Some people may regard Wajda’s Katyn as ‘too little, tool late’, and it’s not hard to understand why. The mass killing of Polish officers happened long ago, and the official line during the yrs under communism was that the Nazis were to blame and Soviets were the liberators. Even when the truth was confessed by Gorbachev in the late 80s, its impact outside Poland was limited. Liberal media around the world emphasized Gorbachev’s integrity over the details of Polish officers killed in cold blood. So, even as the Soviets finally admitted to the mass killings, the revelation was spun as proof of a new and humane kind of communism. This was to be expected from the Western media dominated by liberals, leftists, and Jews. Though the story of Katyn did make the pages of New York Times, it had no lasting impact on Western consciousness.
It also didn’t help that the American conservatives, being generally less interested in world affairs and other nations/cultures, didn’t pursue the crimes of communism abroad as passionately and thoroughly as Jews unearthed the crimes of Nazism. And, as the American conservative movement was taken over by Neoconservative Jews, most conservatives didn’t make too big a fuss over communism–as radical and even liberal Jews had been crucial to the movement. Hollywood certainly wasn’t going to make a movie or even TV movie about it. (The Jewish God said there shall be NO god other than himself. Modern Jews say there shall be no tragedy other than the Holocaust. A jealous god and a jealous people.) Finally, the far right in the West is still stupidly enamored of Nazism and Adolf Hitler, thus blind to the suffering of victims of WWII–other than Germans of course. The far right never had credibility on the few occasions when it condemned the massacre at Katyn since it has routinely apologized for or denied the equally vile or worse crimes committed by Nazis in Poland. So, Katyn never became the focal point of discussion around the world; it wasn’t useful nor comfortable to non-Poles. Besides, even democracies like the US and UK had adopted the ‘necessary lie’ in order to maintain the alliance with Stalin to defeat Hitler.
But, this wasn’t the case in Poland where every Pole knew but could only whisper the truth. Over time, the memory of Katyn became a kind of potent unifying symbol, all the more so because it was an invisible symbol. Its gruesome nature exposed the essence of Stalinism, and the enforced silence was proof of the repressiveness of communism. There are times when silence is more eloquent than sound.
So, the movie Katyn must be seen essentially as a Polish than a world event. Though nominated for Foreign Film Oscar, it failed to win nor garner much attention. There was no special promotion of this film in the US media nor by American film critics, most of whom are leftist and/or Jewish. It wasn’t attacked nor denounced neither but only respectably acknowledged, allowed limited release, and left to die a silent death at the box office. (It’s dispiriting that the sizable Polish community in the US did so little to promote this film to the wider public. But then, most Poles, unlike Jews, are not a very intellectual or cultural people.)
But, this is not a necessarily bad thing for Katyn is genuine in the way that Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is not. Katyn is a Polish masterpiece made by a Polish master for the Polish people. Schindler’s List, though powerful and masterfully executed, is a movie made by a Jew to morally impress and guilt-bludgeon gentiles all over the world. Schindler’s List was an attempt to turn the Holocaust into a mainstream religion and Disneyland epic. As horrifying and grim as it was, it didn’t lack the fairytale elements in other Spielberg films. Wonderful and darling Jews convert the cynical gentile Oscar Schindler into a do-gooder and redeem his wicked soul. In the end, it warms our hearts like E. T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was made with superb artistry and directorial ingenuity, but it was really a simple-minded and manipulative Jewish version of the Christmas Carol, with a gentile Scrooge saving his soul by loving Jews. It is thus essentially a hug-a-Jew movie. The violent scenes work terrifyingly well in conveying the brutality of the Nazis. But, the dramatic parts are embarrassing and hackneyed–Sound of Music in artsy b/w. No wonder then that Atom Egoyan felt a need to make an anti-Schindler’s List in the form of Ararat, a film that not only asks us to remember the Armenian genocide but ponder the means of representation, manipulation, distortion, etc. Katyn isn’t exactly an anti-Schindler’s List but more like a counter-Schindler’s List. Wajda has never been an avant-gardist in the manner of Egoyan, but he is a critical artist than a grand entertainer like Spielberg. Katyn is similar to Schindler’s List in using in the power of cinema to make history live again, but it is also contemplative on the subject of history: history is not only what happened but what is remembered, narrated, recorded, denied, exaggerated, reclaimed.
