Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Speak Memory

Last weekend I viewed Andrzej Wajda's superb film Katyn, which gives life to the historical fact that in April, 1940, the Soviet Union freely chose to murder some 20,000 Polish prisoners of war, including some 12,000 members of the Polish Army Officer Corps. These officers had surrendered on orders, since they viewed the Soviet Army as essentially on "their" side, and expected to be held for a time, then released back to Poland, possibly to fight again. They were instead transported to their murders, one at a time, pistol shot to the back of the head, in the Katyn Forest in the Soviet Union. They were buried in mass graves. When the graves were discovered, the Russians claimed that the Nazis had perpetrated the atrocity. (And, indeed, the Eastern Front was so unbelievably horrible that the Nazis had in fact perpetrated a similar atrocity on many thousands of civilians in Belarus, in an area called Khatyn.) When the Soviets took control of Poland at the end of World War II, they maintained their institutional lie concerning the Katyn massacre by force of terror. One of the most searing scenes in this altogether searing film is a conversation between two sisters who are taking the gravestone of their brother to be placed in their family tomb, in Poland. One sister has had the stone made, paying for it by selling her hair. On the stone is the correct date of her brother's death, April 1940. Since this gives the lie to the Soviet version, the sister is committing a political sedition. Her sister, who has found a place in the "new order," says that there is no hope of Poland ever becoming a free state again, that one must simply find a way to live with reality. The other sister refuses--I won't join with the murderers of my brother she says. The two part company. Later we see the stone, broken, the date "1940" missing entirely.

Katyn is a perfectly made film. By that I mean that it manages in two or so hours to show us what cannot literally be told. Every moment has depth, visually as well as in dialog and motion. It imparts life to a dry, historical fact. It even literally shows us, for a few brief seconds, what that dry, historical fact looks like--grainy news reels of the rotted corpses, of the skulls with bullet holes, of people pulling the rotting clothes away from the bones. It is horrible enough, but there is a comforting distance, a way to think, ah well, another time, over there far far away. In the film we come to know individuals, families. The final scene in the film, an extended version of the massacre which includes all the main military figures we've come to know through the film being shot, close up, one at a time, is remarkable for its power and horror. We know these people. There are also many details which I find stay in my mind, to think about. As has been remarked and written about concerning Nazi atrocities, this business of mass murder takes a lot of time, it is a labor. In the case of the Katyn massacre, first it is done one by one. That proving no doubt too slow, it is then done faster, more in groups, at the very grave side. Russian farm boys knew how to slaughter. A human abatoire was constructed. Young soldiers are given the job of dispatching the Polish officers, one by one. Bullets are dispensed with penury, eight at a time. A second soldier loads the weapon of execution. First the killing takes place indoors, with another soldier washing the blood away between murders, and the bodies, one by one, dumped down a chute and into a waiting truck. Later things are speeded up, and the murders happen quickly, at the very rim of the mass grave. Wajda uses a gigantic bulldozer, shot close up, in motion and sound, to symbolize the mechanical quality of this atrocity. There is no suggestion of anything spontaneous. This is entirely calculated, as a Polish officer says beforehand, to chop down the very people who might after the war have brought this vanquished country back to life It is the "genius" of Stalin. The Germans, of course, came to similar solutions.

Spontaneity is indeed the deep opposite of this black "science." There is one moment, after the war, as the Soviet occupation grows more and more stringent, when a romantic Polish boy tears down a poster. He is pursued by Russian soldiers, and rescued for a moment by a pretty girl who knows where to hide. (Possibly she's hidden on this roof before, from Germans?) The two hide, watching the soldiers searching in vain. It is a romantic moment, and they kiss before they part, with a plan to meet at a movie the next evening. Then the boy turns a corner and walks right into the soldiers, and is killed, fleeing. Over and over through the film, Wajda shows us the contrast--love versus calculation and indifference, life versus death. The mother and wife of the central husband/soldier argue over it, the wife saying with bitterness that he chose his loyalty to the military over his vows to her.

The film is also bookended with brutality. Almost at the start we see the entire faculty of a Polish university, all distinguished men in their forties and fifties, dressed in suits to meet with a Nazi commandant, simply group-arrested by soldiers at the end of the meeting and shoved into waiting trucks for transport to camps. When the University President objects briefly the commandant simply asks him, "do you want to die right now?"

Katyn is about the atrocity then, but it is also about surviving, and thus it is about the wives and sisters and mothers of the soldiers. First they survive (some of them) the Nazi occupation. Then, when the war is over, they still find they must survive the Soviet occupation. The Soviet Union finally admitted, to some degree, that they were responsible for the Katyn Massacre. They did this, grudgingly, in 1990.

I can't recommend this film too highly, although it is not an easy film to watch. For a better review than this, see:

After you've read her review, you might want to read this excellent piece by Juan Cole:

If someone tells you that empathy is for weaklings, run, do not walk, to the nearest exit. That path leads to horror and death. Indeed, this film, depicting as it does remarkably precise affronts to human empathy, offers all of us an exemplification of fascism in action, and makes clear that Hitler and Stalin are brothers under the skin. For fascism denies empathy at it's core, and asserts that power proves justice and even truth itself, and can obliterate even the most obvious contrary. One can only believe, when confronted with fascism, that Martin Luther King, Jr., was still correct--that the long arc of history does bend towards justice. One can at least make this arc out, dimly, as events unfold. Search Youtube for the trial and execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu, for example. Or find the photo of Mussolini's grubby end, which rivals the Ceaucescu's. These later events are the exemplification of not-vain hope. Sadly, they hardly balance the vast injustices that preceded them.

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