A Movie That Matters
- View Sourcehttp://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012
A Movie That Matters
By Anne Applebaum <http://www.nybooks.com/authors/55>
a film directed by Andrzej Wajda, written by Andrzej Mularczyk and Andrzej
The ruins of a Russian Orthodox monastery, 1939: paint peels from the walls,
light filters in from the cracks in the ceiling, cigarette smoke whirls
through the air. Primitive wooden camp beds are stacked up high, one on top
of the other, for the monastery has been turned into a prison. The
prisoners, soldiers in khaki-brown wool uniforms and black boots, are
gathered in a large group. Craning their heads forward, they listen to their
commanding officer make a speech. Solemn and tired, he does not ask them to
fight. He asks them to survive. "Gentlemen," says the general, "you must
endure. Without you, there will be no free Poland."
The scene ends. The audienceat least the audience in the Warsaw theater
where I watched the filmsighs, rustles, collectively draws its breath.
Those watching know, as they were meant to know, that the soldiers, the
flower of Poland's pre-war officer corps, did not survive. And without them,
there was indeed no free Poland.
In its way, this episodeboth the action on screen and the audience reaction
in the theaterrepresents the quintessence of the art of its director,
Andrzej Wajda. For half a century, beginning in the darkest era of communism
and continuing through the years of Solidarity, martial law, and the
post-Communist present, Wajda has been conducting precisely this kind of
cinematic dialogue with Polish audiences. Although they have sometimes been
celebrated abroad, his movies have always been made with his countrymen in
mind, which gives them a special flavor. Because he knows what his Polish
viewers will knowabout history, about politics, about the ways people
behave under occupationWajda has always been able to rely upon them to
interpret his work correctly, even when censorship forced him to make his
points indirectly. His latest film, Katyn, in which the scene described
above appears, is in this sense a classic Wajda movie.
Certainly its Polish viewers know how it will end, long before they enter
the cinema. Katyn, as its title suggests, tells the story of the
near-simultaneous Soviet and German invasions of Poland in September 1939,
and the Red Army's subsequent capture, imprisonment, and murder of some
20,000 Polish officers in the forests near the Russian village of Katyn and
elsewhere, among them Wajda's father. The justification for the murder was
straightforward. These were Poland's best-educated and most patriotic
soldiers. Many were reservists who as civilians worked as doctors, lawyers,
university lecturers, and merchants. They were the intellectual elite who
could obstruct the Soviet Union's plans to absorb and "Sovietize" Poland's
eastern territories. On the advice of his secret police chief, Lavrenty
Beria, Stalin ordered them executed.
But the film is about more than the mass murder itself. For decades after it
took place, the Katyn massacre was an absolutely forbidden topic in Poland,
and therefore the source of a profound, enduring mistrust between the Poles
and their Soviet conquerors. Officially, the Soviet Union blamed the murder
on the Germans, who discovered one of the mass graves (there were at least
three) following the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941. Soviet prosecutors
even repeated this blatant falsehood during the Nuremberg trials and it was
echoed by, among others, the British government.
Unofficially, the mass execution was widely assumed to have been committed
by the Soviet Union. In Poland, the very word "Katyn" thus evokes not just
the murder but the many Soviet falsehoods surrounding the history of World
War II and the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. Katyn wasn't a single
wartime event, but a series of lies and distortions, told over decades,
designed to disguise the reality of the Soviet postwar occupation and
Poland's loss of sovereignty.
Wajda's movie, as his Polish audiences will immediately understand, is very
much the story of "Katyn" in this broader sense. Its opening scene, which
Wajda has said he has had in his head for many years, shows a group of
refugees heading east, crossing a bridge, fleeing the Wehrmacht.
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012#fn1#fn1> On the bridge, they
encounter another group of refugees heading west, fleeing the Red Army.
"People, where are you going, turn back!" the two groups shout at one
another. Soon afterward, Wajda shows Nazi and Soviet officers conversing in
a comradely manner along the new GermanSoviet bordersas surely they did
between 1939, the year they agreed to divide Central Europe between them,
and 1941, when Hitler changed his mind about his alliance with Stalin and
invaded the USSR. On the bridge, Poland's existential dilemmatrapped
between two totalitarian statesis thus given dramatic form.
Within the notion of "Katyn," Wajda also includes the story of the father of
one of the officers, a professor at the Jagellonian University in Kraków.