Katyn was likely disappointing to many viewers, not least or especially among Poles. Many people probably expected an emotionally wrenching or physically overwhelming experience–a grandstanding expose of the bloody and monstrous face of communism/Soviet Union. They wanted to cry their eyes out, be moved to patriotic fervor, or feel self-righteous as victims of communism, Russia, and history. They wanted the sensations viewers got from Schindler’s List, The Killing Fields, Passion of the Christ, Saving Private Ryan, or Platoon.
The movie’s opening scene hints at such film, with Poles fleeing from Russians coming face to face with Poles fleeing from Germans. One might well expect the entire movie to be about hapless and noble Poles mowed down by Germans and Russians. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with such a film, but Wajda probably feels we are well aware of what war and mayhem look like in movies. Besides, Wajda already gave us blood-drenched war movies long ago. Kanal is surely one of the most harrowing war films. Wajda is now an old man and naturally wanted to reflect on and understand history than use it for sensational effect.
From the outset Wajda mutes the violence as if a purely visceral approach might distract the audience from the larger theme of history and the more intimate realm of personal lives. It’s as if Wajda forwent the middle shot in favor of the close-up and the long-shot. His main focus is on the things that are generally not visible. We can all easily imagine soldiers, tanks, airplanes, bomb exploding, and people getting shot. It’s harder to imagine how the dots connect in history or how the inner heart trembles in times of crisis.
Indeed, much of the story takes place AFTER the mass executions in the Katyn forest, whose grisly details are not revealed until the final scene. This may be frustrating to the viewer, but it is fitting as the truth of the Katyn tragedy was fitted together piece by piece and unveiled after considerable passage of time. Though the world now knows, without a doubt, that Polish officers were killed by the Soviets, the truth had emerged only in fragments. There is a Buddhist koan: what is the sound of a tree falling in a forest? No matter how grand or horrible an event, it might as well as never happened if no one witnessed, recorded, or remembered it. As such, Katyn isn’t just a movie about an historical event but a metaphor of rediscovery or reclamation of something lost, forgotten, and buried. This is as true of the history of the planet as of the relatively recent history of a nation. Only through archaeology have we learned of innumerable holocausts that befell this planet–when humanity hadn’t yet arrived on the scene to bear witness--, at times nearly wiping out entire species.
Had Nazis won the war and hid their genocide of the Jews while exposing the mass killings by communists, the Jewish holocaust could have been a ‘Katyn’–a horrible truth hidden by official mythmaking–while communist killings might have been remembered as The Holocaust.
So, Katyn in the movie is partly used as a metaphor. It represents history shaped and manipulated by the powers-that-be for their own ideological justification and confirmation. There was Katyn and there is ‘Katyn’. When the Nazis invaded Eastern Poland and dug up the mass graves, they used the Katyn massacre for their own purposes. The Nazis were correct in claiming that the Soviets carried out the brutal deed, but they were using the Katyn massacre to hide their own ‘Katyns’. Though the Nazis also invaded a neutral country, wiped out the native elite, and set up death camps, they sought to legitimize their occupation of Poland as a struggle against murderous communism. So, even as the Nazis were correct about who did what at Katyn, they were using this truth to hide a larger truth–that the Nazis were killing even more than the Soviets. When the Soviets later retook Poland and set up a communist regime, they devised a lie, blaming it on the Germans. If it weren’t for the horrible nature of the crime, all of this would almost be funny, like a game of ‘he said, she said’. We are even shown snippets of Nazi and Soviet documentaries, and they are eerily and amusingly near-identical.
