CINEMA: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Katyn - Sombre depiction of unpunished WW2 crime
, May 2, 2009
Polish director Andrzej Wajda's award-winning film Katyn (rated MA, with English subtitles), was screened in early April at the University of Western Australia, and is reviewed here by Joseph Poprzeczny.On the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Poland suffered simultaneous invasion and partition at the hands of her powerful neighbours, Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, under the terms of the notorious Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.
The abominable war-time atrocities the Nazis committed in occupied Poland are widely known. Less well-known are the crimes the Soviet Communists committed against the Poles who came under their power.
The Soviet secret police, the NKVD, seized hundreds of thousands of predominantly Polish civilians (including women and children) and dispatched them by train to slave labour camps in the east of the Soviet Union.
The September 1939 German-Soviet joint conquest of Poland also meant the capture and internment of many tens of thousands of Polish soldiers.
Officers and men in the ranks who hadn't manage to escape to the West (and tens of thousands did) were separated by both aggressors to thwart the formation of a Polish resistance against both totalitarian occupants.
In the eastern zone, the NKVD captured more than 20,000 Polish army officers, policemen, academics and intellectuals. These elite prisoners, whom the Communists denounced as "nationalists and counter-revolutionaries", were detained in special Soviet camps at Kozielsk, Starobielsk, Ostashkov and elsewhere. From April 1940, nothing was heard of them again.
Three years later, after Hitler had broken his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, the German occupiers discovered in western Russia a mass grave of some 4,000 Polish officers in Katyn Forest near Smolensk. The time of the officers' deaths, in spring 1940, pre-dated the German presence in that area and was quite clearly the work of the Soviet NKVD. The victims had been bound, shot in the back of the head, and their corpses stacked 10 to 12 deep.
Berlin triumphantly publicised the Soviet massacre, whereupon Moscow accused the Germans of the deed. The tit-for-tat accusations lasted well beyond 1944 when the Red Army and the NKVD not only re-established control of Soviet territory but occupied all of Poland.
At the post-war war crimes trials at Nuremberg, the Soviets tabled faked evidence in support of their claim that the Germans were responsible for the massacre.
Only in 1990 did Moscow come clean when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev presented the Polish Government with evidence confirming the NKVD's responsibility for killing the Polish officers in spring 1940.
The death warrants of the 20,000 missing Polish officers had been signed on March 5, 1940, by Stalin and his henchmen Molotov, Voroshilov and Mikoyan. In addition to the 4,000 victims found at Katyn, there were subsequently discovered to be other Soviet killing-sites and mass graves containing the rest of the Polish victims in Kalinin (Tver), Kharkiv and elsewhere.
Film director and honorary Oscar recipient, Andrzej Wajda, in his internationally-acclaimed film Katyn
- a word that has entered the Polish language - highlights not only these killings but also their impact upon wartime and post-war Polish society.
Among those killed at Katyn was a cavalry officer who happened to be the father of Wajda.
Wajda's opening scene shows two Polish refugee groups in autumn 1939 - one trekking westwards, towards Poland's German-occupied half; the other trekking eastwards, towards the Soviet-occupied zone.
They meet on a bridge and warn each other of perils ahead.
Notwithstanding this, Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), accompanied by her daughter, presses ahead eastwards, in search of her cavalry officer husband, Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), whom she later finds.
She begs him to flee the impending danger, but he refuses to desert his captured unit.
Wajda's camera slowly pans past several prisoners-of-war, baffled and confused about their likely fate and Poland's.
Wajda presents intimate glimpses of the lives of the relatives, not only of Andrzej but of other POWs held at Kozielsk.
Andrzej's father, captured in the western zone by the Germans, was to suffer a similar fate to that of his son.
The father, an academic at Krakow's historic Jagiellonian University, was one of that academy's 184 professors arrested on campus on November 6, 1939, and dispatched to the Third Reich's Sachsenhausen concentration camp from whence he never returned.
Wajda, in his film, deftly weaves the lives of his subjects around the ongoing propaganda tussle between Berlin and Moscow over who perpetrated the Katyn Forest massacre.
Wajda's closing 10 minutes are at the Katyn slaughterhouse where Andrzej, among others, perishes.