April 14, 2008


The Great Cover-Up (Christopher Orlet, 4/10/2008, American Spectator)

Katyn is easily the equal of Wajda's great war films Canal and Ashes and Diamonds, and is doubtless the 81-year-old director's most personal work. Katyn, as every Pole knows, was the village near Smolensk, where in 1940, more than 21,000 Polish officers were massacred in the surrounding forest by the Soviet NKVD (for Poles NKVD stood for "Nie wiadomo kiedy wroce do domu," or "Impossible to tell when I will return home"). Partly this an act of revenge for the Bolsheviks' embarrassing defeat in the 1920 war, and partly to eliminate the Polish intellectual elite or any one else that might resist the implementation of Communism and Soviet occupation.

The rest of the story is not as well known as it should be, save to Poles and the better historians: The Germans invade Russia, find and unearth mass graves near Katyn, and use this discovery as a propaganda tool to turn the Poles and the West against the Soviets. At length the Red Army gains the upper hand and drives the Wehrmacht back to the River Oder, while they unearth the graves yet again, this time blaming the atrocity on the Nazis. While most Poles knew better, the British government parroted the Soviet line during the Nuremberg Trials. And there it stood. Until Gorbachev in 1990 acknowledged the atrocity, Poles who attempted to blame the Soviets quickly disappeared. Today, under V. Putin, the Russian government seems to be backtracking. As Anne Appelbaum reported in the New York Review of Books, following the film's release last year a government-owned Russian newspaper declared that Soviet culpability for Katyn was "not obvious," and questioned the sincerity of Gorbachev's admission and the reliability of archival publications.

I say this is Wajda's most personal film because the director's own father Jakub, a Polish Army captain, was one of those murdered in the forest at Katyn. Wajda knew the story "had to be told" on film, completely and honestly, but the director also knew this would have to wait until there was enough emotional distance between himself and what Poles call "the Katyn lie." And obviously there could be no such film as long as Poland remained under the Soviet Union's boot. Finally, he was waiting for a script he felt did justice to the memory of the Katyn dead. He found it finally in the book "Postmortem: The Katyn Story" by Andrzej Mularczyk. Mularczyk's book (and the screenplay he helped write) is the story of the aftermath of the massacre, and the Soviets' lies and cover-ups that those who survived the war were forced to live -- and in some instances die -- with. [...]

The reason for this want of anti-Soviet films has been well documented in Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley's Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s. The 1930s and '40s, writes Billingsley, saw thick veins of Communist influence running through the Hollywood studio system. Studio Stalinism, the underground movement to smuggle Communist ideology into American cinema, found a surplus of useful idiots in Hollywood, many of them disillusioned with capitalism and enamored with the so-called Russian Experiment. Hollywood was then the equivalent of a one-party state, or, as screenwriter Budd Schulberg put it, the Communist Party "was the only game in town." The party's stratagem was surreptitiously to include five minutes of the Party line in every script, and such was the influence of the Communist Party USA that they were able to hire pro-Soviet story analysts to read incoming scripts, weeding out the anti-Communist material. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo openly bragged that among the works kept from reaching the screen were Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and The Yogi and the Commissar; Victor Kravchenko's I Chose Freedom; and James T. Farrell's Bernard Clare by James T. Farrell. (This couldn't have been easy, considering Sidney Kingsley's adaptation of Darkness at Noon had won the 1951 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Tony Award for Best Play.) As Billingsley notes, it wasn't what the Party put into Hollywood films that mattered, but the anti-Communist, anti-Soviet material it kept out.

Robert Harris makes especially effective use of the Katyn cover-up in his novel, Enigma.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 14, 2008 8:26 PM

Katyn also comes up in one of the WW2 volumes of Powell's masterful Dance to the Music of Time -- which didn't appear in the Telegraph list posted earlier, though it ought to have -- when a number of the more odious characters, especially one of the greatest villains in all lit, Widmerpool, attack the Poles for bringing it up and interfering with the Soviet alliance.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 15, 2008 12:17 AM