The Polish film Katyn (aka Post Mortem, Opowiesc Katynska) begins appropriately in 1939 with two sets of Poles passing and fleeing in opposite directions. One group is fleeing from the Nazis and the other group is fleeing from the Red Army. Fleeing from one army sends the Poles slap bang into the other option–it’s the devil or the deep blue sea, and as I watched this scene I asked myself which side I would run to (or from)? If I were Jewish, I’d run to the Red Army, but what if I were a Polish Army officer? Which side would be the most likely to respect POWs?
Katyn from director Andrzej Wajda explores the horrendous true story of what happened to over 20,000 Polish Officers and civilians at the hands of the Red Army. The film tells the story mainly through the eyes of Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) who travels on bicycle with her young daughter, towards the Polish border and the onslaught of the Red Army. All the soldiers have been released but the officers are rounded up and held in make-shift camps. Here she has a very brief reunion with her husband, Polish Army officer Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski). She begs him to flee with her but Andrzej refuses. Instead he and his friend, Lt. Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra) are shipped out together to yet another camp.
The film follows Anna’s struggles to return across the Polish border and the years that follow. While Anna and many other Polish officer wives believe their husbands are still alive, news begins to trickle out that mass graves have been discovered in the Katyn forest.
Some scenes depict the Polish officers in the Soviet controlled camps waiting to be ‘shipped out’, and the plot follows both the Nazi and the Soviet propaganda surrounding the story as both sides blame each other for the slaughter and the bodies are dug up multiple times for evidence. The timeline of the mass murders becomes the crucial element–with the Soviets insisting that the officers were slaughtered when the area was under Nazi occupation and the Nazis insisting that the Poles were murdered by the Red Army in 1940.
At first the Nazis in occupied Poland pressured widows to sign statements incriminating the Soviets but when the Soviets reoccupy Poland they show propaganda films blaming the atrocity on the Nazis. And the world, already aware of the Nazi death camps accepted the news that even more atrocities had been committed by the Nazis.
The film’s narrative wavers about 2/3 of the way into the film as the characters we have followed are dropped and new characters are introduced and summarily squashed by the Bolshies as it becomes perfectly clear that under the Soviet-controlled regime, the families of Katyn victims had to endure a yoke of silence or bear the consequences…. Focusing on Poland, the film doesn’t explore the Allied involvement in the cover-up. Winston Churchill, for example, publicly blamed the Nazis but privately knew the Bolshies were responsible, and American reports were suppressed and destroyed. The film also does not include the fact that officers were not the only victims–policeman and boy scouts were also rounded up and exterminated. Those points aside, the enactments of the systematic murder of thousands of officers is accurately portrayed, and the result is a moving film in which the Polish people are show in the crossfire of two pathological, murderous powers. The overwhelming feeling is great sorrow for the victims and amazement that anyone survived this mess. The director was 14 years old at the time of the Katyn slaughter and his own father, Jakub Wajda was one of the murdered.
At the time of Katyn, the world was not yet aware of Stalin’s monstrous policies. I should add here that Katyn was Beria’s idea but it was an idea that certainly fit into Stalin’s Soviet model. According to author Orlando Figes in his book The Whisperers:
“Extraordinary even by the standards of the Stalinist regime, the Great terror was not a routine wave of mass arrests, such as those that swept across the country throughout Stalin’s reign, but a calculated policy of mass murder. No longer satisfied with imprisoning his real or imagined ‘political enemies’, Stalin now ordered the police to take people out of the prisons and labour camps and murder them. In the two years 1937 and 1938, according to incomplete statistics, a staggering total of at least 681,692 people, and probably far more, were shot for ‘crimes against the state’ (91 per cent of all death sentences for political crimes between 1921 and 1940, if NKVD figures are to be believed).”