians approach from the front. It is utter chaos. The crowd is well-dressed, for the most part, holding suitcases, showing the suddenness of their flight. Which way to go? A mother (Maja Ostaszewska) and her young daughter try to stick together. She sees a friend, pushing through the crowd in her gleaming car, and they both have husbands who are army officers, caught behind the Russian front. They exchange hurried information. The crowd is caught on the bridge, unable to return home, unable to move forward.
If there is a better visual representation of Poland’s position in September of 1939, invaded by Germany on September 1, and invaded by Russia two weeks following, after the Molotov-Ribbontrop Pact, signed in August of 1939, I haven’t seen it. It is the opening scene in Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 Oscar-nominated Katyn.
Britain and France, due to their own signed agreements, had promised to aid Poland in case of such an invasion by Germany (nobody thought Russia would invade, amazingly enough). That aid never came. Everyone declared war on Germany, a nice gesture, to be sure, but they watched as Poland was thrown to the dogs. The non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia shocked the world, most of which had been trying to cozy up to Stalin to fight the Nazi menace. Poland was not at war with Russia. They had more to fear from the Germans. At least that was the prevailing feeling. It was a tremendously confusing time, with vast shifting of political alliances which killed millions of people.
And in April, 1940, an estimated 22,000 Poles (made of up army officers, mostly, but also a vast number of “intelligentsia”) were massacred by the Soviets, the main killing spot being in the forest of Katyn, Russia. Almost half of the Polish officer corps was wiped out. When the Soviets began their invasion, on September 17, the Polish army were under orders not to fight the Soviets, so hundreds of thousands of them were taken prisoner. Many of them were released. Many of them were shipped off to camps.
The army officers were kept in limbo, held in barracks, going through interrogations (which shows how well-planned the eventual massacre was: there was an elimination process going on, although the Polish officers all assumed they would be released) until April of 1940, when they were taken off to the forest, shot in the back of the head one by one (it must have taken hours), and tossed into a mass grave. The killing was not done spontaneously. An operation like that requires intense planning. Documents have been uncovered detailing the operation. The grave was discovered by the Germans in 1943 (because, of course, Hitler did not honor the non-aggression pact he had with his BFF Uncle Joseph, and, refusing to learn the lessons of Napoleon, invaded Russia). News of the Katyn atrocity went round the world.
But now it gets interesting. Russia blamed it on the Germans. The Germans denied responsibility. They weren’t even IN Russia in April of 1940. The Russians changed the date, though, saying that the massacre had taken place in 1941, after the German invasion. That was official Soviet policy for DECADES, until the truth finally came out (or, to be accurate: until Russia finally admitted responsibility). The Polish people, living under Soviet rule since the end of World War II, always knew the truth, but, in essence, it was a forgotten massacre. The world moved on. Who cares who did it, the Soviets or the Germans, they’re all beastly. (I am being facetious, but you can understand how the Poles may have felt that the world took that attitude.) Now picture being a Polish person in the years following WWII. Your husband, brother, father was murdered by the very people who now rule over you, and you are forbidden to even mention how they died. Or, if you do mention it, you must concede to the official version of the truth, which is: My father/husband/brother was killed by the GERMANS in 1941, not by the Russians in 1940. Even though you KNOW it is not true.
This is one of the psychological torture methods used consciously by the Soviets to dominate and cow the Polish people that Wajda explores in his brutal film.
One of the things that is difficult to understand about Stalin is that he didn’t do anything impulsively. He was unlike many (most) dictators in that respect. He planned, he thought, he had patience (a very rare quality in leaders, in general, let alone autocratic dictators). Underneath everything he did, there was a psychological reason. Killing the Polish army officers was not just because they were in the way, or they were part of the enemy. He knew it would shatter the Poles’ confidence in their own army, causing panic and disorientation that he could work to his advantage. He knew that it would cripple the Polish army moving forward. He always took the long view. He knew he could use this massacre, in other words. It would be a useful tool of psychological domination, as would be the lying about it afterwards. And he was right. He forced the Poles to swallow the enormous lie about Katyn that denied them the right to properly mourn the deaths of their family members and countrymen. And once you get a population to do THAT for you, you can do anything to them. You’ve won. Not just in terms of borders and government, but in terms of their minds.
All of this can only be inferred, because, of course, Stalin rarely left his fingerprints on anything. But we can assume that anything that happened in the Soviet Union did not happen without his express say-so. Stalin can be discerned not in the planning, but in the results. You always have to look at the results to “see” him.
William Grimes wrote:
Pity the biographer who takes on Josef Stalin. The challenges lie somewhere between daunting and impossible. Stalin took great pains to cover up the facts of his childhood and youth. Aided by state hagiographers, he revised the events of his life multiple times, making it nearly impossible to determine what role he played in the crucial events of the October Revolution and civil war. Airbrushing by state hagiographers added extra layers of obfuscation. Inconvenient witnesses tended to disappear. Secretive, introverted, and paranoid, Stalin made an art of concealing his motives and his methods.