Katyn, in this sense, is more than an historical event. It concerns the uses of history. Of course, Poles are not innocent of this game either. Some Poles are likely to exaggerate the number of officers killed at Katyn. They are likely to paint the victims as noble patriot saints. Worse, some Poles are likely to use Katyn to morally bully others: collective pride or nobility is as dubious as collective guilt. For many decades, Poles were notorious in denying the special Jewish nature of the Holocaust and preferred the myth that Poles and Jews had been indistinguishably targeted by the Nazis. But, Jews are no less guilty in Katyn-izing history. Jews ignore the victims of World War II other than Jews. Worse, Jews have been notorious in discounting or neglecting the mass killings carried out by communists or treating it a dry manner while giving the Holocaust a whole hog tear-jerker treatment in books, tv, and movies. Anne Applebaum, an odious neoconservative Jewess has written a book about the Soviet gulag but has whitewashed the Jewish role in communism. The damn disgusting bitch even voted for Barack Obama though he’s a stealth radical because she thought he would be better for the Jews and Jewish interests. This goes to show that some neocons cannot be trusted as their main purpose is to use conservatism for Jewish end. (However, it must be said not all neoconservatives are of her lowly rat-like ilk.)
Though Jews are correct about the special Jewish nature of the Holocaust, the Jewish-controlled media have pretty much suppressed the fact that 3 million Poles died during World War II. Many Poles died bravely, fighting both the Nazis and communists, but they’ve been smeared and dismissed by many historians–either liberal Jews or puppets of leftist Jews–because the Polish patriots generally happened to be right-wing and ‘antisemitic’. Though there has long been a nasty tradition of Polish anti-Jewishness, Jews never seem to ask why they’ve been hated so. The fact is Jews were never a likable people. Worse, many Jews joined communism and collaborated with the Soviet invaders in 1939 when USSR took the eastern half. And after WWII, the leading rulers of communist Poland were mostly Jews. If the Vichy regime in France has long been despised for having collaborated with Germans during WWII, it’s not hard to understand why Poles have long distrusted and disliked Jews. Too many Jews collaborated with the communists.
At any rate, all groups have their own take on history, their own way of twisting facts or spinning arguments to make themselves good and noble. Of course, this game has become essentially taboo for Western Europeans–especially Germans–and white North Americans as the new liberal Political Correct order has brainwashed white boys and girls to hate their own history, race, heritage, and achievements and ONLY dwell on what had been nasty, wicked, and cruel about white power, rule, and domination. It’s as if there can never be any pride in victory–except for Allied Victory in WWII because Nazis were evil beyond evil–, only in victimhood. In this sense, even Katyn falls into this paradigm for it ennobles Poles as victim-losers than as proud victors.
The elliptical approach in Katyn should be familiar with those who know something about Andrej Wajda. His landmark film Man of Marble(and the somewhat lesser Man of Iron) also presented and explored history as a labyrinth where the truth becomes simultaneously more powerful and elusive as one meanders through the maze and nears the exit.
In Man of Marble a female filmmaker searches for the ‘true story’ behind the rise and fall of a brick layer, a man once transfigured into the Immortal Proletarian Hero for propaganda purposes, only to fall from grace and disappear under the radar. Both Katyn and Man of Marble present history and politics as a maze. Journalistic inquiry in a place like communist Poland must have been both frustrating and enthralling because it was neither totally repressive nor totally free. For most of its history, communist Poland was neither a Stalinist hell hole nor a liberal democracy. It was a nation of considerable cultural freedom as long as one didn’t push the envelope. Man of Marble takes place in the late 1970s when things were relatively liberal, at least for a communist nation. Much of Katyn takes place in a period soon after the end of World War II when Soviet presence was ominous and censorship was repressive.
Nevertheless, we get a similar sense from both movies: On the one hand, history is that which is recorded, interpreted, uncovered, hidden; those who hold the clay mold it. On the other hand, there IS indeed something called historical fact. It is for the latter reason that the ending of Katyn is so important and powerful.
