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Katyn Fever in Poland as the Wajda version opens Gdynia Fest

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!

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