February 17, 2008


History Lessons from Poland
: Until now, no one has managed to force open the darkest corners of Poland's "sealed memory." Andrzej Wajda's new World War II drama, "Katyn," succeeds. It tells the long-taboo tale of the roughly 14,500 Polish military officers murdered by the Soviet army in 1940. (Olaf Sundermeyer, 2/15/08, Der Spiegel)

The film shows how things went in Poland after it became a subjugated satellite state following the war. "The double tragedy of Katyn is the pairing of crimes and lies," Wajda says. The lie of Katyn -- that German soldiers committed the massacre, rather than the Soviets -- could not be broached in Poland during the half-century that the country spent as a part of the Eastern Bloc. One crime followed another. So many in Poland -- and especially the young -- did not know the truth. They hadn't even learned it in school. So, when the movie came out, it was a national sensation. Over three million people in Poland went to see the movie.

Wajda prefers to take his artistic cues from important moments in Polish history. "Canal" (1957) was set in the final moments of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, and he explored Poland's Solidarity movement in "Man of Iron" (1981). That film marked the last time he was nominated for an Oscar -- 26 years ago. "I'd like to show the world glimpses of Polish history," Wajda said after "Katyn" was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category this year. And that he does.

Sometimes Wajda gets a bit overdramatic, especially when it comes to how he depicts the suffering of the wives and families of the imprisoned officers before they meet their deaths. But the last 20 minutes of the film number among the most impressive of any film based on World War II. The execution of the officers is depicted in great detail. Handcuffed men are kicked off a truck and driven into a forest. Then comes the shot of the military pistol in the back of the head. By the dozens. Lifeless corpses fall with a thud into sand pits dug for this very purpose. A bulldozer stands by to fill in the mass grave.

No documents from that time, no work of literature has yet managed to capture the memory of Katyn. The event lay buried for decades, hidden in "sealed memory." Polish historian Adam Krzeminski, who is often quoted in Germany, believes "Katyn" is a film that "closes a huge gaping hole."

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 17, 2008 6:28 AM
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