Asked to attend a meeting by the city's Nazi leadership, he joins other
senior faculty in one of the university's medieval lecture halls. Instead of
holding a discussion, Nazi troops enter, slam the doors, and arrest everyone
in the room. The men, many elderly, are forced onto trucks, the officer's
father among them. Later, his widow will learn that he died, along with many
of his colleagues, in Sachsenhausen. Some have cited this scene, which is
not directly related to the Katyn massacre, as an example of how Wajda tried
to put too many themes into a single film. Wajda himself explains elsewhere
that he sees it as part of the same story, since this Sonderaktion in Kraków
was the German equivalent of the Katyn massacre: an open attack on the
Polish intelligentsia, an attempt to destroy the nation's present and future
Other stories follow, at a rapid clip. Stories of the wives left behind,
many of whom, like Wajda's mother, didn't know the fate of their husbands
for decades; stories of the men who survived Soviet deportation, and were
consumed by guilt; stories of those who tried to accept and adjust to the
lie and move on. The film ends with a stunningly brutal, almost unwatchable
depiction of the massacre itself. Wajda increases the horror by focusing on
the terrible logistics of the murder, which took several weeks and required
dozens of people to carry out: the black trucks carrying men from the prison
camps to the forest, the enormous ditches, the rounds of ammunition, the
bulldozers that pushed dirt onto the mass graves.
Along the way, Wajda also tells stories that echo episodes in his earlier
films and in his own lifeas, once again, he knows, his Polish audience will
understand. At one point, one of his characters, Tadeusz, the son of a Katyn
victim and a former partisan who has spent the war in the forestsfiles an
application to return to his studies. Like Wajda himself at that age, he
wants to attend the School of Fine Arts. Told he will have to erase the
phrase "father murdered by the Soviets in Katyn" from his biography, Tadeusz
refuses, runs out, and tears a pro-Soviet poster down in the street outside.
Minutes later, he is discovered and shot in the street by Communist
soldiers. Like the hero of Wajda's 1958 film Ashes and Diamonds, he dies a
pointless, postwar death, fighting for a failed cause. But unlike that
earlier herocreated for a more cautious and more heavily censored timehe
feels no ambivalence about that cause. Unlike Wajda himself, Tadeusz prefers
death and truth to a life lived in the shadow of historical falsehood.
To anyone unacquainted with Polish history, some of these stories will seem
incomplete, even confusing. Characters appear, disappear, and then appear
again, sometimes so briefly that they are hardly more than caricatures. Some
of them, most notably the sister who plays the part of a modern Antigone,
determined to erect a gravestone to her lost brother, are so laden with
symbolism that they don't feel very realistic. Dialogues are brief,
uninformative. Scenes shift from Kraków to Katyn, from the Russian- to the
German-occupied zone of Poland. References are made to people and places
that are significant to Poles but that will be obscure to everybody else, a
phenomenon that helps explain why the film has not, to date, found an
English-language distributor. But then, English-language distribution wasn't
one of Wajda's concerns. This film wasn't made for the benefit of those who
are unacquainted with Polish history.
Since the late 1980s, it has been possible to talk openly about the Katyn
massacres in Poland and Russia. Since 1990, when Mikhail Gorbachev first
acknowledged Soviet responsibility for Katyn, and 1991, when Boris Yeltsin
made public the documents ordering the massacre, it has even been possible
to research them in Russian archives. Academic and popular history books on
the massacre have now been published in several languages, including
Russian. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012#fn3#fn3> Yale University
Press has now translated the most important documents into English, and
published them with extensive annotation, background information, and rare
photographs, including one taken from a German airplane in 1943.
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012#fn4#fn4> The Polish government has
constructed multiple memorial sites, in Warsaw as well as in the Katyn
forest itself. When his film came out last fallon September 17, the
sixty-eighth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of PolandWajda was asked
several times to explain himself. Why Katyn? Why now? One interviewer put it
rather brutally: "I didn't feel a deep need to watch a film about Katynwhy
would I? It seems that everything on that subject has already been said."
Wajda answered these questions in various ways, depending on how they were
askedit was only recently, he said, that he came up with a script he liked,
though he has wanted to make a movie about Katyn for decadesbut his most
striking explanations involved his audience. Most of those who actually
remembered the events of 1939 were now dead, he explainedWajda himself is
eighty-oneso the film could no longer be made for them. Instead, he said,
he wanted to tell the story again for young peoplebut not just any young
people. Wajda said he wanted to reach "those moviegoers for whom it matters
that we are a society, and not just an accidental crowd."
