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Andrej Wajda’s new film “KATYN” concerning the mass murder of Polish Prisoners of War perpetrated by the Russians in 1940 and for years either hushed up or cynically blamed on the Germans, is more than just another film by a famous director. It has become a “cause celebre” and a national event stirring up the collective Polish memory of this incredible Russian atrocity. “Katyn” is the name of a forest area outside of the city of Smolesk where over a three day period in May, 1940, 15,000 Polish POWs, mostly officers, were taken by the truckload and methodically dispatched one by one with a single bullet to the nape of the neck by agents of Stalin’s NKVD. The nefarious purpose was to try to ensure that after the war there would be no high-level Polish military cadre left to oppose the Russification and Communization of Poland. (Talk about thinking ahead!)

Wajda, who was a teenager at the time of the Katyn massacre and whose father, a cavalry officer, was probably one of the victims, has always wanted to make a film about this horrendous scar on the Polish consciousness, however, during the Communist years Katyn was a taboo subject, the mere mention of which could land someone in jail or Siberia. Now, with the film finally completed after a rather tortuous production period, it is as if a giant lid has blown off a long simmering volcano and the talk all over Poland is of nothing but Katyn, the long Communist cover-up, and the official conspiracy of silence which turned it into a forty-year long underground whisper. For weeks most weekly magazines and newspapers here have carried stories about Kaytyn and/or Wajda, on TV there has been a procession of interviews and Katyn related discussions, and even the radio at night is loaded with Katyn commentary. In Warsaw, the elegant Krakowskie Przedmiescie promenade passing by the front gate of Warsaw University and lined with classic buildings including the presidential residence, has been turned into an outdoor exhibition of Katyn memorabilia, photographs of victims and the mass graves, secret Russian and Polish documentation only lately released, etc., as crowds of passers-by silently remember, or learn how to remember, a catastrophe that happened before their time but is, nevertheless, part of their time, because this is an integral part of the Polish collective unconscious and Poland does not forget -- not only the event itself but the forty years of communist oppression, and centuries of Russian oppression before that.

As for the Wajda film which has reopened an old wound and aroused a ground-swell of memory and historical re-consideration, the big question is will it speak to the young who are now two or three generations removed from the painful historical facts, and, will it in fact, as a film, engage the hearts and minds of those old enough to remember at least the atmosphere and feelings of those years of the fearful Conspiracy of Silence. Another open question is whether or not the film will ever see the light of day in the contemporary Russia of former NKVD-man, Vladimnir Putin, despite the fact that the late Russian president, Boris Jeltsin, laid a wreath at the Katyn grace site while openly admitting Russian responsibility for the atrocity.

According to advance notice and the commentary of a small number of journalists who have already seen special previews of the film the Wajda version focuses not on the mass murder itself and the military victims, but rather on the effect it had on wives and other family members who, for years, hoped against hope that the suspected worst would not come true. Thus, this will be a film centering more on the women who were left behind, so to speak, than the men who were murdered. Stylistically, „Katyn” was apparently shot in “classical style” and, in a press interview recorded last week in Warsaw for Hungary’s Duna Television by Geza Poros, a regular Gdynia visitor, Mr. Wajda stated that this is „the last film of the Polish School” -- a reference to the period of post-war Polish films of the fifties which put Poland on the international cinema map and of which a very young Wajda was the leading light. His famous triptych, ‘Generation’ (Pokolenie, ‘54), ’Ashes and Diamonds’ (‘57) and ‘Kanal’ (‘59) all dealt with various aspects of Poland’s involvement in WW II, and the ”Katyn” film would have been the logical, inevitable, successor to the other three war memoirs. Unfortunately, because of the politics of Communist Poland, Mr. Wajda had to wait nearly half a century to make his final war statement.

”Katyn” was originally scheduled to be screened as an Avant Premiere here in Gdynia yesterday, the 17th, but because Wajda’s presence was required at a gala World Premiere yesterday in Warsaw the Gdynia opening was set back 24 hours until tonight. At six this evening the director is expected to hold a general press conference here at the Silver screen press room to be followed by a Gala screening at the Gdynia Music Hall, which will also coincide with the official opening ceremony of the 32nd festival of Polish feature films. Good luck Andrzej -- the eyes of Poland upon you!

