Polish Director Andrzej Wajda. Wikimedia Commons

Wajda's Story. The (Real) Lesson of Katyn

22,000 slaughtered by Russians in a forest. A page of history from WWII that still divides opinions. Let’s go beyond the historical debates. What is at the heart of the Polish filmmaker’s film? This is a question that concerns us here and right now.
Luca Doninelli

While I was watching the film Katyn by the master filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, and that hardly no film theater featured (although it was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Oscars), I understood why I don’t like thrillers. Thrillers are based on the idea that through history, somehow, justice is obtained and the truth finally emerges. But who said so? Hegel said so. I read Hegel and can assure you he’s an impressive read. But, finally, I’m convinced that you really have to be a bit naïve to consider that all of what history produces is rational (and, according to Hegel, true). Hegel believes that everything produced by history is true. This means that innocent victims must not shout from mass graves. In fact, they don’t. Here Hegel is right. Let’s stop saying that the dead scream alone. Graveyards are silent.

But what is it that makes man save a bit of truth, withdrawing it from oblivion, which seems to be history’s true claim? Expectation, that’s the secret. The expectation that is in us now–because if it exists, it must be here now.

The film narrates the stories of several women whose beloved, officers in the Polish army, disappear in 1939 when caught in the pincers of the Nazi and Soviet double invasion, after the famous Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. These officers, 22,000, with some thousands of civilians, disappear. The last news of them dates back to the beginning of 1940. At the end of the war, while Poland becomes a Soviet satellite, these women, at times sardonically, receive the news of the death of their men, husbands, fathers, and brothers.

Shots of memory. Not all the officers died. Some, those that were brotherly friends of the dead, returned and are now wearing a different uniform. This is the price paid for a small betrayal–small because the betrayed are already dead. Today, there are many pro-Soviet newsreels in which the regime emphatically narrates the discovery of the dead bodies in a mass grave in the woods of the Katyn forest near Smolensk. Indisputable witnesses blame the Germans for the massacre. That was just a small lie told to be able to continue to live.

However, someone find out the truth. Someone else will be forced to admit to it and, not bearing the shame of participating in the lie, will commit suicide anyway. A young artist abandons himself to fury, but his rebellion will only be a means to encounter his death.

Truth can desperately be claimed through anger–the sister of a young pilot, an Antigone of our era, ends up jailed just as Antigone did–but desperation makes us confederates of the enemy and truth claimed through anger becomes an ally of crime.

Those officers were slaughtered because they were the memory of Poland, guardians of Poland’s culture and faith. And if the regime hoped to triumph, it had to wipe that memory off the face of the Earth. The Soviets committed this crime, but ended up blaming the Nazi regime, who, conversely, did the same thing. Power is power.

Good or bad. There were some who died full of anger in order to re-establish the historical truth: the Soviets were the ones to kill in Katyn and not the Nazis. The ones that pursue only this objective are bound to be defeated because they transform pain into a weapon by subscribing to the warped idea of criminals: history is a matter of power and of winners.
Wajda’s genius consists in not showing the executioners, especially the Russians, as incredibly evil men. This is yet another foolishness. Evil? Why would we ever think such a thing? They only obeyed a necessity, but deep down in their hearts they regretted it. The fact is that they had no choice. If they could have avoided the massacre of Katyn, they would have done so whole heartedly.

If, in other terms, they could have removed the memory and faith without having to kill, if those men–those incredible, stubborn heroes–had not died with rosaries in their hands or reciting “Our Father,” all this blood would not have been necessary.

And now? Who cares enough to restore the historical truth? Wajda lost his father in Katyn, and now that neither Nazism nor the USSR exist, is it really so important to know whose fault it was? A beautiful anti-Communist and anti-Soviet film in 2009?

Let’s not play around with this. What we need to understand is if today all those deaths are necessary and if all that blood would still be necessary today. The point is to understand what I’m giving my life up for today. The question posed by Katyn is a very interesting one, only because of being here and now. “What hopes do we have today?” was the title of an old poster written by some students and posted in a university many years ago.

This is, what I think, the real question, in a world that has many more instruments for controlling and inhibiting our intelligence, where power can obtain consent without visible violence. First of all, we think more and more in the same way, we say the same things using the same words, we are more tolerant and politically correct–we don’t say the n-word, we tolerate gay people, we say that being a prostitute is having a job like any other, and to kill someone that can not be defended is an act of love.

Men like this have no need for bullets in the head.