In an era when Hollywood dialogue is sometimes deliberately simplified in
order to be easily subtitled, when the definition of a "successful" movie is
one that makes money in many countries, and when many movies are "niche
marketed" to appeal to some groups and not others, this explanation struck
me as rather remarkable. There is something deeply old-fashioned about the
idea that movies can help create strong, positive bonds of patriotism among
strangers. Certainly it's a notion alien to contemporary American audiences.
If movies ever helped bind us together as a nation, the way Walter Cronkite
once bound us together by interpreting the evening news, it's hard to see
how they do any longer.
It's true that the notion of a na-tional cinema comes more naturally to
smaller, non-English-speaking nations, who are accustomed to talking among
themselves without others listening. Still, when most Europeans call for a
national cinema, they usually do so in a different manner. In France, movies
are yet another tool in the great competition for international influence.
Other countries consider their film industries in much the same light as
their national airlines: a matter of prestige, albeit one in heavy need of
But both in the interviews he's given and in the film itself, Wajda seems to
be saying something rather different about the need for a national cinema.
By making Katyn, he wanted to create something that would get Poles to talk
to one another, to reflect upon common experiences, to define common values,
to admire similar virtues, to forge a civil society out of an anonymous
crowd. Katyn is deliberately intended to inspire patriotism, in the most
positive sense of the word. This too helps explain why Wajda made a film
that asks not just "what happened?" or "what did the Soviet Union do to us?"
but rather "how did we, as a society, react afterward?" as well as "and how
do we remember it now?"
At least judging by the initial reactions, Wajda seems to have succeeded, at
least in getting the conversation started. The premiere of Katyn took place
at the National Opera in Warsaw, and was covered live by all the important
national newspapers and television stations. In attendance were the Polish
president and first lady, the prime minister, the Catholic primate, Lech
Wal/e?sa, assorted historians, novelists, composers, and victims' families,
as well as the film stars who more normally go to that sort of event. For a
few weeks, almost every cinema in the country was showing the film,
sometimes a dozen times a day. After only a month, more than two million
people had been to see ita large percentage in a country of 39 millionand
the film is already among the top ten best-attended of the past decade.
Every newspaper and magazine reviewed it, sometimes in special supplements.
More to the point, everybody talked about it, even if not everybody liked
it. "Have you been to see Katyn yet?" was something one was asked with some
frequency in Warsaw this past fall. The question sparked a dozen
discussionsabout Wajda's earlier films, about the factual elements of the
movie, about Russiathat would not have taken place otherwise.
But there are also pitfalls inherent in trying to make patriotic movies and
Wajda, sometimes through no fault of his own, ran into a few of them. Purely
by accident, Katyn was premiered in the middle of an unexpectedly early
Polish parliamentary election campaign. Partly as a result, the leaders of
the political party then in power officially named Law and Justice, better
known as the party of the identical Kaczynski twinswas accused of
attempting to manipulate the nation's sudden interest in Katyn for its own
purposes. With no more than a couple of weeks' notice, the government
suddenly decided it would hold a major Katyn commemorative ceremony, with
several elected officials given starring roles, as if the legacy of Katyn
belonged to their political party and not any other. The Katyn families
protested, as did Wajda. The date of the ceremony was changed. But the ugly
image of politicians vying to take advantage of the emotions raised by the
Not surprisingly, given that bitterness over Katyn has undermined Polish
Russian relations for more than six decades, Wajda's film also provoked a
few nasty outbursts in Poland about Russians, and vice versa. In an
interview with Izvestiya, Wajda himself tried to stave off this battle
before it began: "In Poland there has always been great sympathy for the
Russian people," he said. "We make distinctions between the people and the
system." <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012#fn6#fn6> Some Russians
took Wajda at his word. The Russian democrat, human rights activist, and
ex-dissident Sergei Kovalev, who attended a showing of the film at the
Polish embassy in Moscow, afterward called on Poles to "forgive us" for the
But although there was no offi-cial Russian government reaction, on the day
after the film's release, a government-owned Russian newspaper, Rossiiskaya
Gazeta, declared that Soviet responsibility for Katyn was "not obvious." In
a snide article, one of the newspaper's pundits threw doubt on a decade's
worth of voluminous archival publications, and accused Wajda of "separating
us further from the truth."
