Wednesday, 25 January 2012


Yesterday I wrote of a film The Aryan Couple made for television which added the survival of two young ordinary Jewish individuals from the holocaust in a story to mark the handful of Hungarian wealthy and powerful men who managed to buy their and their family’s freedom. The film was a good reminder to more recent generations why Israel and the Jewish people in general have cause for continuing concern about their future in a world which has been largely hostile since their history was first put to paper. One reason for this hostility appears to be that they have not engaged in the wholesale slaughter of their own kind as have the Christians, the Muslims and the Communists have engaged for generation upon generation. It is therefore their overall sense of being one as a people which others find threatening although within that there is a spectrum of religious and political perspectives and differences over individual subjects and issues.

It was coincidental that that late last night, after an unsuccessful day and feeling tired, I decided to watch Katyn, the film by Andrzej Wajda, one of the great directors alongside Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Fellini. The film is his reminder to present and future generations of the most significant atrocity committed by the Russian Communists against the Polish People, second, albeit by a long way to the industrial slaughter of the Polish Jews by Germany.

I say it was coincidental although on refection given the mood I was in and the choice of a number of new films on available on the Sky Premier channel, together with seven DVD’s of Le CarrĂ© books made into films waiting with ten books to be read, I decided it was time to face an event which continues to upset and anger whenever I read to see references. The mood commenced yesterday when as I commented the reality involved in the purchasing of freedom of wealthy and powerful Jewish people in Hungry was a more relevant subject than the chosen vehicle of the film. The genocide actions of the Nazi Himmler, Eichmann and the controversial role of Becher along with those of Kastner who was responsible for the train which took over 1850 Jews to freedom merit continual examination by each new generation of young adults. For the Polish people Katyn remains a painful reality which has significance beyond its horror and the impact on the relatives of the government officials, the police the intellectuals and creative artists as well as about half the officers of the army, because everyone was forced for decades to confirm in public the lie perpetrated by the Russians that it was the German Nazi’s who had committed the atrocity, when it was them, and not their allies at the time. They were birds of a feather on the extreme right and left and which should serve as a reminder that those on the extremes of the right and left of politics who embrace the use of violence are always to be feared and opposed.

The DVD contains a long thoughtful interview with Wajda whose films produced as the height of the Communist rule in Poland- A Generation 1954, Kanal 1956 and Ashes and Diamonds 1958 brought him international recognition followed by Man of Iron which won the Palme d’Ot at Cannes in 1981 and which together with The Promised Land 1974, Maids of Wilko 1979 and Katyn(2007) were nominated for best foreign language film Oscars. He is also one of the few to be honoured by an Honary Oscar, awarded in 2000. Wadja explained that there was mo question of producing a film on the subject during the Russian occupation for reason which he makes evident in the film.

Nor was the subject one just a shared national horror because his father was one of the officers murdered and he witnessed the impact on his mother when his father failed to return home. He reached the conclusion that it was important to portray the cover up as much as the event itself and also to present the impact on the mothers, the wives, sisters and girl friends of those who executed.

The known facts are that the massacres took place in April and May 1940 and involved at least 21768 individuals including about 8000 military officers, 6000 police officers and others describes at the time as intelligence agents, gendarmes, landowners, saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials and priests but who covered the middle and upper classes who the communists decided to eliminate.

The Russians did this on a grander scale to their own people as did the Germans and later the Chinese. Although a large part of the shooting in the back of the head took place in the Katyn Forest there were simultaneous executions elsewhere in Poland and Russia where the prisoners were taken after the 1939 invasion succeeded. The Russian Government denied responsibility and blamed the Germans until 1990 and a decade later Stalin and others were officially blamed. Documentation has been released from time to time but remains far from complete.

Wajda tells the story through the wife and mother of one of the captured officers. When the film opens she and her daughter have travelled across Poland from German occupied zone to the Russian to find the captured husband and plead with him to come home. He is a man of honour who had sworn allegiance in the service of his country and feels bound to accept the conditions of his captivity. At least in this instance the couple and their daughter have the opportunity to say what proves to be a final goodbye. She is then prevented from returning across the new border between the divided nation and told to stay to await the return of her husband. She lodges with a sympathetic Russian officer who knowing what is going to happen advises her to marry him. Understandably she rejects this but is grateful when shortly afterwards he hides the couple when the authorities come for her and a neighbour. The Russians are said to have moved hundreds of thousands of civilians from Poland into Russia for various purposes of whom many never returned. Following her narrow escape she is advised to try and make her way to the capital where her father and mother in law live. The film does not cover her journey except that she had to bribe her way across the border using her wedding rings.