Robert Conquest says again and again in his great book The Great Terror, “They did not understand Stalin yet.” Conquest was talking about Stalin’s colleagues and co-conspirators, but the same was true for other world leaders and opinion-makers at the time. But even the brutes surrounding Stalin in Russia weren’t on his level. They thought maybe he would calm down once it was clear he had “won”. Maybe now that we’ve put everyone in jail, we could get back to our great Socialist Revolution again, and running the country properly? Not so fast.
(Of course Stalin never ultimately won. There was always a strong resistance in Poland, of which Andrzej Wajda himself was a part of as a young man, and there were always groups committed to telling the truth about Katyn. This went on for decades.)
Wajda’s Katyn is a harrowing, relentless, and angry film showing the results of this type of propaganda, and what it does to a population.
On May 27, 1942, German Jew Viktor Klemperer wrote in his phenomenal journal, which details the increasing persecution faced by the Jews in Germany:
“I shall go on writing. That is my heroism. I will bear witness, precise witness!”
Katyn is a powerful document of bearing witness. The film says: Look. See. This Happened. It bears witness to the pain of those forced to go along with the lies. It also bears witness to the experience of the Polish army officers, imprisoned, waiting, and then killed, the film saying: These men lived, and these men died this way. Do not forget. Do not forget them. Do not look away. See. See. This happened.
Anna and her daughter wait for word of her husband. In 1943, when the Katyn grave is found, a “list” is published in the Krakow paper, with all of the names on it, “the Katyn list” it is called. The names are read out in the public square, a crowd of people waiting to hear if their “person” is on it. After the war ends, the world has shifted entirely. Whereas before, the Poles had to deal with the Germans, now they are under the Soviet thumb. The remnants of the Polish army now wear Soviet uniforms. This is obviously a matter of personal survival: you could say, “No, I don’t want to join your army, you killed 22,000 of my brothers”, but you would find yourself killed or in a gulag for 25 years if you did that. Families shatter, which we see occur in Katyn. The victims must collude with the persecutors, in order to stay alive. That’s how the system works.
One woman, Agnieszka, played by the heartbreaking and fierce Magdalena Cielecka, is determined to erect a gravestone for her brother, which includes the words: “Died in Katyn, 1940.” She speaks to the priest at her church, and when he hears of her plan, balks. “You know I can’t put up a gravestone that has those words on it.” Katyn shows that anyone close to the truth of the original massacre has been taken off in the night, never to be seen again (the priest who sanctified the mass grave in 1943, for example: disappeared). Agnieszka dresses like a student revolutionary in plain skirts, black beret, and boots, and is determined to honor her brother’s death and the truth of it. She pays the ultimate price for her truth-telling, and her brother’s gravestone, with the damning date “1940” on it, lies broken in the cemetery.
The majority of the film takes place in the aftermath of Katyn, with the people back in Poland suffering from a lack of information and a great and deliberate fog placed over their ability to find out the truth. What happened to Anna’s husband? His name was not on the Katyn list. But then, where is he? Why did he not return? Movingly, the lead character, played by the wonderful Artur Zmijewski, husband of Anna, the woman we saw on the bridge, is named “Andrzej”, after Wajda himself.
Wajda’s films are always personal. In a place like Poland, overrun by invasions for much of its history, politics are always personal. In Katyn, we see the heartbreaking and enraging results of an official program of propaganda and lies and what it does to people in their hearts, souls, and memories.
The massacre scene, when it finally comes, is brutal and almost unwatchable in its horror. It takes its time, because, after all, the massacre took time. It was methodical, deliberate. The men, dragged to the edge of the pit, murmur The Lords’ Prayer in their final moments, one after the other, after the other, after the other. The scene goes on so long and is so relentless, I found myself thinking incoherent thoughts during it such as: “Look at us…. Look at what we do to one another….” It is horrifying and important to face. Again, Wajda is saying: Look. See. This is what happened. Honor it. Remember it. These men died this way. We were not allowed to mourn them, talk about them, or grieve them. We were denied that. Those days are over now. Forgiveness may come, but first, we must allow ourselves to look, see.
Wajda does not just feel strongly about this because he is Polish, because he lived through those years, and because he has devoted his life to making films about the history of Poland (although these things are all true). He feels strongly about Katyn because his real-life father was one of the Polish army officers massacred there in 1940.
Wajda, then, is bearing witness to an atrocity in Poland’s past, but also to his father’s memory, and what his father experienced. The mournful music that pours out of the black screen before credits begin to roll has the gravitas and magnificent sorrow of a requiem mass, a requiem the Polish officers had been denied.