Alex, Gdynia
3 PM -- Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Alex Deleon, September 20

On Tuesday Andrzej Wajda accompanied by a retinue of actors and others connected with the 'Katyn' production showed up in Gdynia as scheduled for a press conference preceding multiple screenings of the heavily anticipated film. (One screening especially for the foreign press had English subtitles). The 81 year old director sporting a full head of white hair, full cheeks, and a ruddy complexion, seemed to be in good health and spoke with confidence about his latest work before a roomful of journalists some of whom had already seen the film, but most of whom had not. However, in the wake of a floodtide of Katyn commentary in the Polish press and media these past weeks the room was charged with tension and anticipation.

One of the first questions addressed to Wajda was whether he had any expectations for 'Katyn' in countries outside of Poland. To this the director stated that he made the film with only the Polish audience in mind, for this is a totally Polish issue and he does not have any great expectations for the film outside of Poland. He was reminded that Cannes had asked for it but that it wasn't yet ready back in May -- to which he added a most interesting comment. Said the director, "I'm actually glad the film was not shown in Cannes because you never know what the reaction there might have been. If bad press had filtered back to Poland it might have had a negative effect on the perception of the public here. I am really not very interested in what people in other (western) countries may think of 'Katyn'. In any case, I think it is too specifically Polish to reach them".

Regarding the potential reception in Russia he said that this is not an 'anti-Russian' film at all, but rather a film about the Great Official Lies that people had to live with in both Russia and Poland under Communism. The NKVD and the Stalin oligarchy were responsible for the massacre of the Polish officers, not the Russian people. Moreover, this same Stalin regime murdered millions of Russians as well. He does not, however, expect the film to be widely seen in Russia, but probably by special niche audiences only. The fact remains, nevertheless, that Wajda is highly regarded and greatly respected in Russia, so it will certainly be interesting to see what the Russian reception will turn out to be.

The main question for Wajda seems to be whether his long delayed Katyn memoir will still have something to say to the young people in Poland today who comprise the bulk of the film going public. In a way this is a didactic work, with key dates and places flashing on screen to orient viewers not familiar with the historical details,and some of the dialogue is geared to conveying key historical information. In order to reach the younger Polish audience Wajda chose to shoot in color and employed younger actors who are well known either from film or television. 'I could have used complete unknowns in order to heighten the documentary effect, but I felt that highly experienced actors would be able to transcend their usual images and convey the message of the film in the strongest way possible. This I think we achieved', was the directors commentary on his casting. A special effect of sorts was the use of only first names for all characters in the film ( their own) thus, subtly underlining the feeling that they spoke for all of the martyred dead, not just for themselves. Wajda added that it was a great pleasure for him to be able to work with a whole new generation of younger actors and a source of great personal satisfaction that they were able to come through for him so completely. Some of the actors said that they felt themselves transformed into their own uncles or grandfathers as they played the roles … Indeed a number of them – besides Wajda himself -- actually had family members among the victims. Immediately after the press conference the gathering dispersed to view the film in several halls, with or without subtitles.


As for the film itself, it turned out to be more like a religious experience than the mere viewing of a motion picture – which is not to say that “Katyn” is not successful on cinematic grounds alone – just that the cumulative effect was overwhelming – truly Over-Whelming. The picture starts in the middle of a bridge on dateline September 17, 1939 – a date which every Pole knows to be the infamous day on which the Russians invaded from the East to crush Poland and divide it up between themselves and the German invaders from the west. Crowds of civilians mixed with soldiers fleeing the Krauts run into another crowd fleeing the Russians –What to do? One young woman with a small child tries to persuade her soldier husband to discard his uniform and flee with her to the relative safety of Krakow in the South. “I am an officer of the Polish Army – I can’t do that” he states, invoking the aristocratic Polish military code which Wajda has called into question in many other films. – and so he falls into Russian custody, from which he will never return. Already the die of the film is cast and the subsequent events – the internment of the officers, the women back home trying to find out what happened to their men – the official lies – the cynicism – the desperate attempts to find out, the clinging to hope against hope and the frustration which is the body of the film, are all things completely, if painfully, familiar to just about every person in this country, even today. There are too many people still alive who went through it all.