On arrival she finds that her father in law, a University Professor, has been sent to a Labour Camp and the University closed. Again his wife had pleaded with him not to go to the meeting between the university Head and a Nazi leader. He wanted to support the proposed request that the university should remain an independent body. Instead they are met with tirade of complaint at having continued to operate without seeking permission and having shown anti occupation sentiments and anti occupation activities. The are immediately bundled in vehicles for the Labour camp. The husband is a later reported to have died from untreated heart problems.

Following the break up of alliance between Germany and Russia and the German occupation of the whole of Poland and move into Russian territory, the Katyn graves- many open site- are revealed, and the German command makes as much capital as possible. They excavated the site and carried out post mortems which they filmed together with placing in large envelopes any personal effects found on the bodies together with lists of names of those where identification was possible. Mother in law, wife and child are relieved when their loved one is not on the list, but her husband’s closest friend in the service is.

At the end of the war they are shocked when the friend arrives wearing the uniform of the Polish army under the control of the Russians. He brings tinned meat for the family but the main reason is to explain that her husband had been wearing a tagged pieces of clothing of his. He is therefore a Katyn victim. Later under pressure because he is working for the Russians and colluding in the state myth that the atrocity was a German one he commits suicide. Not before he has pleaded with those holding the personal effects and other recovered documentation to return anything belonging to the husband to his widow.

After the war the widow works at or manages a photography business and one day she encounters a young relative who proposes to enrol at a local teaching institution. He states on the application form that his father died at the Soviet Katyn atrocity and refuses to revise the application. The official in charge of the institution tells a colleague that she will find a way to admit the young man without the state offending declaration. Later full of anger about the situation he has found in the capital destroying a government poster in view of the military who give chase and he is helped by a young woman to hide on a roof. When the coast is clear they leave and she agrees to meet him for a date at a nearby cinema the following evening. He then is seen by the military who were looking for him and in the effort to get away he is knocked down and killed by a passing motorist,

The educational institution female head is one of two sisters whose brother is another Katyn victim, a man who is not religious but is given a rosary, a rosary found on his person when he is killed. It is passed by a priest who was part of the filmed Russian revision of the discovery of the atrocity blaming the Germans, to another sister who has become a Polish activist trying to free the country from the Russians. She later sells her long hair to a theatrical company to make up a wig for an actress who has lost all her hair in a concentration camp, using the payment to have to have a memorial slab created in memory of her brother which the priest. When she arrives with the stone plaque she finds that the priest has been removed by the authorities and the replacement priest is unwilling to have the monument in the church. The sister takes the memorial to family cemetery and is joined by the other sister who tries to persuade her to desist from the action. This other sister makes the point that resistance is futile and the country will never be free from the Russians and other occupiers. The activist is picked up by the authorities and offered the opportunity to recant and when she refuses she is taken away with the implication that she is to be executed.

The film also covers the experience of the wife of one of the Generals who takes time to digest and accept that her husband will not return. After the war she and her adult daughter are visited by their former maid who now appears to be a well dressed woman with a chauffer car. Her husband has been appointed a local mayor. The purpose is to bring the General’s ceremonial sword which she had been asked to keep for him. She asks for the trunk of her possession which the family had kept to be given to the poor people as she no longer has need.

During the war the General’s widow had been asked by the German authorities to make a recording of her condemnation of the massacre. She declined and was taken next door leaving her child in distress thinking the worse when in fact she was being shown a film of the discovered Katyn graves. Years later she cannot accept the same film with a new commentary placing responsibility for the atrocity on the Germans. Her fate also becomes in question.

The final sequence is when someone brings the envelope of belongings to the wife of the central character. This contains his diary notebook in which he attempted to record the main events of what happened since their capture and the names of those with whom he was captured and imprisoned. Reading this enables the film to show what happened when her husband and a substantial numbers of fellow officers are taken from one camp on a journey which leads to an execution centre near the forest and to the forest graveyard. In both instances the film shows the execution of characters which we have come to know, The diary ends with his arrival at the Forest. The films ends with a blank screen and then a sung liturgy and them credits rolled in silence.

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