Throughout the movie Wajda intelligently and philosophically laid out the mechanism of history in relations to evidence, powers-that-be, political expediency, faultiness of memory, etc. Katyn was, for a long time, what those in power said it was, with the real truth lurking in the shadows. But, all said and done, history cannot be whatever we say it is. When the evidence is overwhelming and obvious, we must accept and face the truth than cling to the warp of politics or ideology. Wajda is not blind to the concept of ‘Katyn’ but he finally shows us the real Katyn. Soviets killed those Polish officers at Katyn, and that must be acknowledged as a fact. We must not give into the temptation of fashionable postmodern theory which posits that history is PURELY a matter of interpretation in the service of power. Wajda shows how that has often been true but reminds us that surrendering to the idea that such MUST ALWAYS be true is to go beyond skepticism and embrace a kind of cynical nihilism which is no better than Nazism and communism. If indeed history is nothing more than text shaped or altered by various forces in order to legitimize their power, we might as well blame the Armenians for Katyn and Palestinians for the Holocaust. If it’s all a matter of interpretation, we might as well believe the mafia, KGB, or space aliens killed Kennedy. There is indeed much in history open to debate as evidence is inconclusive, but some facts are well-established and beyond refute. Wajda tells us that, at the very least, we should face the facts of history. Nazis may have committed other ‘Katyns’ but Katyn was committed by the Soviets. Unless we accept the facts of history, history is a form of propagandistic anarchy where anything goes, where myth becomes reality and vice versa. (Granted, even acceptance of facts doesn’t necessarily
guarantee a change of perspective or ideological outlook. There are neo-Nazis who accept the Holocaust happened but then apologize for why it was necessary. There are Russians who accept the fact that Stalin invaded Poland along with the Nazis but then argue it had been NECESSARY for national defense. Most blacks knew that OJ Simpson killed Nicole but sided with OJ anyway since being black is about sticking together.)
What is remarkable about this film is not only the mastery of Wajda’s technique but his deep understanding as an artist and human being. Though, or precisely because, it is a Polish film for the Polish audience, it is a film we non-Poles can enter with a certain awe and gratitude. Wajda isn’t trying to prove something, not to himself, the Poles, or to us. He’s asking Poles to remember not only Katyn but the tormented twists and turns of modern Polish history. It’s not a chest-thumping feel-good nationalist movie, the kind about saintly Poles fighting or being trampled by monstrous beasts. It is an intimate and thoughtful portrait of a nation not only trampled by forces of destruction but cocooned alive by a web of deception.
It is also a movie about the comprised nature of Poland. We see the heroism but can’t help but notice also the all too understandable fear and cowardice.
We tend to think of military men as heroes or martyrs, but they are sheep churned into sausages in the actual machinery of war. Poles have every right to remember the Polish officers who died at Katyn as heroes or martyrs, but the ending of the movie surmises–rather correctly, I think–that they died as human animals–frightened, panic-stricken, pitiful.
Katyn is so unmistakably a Polish movie that it’s like entering another world for non-Polish viewers. For those lacking basic knowledge of Poland during WWII, a good deal will seem puzzling but therein lies the richness of this film. It doesn’t explain nor simplify everything for the universal audience. If there are universal truths to be found–and what great art is without them–, we find them through navigating through what was uniquely a Polish experience. Wajda doesn’t pander nor cater to us. We must make the effort to understand and empathize with a people generally unknown to us. Wajda’s door of Polish history is open to all, but we must be willing to enter ourselves and find our own way through the maze.
Schindler’s List, on the other hand, is not a movie you need to enter. It spills out of the screen and washes all over you. Nazis are evil, Jews are lovable, and Oscar is a good guy because he loves Jews. You don’t have to know anything about history. Just see what Spielberg shows and accept it as HISTORICAL FACT and feel the warm glow of the emotions he shines on you. It is a crowd-pleaser. Though Schinder’s List ends at the cemetery of Oscar Schindler, we feel we know everything we need to know about him–and about the Jews, Nazis, and WWII as well. It’s no wonder that so many Americans blindly side with Zionists and hate Palestinians. According to a movie like Schindler’s List, Jews are all good and since Israel is Jewish, it must be 100% good too, whereas those who oppose Zionism must all be a bunch of neo-Nazis.
Katyn too has a scene with a cemetery where a woman tries to replace a tombstone with false date with one with the right date. Indeed, much of the movie is like walking through a cemetery, trying to access what has passed and been buried. A sense of mystery pervades the entire movie, one that is not only reflective but humble, as if no artist can claim full truth to what did and didn’t happen. This is all the more reason why the final scene depicting the cold-blooded killing of Polish officers is at once powerful and jarring. For we are woken out of the smokescreen of historiography and ambiguity. Yes, some things remain mysteries or controversies, but some things are beyond doubt. Katyn is now one of them. Those who continue to deny it–mostly in Russia–are either fools or lunatics, hardly better than those who continue to deny the mass killings of Jews by the Nazis.