Poland. Andrzej Wajda. Katyn. The defeat of the silence

25 Aug 2009

Pan Wajda

The truth on a crime hidden for half of a century. The defeat of a perfidious fabrication based on the silence. The will to give his farewell to this unbelievable tragedy. Katyn by Andrzej Wajda summarizes all this.

Its watching is in some points simply upsetting: impressive psychological portraits are mixed with scenes from a shambles. “We have been waiting for the right moment to make a film on the massacre of Katyn. The lie and the crime, connected with this event, are well inside our national conscience,” says the great Polish director.

More than 22 thousand Polish citizens, taken prisoners in autumn 1939, were slaughtered in USSR by NKVD, Stalinist secret police, in spring 1940. For decades the Nazi were unfairly accused of this butchery. “That dreadful falsehood was one of the basis of the Polish – Soviet friendship even if there were documents, dated 1943, that stated the opposite. It was denied the obvious ”, underlines Wajda.

The relatives of the victims were frightened to accept the invitation to attend the film that  was watched by more than 3 million people only in Poland. “Many of them lived those terrible years again at the cinema and found in the film episodes from their personal tragedies”, admits Isabella Sariusz Skapska, secretary of the Association of  Families.

“For years we have been seen photos and documents of Katyn, but there wasn’t the image,” says Andrzej Wajda in his Warsaw’s school of cinema. “We needed to explain in a visual way how a tragedy like this could happen. Such terrible historical events must find their place in the art if we want them to survive in the memory. Watching the film, people understand that this is the past. There’s no aim of revenge. Our film is a kind of funeral, an attempt to close with this drama forever.”

Which sources did you use? “The documents signed by Stalin and the Politburo are well known. Our work is not a documentary film. The events in the plot are taken from the tales of the victims and of their families. They are real stories.”

You have dedicated this film to your parents. How much is it autobiographic? “It isn’t all. My father was killed in the prison in Kharkov after being in Starobelsk. My mother lived till 1950 hoping that my father were safe. There wasn’t his name on the first edited Katyn list. Only thanks to the Red Cross aid later we discovered the truth.”

You are saying that there isn’t any personal element Katyn, aren’t you? “A character that is, may be, close to my mother is Anna, Andrzej’s wife, the officer of cavalry. In the film she is played by Maja Ostaszewska. It’s the woman who gives the farewell to her husband who goes to the captivity.”

In your film you used two real historically true symbolic images: a coming down from the cross Christ with a broken arm who lies among injured prisoners under a plaid and some Soviet troops who tear out the Polish flag. “It wasn’t necessary to have many. We used also some pieces from the original German and Soviet propaganda films of that period. We didn’t touch them, because this is the best way to show the manipulation of the truth. The event is the same, but the remarks are different. At the end of the film we added from the literature another symbol, that is the history of Antigon. A girl cuts her hair to defend the memory of her brother who dies fighting for his right to state that his father was killed by the Soviets.”

In your opinion, what did the Soviet  executioners think doing their dirty work? “There are documents with their number and names. NKVD’s killers slaughtered a victim after another. They did it mechanically without thinking. It’s impossible to carry out certain orders in another way. Every day they had to murder a hundred of Polish prisoners. From April 5th to the beginning of June 22 thousand people from 3 camps were killed. The most incredible thing is that even the Soviet executioners were later killed, because they became dangerous eyewitnesses.”

Is that of Katyn a crime of communism or of a totalitarian system? “The communism was a totalitarian system. Soviet Russia was a totalitarian State. This is a crime against humanity, one of the biggest reason of today’s bad relationship between Warsaw and Moscow. The Russians speak about Katyn as a tragedy provoked by the situation. We were enemies in war. The Poles respond it wasn’t necessary to kill all those people.”

Moscow’s newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta harshly criticized your film arguing that you didn’t use trustworthy sources. “It is not true. The documents are clear. The Germans discovered the mass graves and they analysed them in 1943. When the Polish prisoners were killed those regions were in Soviet hands. Berja and Central Committee’s documents with Stalin’s signature were delivered to President Lech Walesa in the Nineties. The rest was found in victims’ pockets. There are detailed notes, where everything is written. For example, from Adam Solski’s diary ‘we got on a truck at 6 in the morning. Who knows what’s going to happen?’ In the film we used this historical testimony.”

What was the most difficult thing to do in this film? “It was the decision to make the film. But, then, how to play it? How and what to tell? The killed soldiers’ stories? The women’ ones? Which historical period should we choose? We had to select the material. A film like this one must last no more than two hours. Was it better to decide for the story of one family or of more people? I chose to have more characters to use more memories and to be more free in the plot.”

Your film was shown in Moscow only twice at the mid of March: in the House of Cinema and in the House of Literature. There are serious problems. Katyn goes against common Russian belief of their history. “We have contacts with the human rights society Memorial. We are looking for fearless people who want to distribute our film.”

From your point of view, is this the time for the penitent of the Russians, as heirs of Soviet Union, and for Polish forgiveness? “The film was made with this idea. Russians made important steps ahead with the delivery of the documents during Mr. Gorbacev and Yeltsin Presidencies. May be, we should have made Katyn ten years ago. But this is art! The only thing I don’t want now is the political manipulation of our film.”

Personally, as a practicing Catholic, do you forgive your father’s killers? Mr. Wajda turns his face on his right side. He keeps silent for long endless seconds when we regret for this necessary question. Then, the great Polish director frowns and answers with a trembling voice. His eyes have become watery all of a sudden. “The Russians must face their own past. They must stop with their tales about their history full of glory and with their speeches on ideal systems. They should follow the example of Solgenitsin and of  Memorial. Here, we are not speaking about the forgiveness of one person, but of the entire Polish society. After the end of World War II Polish bishops wrote a letter to the German episcopate. They pardoned German people, because they saw convincing steps from the other side. You may forgive when the others recognize their sins.”

Giuseppe D’Amato

March 24th, 2008


See also Katyn. The end of a shame? EuropaRussia April 7th, 2010.




Comment Form

You must be logged in to post a comment.


We are a group of long experienced European journalists and intellectuals interested in international politics and culture. We would like to exchange our opinion on new Europe and Russia.



Rossosch – Medio Don

Italiani in Russia, Ucraina, ex Urss

Our books