The bulk of the film takes place on the “home front” with notable female roles, especially dark-haired Maja Ostaszewska, to single out just one of several powerful distaff figures, and there is one important Russian character, an officer who tries to protect one of the protesting Polish women, played by the very popular Russian actor Sergei Garmash – a further indication that this film is not specifically anti-Russian – and then comes the Grand Finale. Switch to Katyn Forest. The trucks come rumbling in. The Polish officers are unloaded, one by one – and one by one shot in the back of the head – shoved screen forward into a gaping hole in the ground – bang-bang – push-push – plop-plop into the ditch – bodies with bloodied heads stacked up neatly like sacks of potatoes – then comes the bulldozer shoving loose dirt practically out of the screen into the laps of the audience to cover up the obscenity – one upraised hand clutching a string of black rosary beads is the last to go under -- Screen goes black. End titles roll. No music. No sound. Nothing. Dead silence. One tiny flimsy attempt at a clip-clap is drowned out by the Silence of the Lambs as the audience files out without a word …

PS; There were lots of other films at Gdynia. We’ll talk about them next time.


by Alex Deleon, Poland

The Annual Review of Polish Feature Films in Gdynia on the Baltic seashore is quite unusual in that it is both a compendium of the entire Polish feature film production for the preceding 12 months, and also a kind of local Oscar competition in which a professional jury votes on the best work of the year in the usual categories. This year there was a total of 22 films in competition, about a third directed by recognized veterans, and the rest by relative newcomers. The 32nd edition closed shop on Saturday, September 22, and the jury under the leadership of director Lech Majewski voted unanimously to award the best film prize to "Stuczki" (tricks) the second feature of director Andrzej Jakimowski. The film was awarded the best cinematography prize as well. The main protagonist of the film is a young boy who takes charge of his own life and brings a strayward father back to the family fold. Jakimowski, with only two feature films to his credit, (both, however, awarded at Gdynia and highly praised by the critics) is now being hailed as the Great New Hope of the Polish cinema.

The most interesting award, however, was the 'Best Actress' prize which went to Ewa Dalkowska (born 1915), now a nice ripe ninety-two years of age! Ewa appeared in the first post-war Polish film, "Forbidden Songs" all the way back in 1947 and has been in close to a hundred films since then. The award was for her performance in "Time to die" (Pora umierac) which everyone here seems to agree was the role of a lifetime for this distinguished actress. It was only two years ago that another senior Polish thespian, 89 year old actress Krystyna Feldman, was also named best actress here for her astounding portrayal of an illiterate Male artist in the title role of the film "Nikofor". Ms. Feldman has since deceased but her film "Nikofor" was a festival favorite all through 2005-6.

The best director award went to Tomasz Wiszniewski for a popular film entitled "Wszystko bedzie dobrze" ('Everything's going to be all right') and Robert Wieckiewicz (39) walked off with the best actor award for his leading role in the same film. Lukasz Palkowski was named best new director for his debut film, "Rezerwat", a popular comedy set in a crummy Polish slum. The female lead in this film was named best supporting actress.

In other Polish film news, Macei Karpinski, a man who wears many hats around here, producer, director, scenarist, and board member of several Polish film organizations, confided to me at the opening party in Gdynia that his long aniticipated film on "Madame Curie" is just about set to go into production. Unlike the Hollywood hagiography of the forties in which a pristine pure Ingrid Bergman played Marie Curie to Walter Pigeon's Henri Bequerel, this version will deal with the tempestuous love life of the great Polish scientist -- and believe me, she had one! He will need, however, two different actresses to portray the younger and older versions of the Nobel prize winning scientist, and is presently in the process of casting around. Janusz Zaorski, who celebrated his sixtieth birthday the same night says that he is preparing a film on the Poles exiled to Siberia during WW II which will be "on an even bigger scale" than Wajda's new "Katyn", so these are two big ones to watch for in 2008. .

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