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012#fn7#fn7> The article implied that
Mikhail Gorbachev's acknowledgment of Soviet responsibility for Katyn had
been purely political, a dubious statement made to please the West. Quotes
from the article were reprinted throughout Polandsometimes accompanied by
reprints of the documents ordering the massacreand taken as evidence that
not much in Russia has changed since 1939.
Following that piece of nastiness, perhaps it is not surprising that a few
days later, Polish commentators took offense at the fact that Katyn was not
a contender at the Venice film festival. Some wondered darkly whether this
was a reflection of secret Russian influence over the jurors; others took it
as yet another sign that foreigners don't understand Polish history, or
don't appreciate Polish suffering, or otherwise discriminate against Poland.
In fact, Katyn simply appeared too late to make the festival's cut-off date,
and will probably be shown in Venice next year. But for a day or two, before
this technical explanation became clear, the nation's insecurities were on
sudden, prominent display.
That these feelings appeared is not surprising: they are in fact very
typical side effects, not just of patriotic cinema but of patriotism itself.
The same emotions that bind people together inspiring them to work toward
common goals, build political institutions, try to make their societies free
and fair are in some sense related to the emotions that make the same
people paranoid about foreigners, or distrustful of the unpatriotic people
who live down the street and vote for a different political party. Too much
patriotism can hamper democracy and diminish civil society. On the other
hand, without some patriotism, democracy is not possible at all.
The real test of Katyn, of course, is whether it remains a part of the
Polish national conversation over time, as a handful of Wajda's earlier
films have indeed done. This is not just a question of the film's quality.
Its endurance will also depend on the continued existence of an audience
that shares Wajda's knowledge of twentieth-century Polish history, and that
understands the symbols and shortcuts he uses to evoke his national and
patriotic themes. Fifty years after it was made, a significant number of
Poles still know that when the two young men in Ashes and Diamonds start
listing names, setting a glass of alcohol alight for each one, they are
talking about friends who died in the wartime underground and the Warsaw
uprising, even if they never say so. If, fifty years from now, there is
still an audience in Poland that understands Wajda's characters and
references an audience that intuitively draws its breath when the general
tells his men that without them "there will be no free Poland"then Katyn,
the movie, will still matter.
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012#fnr1#fnr1>  Andrzej Wajda, Katyn
(Warsaw: Prószynski i S-ka, 2007), p. 6. This annotated edition of the
screenplay includes Wajda's commentary and letters, as well as photographs,
maps, a historical timeline, and original documentation provided by the
families of the Katyn victims.
 <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012#fnr2#fnr2> Wajda, Katyn, p. 24.
 <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012#fnr3#fnr3> Among the post-1990
books on Katyn are Natalia Lebedeva's Katyn: Prestuplenie protiv
chelovechstva (Moscow: Kultura, 1994), the first documented account in
Russian; and Katyn: Plenniki neob'iavelnnoi voiny, a collection of Soviet
archival documents, edited by R.G. Pikhoia et al. (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnyi
Fond Demokratiia, 1997). An expanded version of the latter was also
published in a four-volume Polish edition as Katyn: Dokumenty Zbrodni
(Warsaw: Trio, 19952006) under the supervision of the Polish National
Archives. In English, Allen Paul's Katyn: Stalin's Massacre and the Seeds of
Polish Resurrection (Naval Institute Press, 1996) also uses archival
 <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012#fnr4#fnr4> Katyn: A Crime
Without Punishment, edited by Anna M. Cienciala, Natalia S. Lebedeva, and
Wojciech Materski (Yale University Press, 2008).
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012#fnr5#fnr5>  Tadeusz Sobolewski,
"Tylko guziki nieuginte," Gazeta Wyborcza, September 17, 2007. See also
"Przesznosc nieopowiedziana," Tygodnik Powszechny, September 18, 2007.
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012#fnr6#fnr6>  Vita Ramm, "Pravda
pana Vaidy," Izvestiya, September 18, 2007.
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21012#fnr7#fnr7>  Alexander Sabov,
"Zemlya dla Katyn: Komentarii," Rossiiskaya Gazeta, September 18, 2007.
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