Category Archives: Poland

Katyn (2007)

katynThe 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).”

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A Short Film About Love (1988)

“Tell me, why do you play voyeur?”

The Polish film A Short Film About Love (Krotki Film o Milosci) from director Krzysztof Kieslowski seems to be a simple tale about obsession, but obsession never really is a simple thing, and it’s never a solitary action–although it may seem so. Once the object of the obsession becomes aware of another’s intense focus, then he or she is dragged into the obsession too, and an unwilling reciprocity begins. And such is the case in A Short Film About Love. The film was originally one of ten films in the director’s Decalogue. But the film was extended to just over 80 minutes and released by Kino.

Young, retiring postal clerk Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) is obsessed with his older, attractive neighbour Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska) who lives in the apartment opposite. He times her comings and goings, and spies on her sexual liaisons through a well-placed telescope. Tomek, an orphan who lives with an absent friend’s mother is a lonely emotionally stunted soul. With no friends, and no social life, his world gravitates around glimpses of Magda. Soon Tomek even manufactures additional ingenious ways to catch a glimpse of his obsession. Magda is blissfully unaware that she’s spied on, and through her open curtains, Magda carries on her normal, mostly solitary life, indulging in the occasional sexual liaison.

As Tomek’s obsession intensifies, Magda finally catches on, and her initial reaction is anger at the invasion of her privacy. This gives way to curiosity and she eventually becomes intrigued, and they establish a pseudo relationship. Magda, however attempts to redefine her relationship with Tomek in two ways–both of which end badly.

This tale of loneliness and the emotional distance between damaged souls explores Tomek and Magda’s relationship through the prism of need and love. Magda, whose bitterness shows in the cracks of her sophisticated veneer, no longer believes in love, whereas Tomek has a need to idealize the object of his obsession. Through Tomek, Magda catches a glimpse of what she could be to someone, while Tomek catches stolen glimpses of a woman he can never possess. Magda is too hard and too world-weary to handle Tomek’s sensitivity, and he’s too damaged to cope with anything beyond a relationship in which the telescope maintains a safe distance with his love object. And what if Tomek had stumbled on a 20-year-old version of Magda? What is she stumbled on a 40-year-old version of Tomek? Would anything be different? Could these characters connect? In Polish with subtitles.

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A Love in Germany (1983)

“I’m only doing my duty.”

A man travels back to his small hometown in Germany after an absence of 40 years. With his teenage son in tow, his goal is to piece together exactly what happened to his mother during WWII. As he tries to talk to villagers and discover the truth, a story unfolds of a tragic love affair between the man’s German mother and a Polish prisoner of war. Their fate becomes the focus of the film, A Love in Germany.

Through flashbacks, the story unfolds of Paulina Kropp (Hanna Schygulla) who runs a small grocery shop while her husband serves in the German army. The villagers use incarcerated Polish prisoners-of-war for unpaid labour. The POWs are subject to strict rules–they are not supposed to live, eat or fraternize with the Germans. Polish POW Stanislaus (Piotr Lysak) sleeps in the stables, and he’s ‘loaned’ out for various tasks. Stanislaus begins doing work for Paulina, and they engage in a steamy affair. In the village, it’s impossible to keep anything secret–and soon the affair is common knowledge.

While A Love in Germany from director Andrzej Wajda is ostensibly the story of a love affair between two people who were supposed to be enemies, the film is much more than that. By retelling the affair, the film subtly examines Germany’s past. When the forbidden affair inevitably comes to the attention of the authorities, ordinary German citizens become involved with irrevocable decisions. What should be an intimate, private matter between two people is dissected, analyzed, and judged according to rules and regulations set forth by Himmler. The question of the “Ayran-ness” of Paulina and Stanislaus will help decide their fate, and neighbours, friends and acquaintances collaborate in a sick system. The fine actor, Armin Mueller-Stahl plays Mayer, a German officer who is out of his moral depth, but consoles himself by following the minutiae set forth in documents regarding interracial couples. Mayer’s underling, Schutze, is a petty bureaucrat given the authority and the uniform of a monstrous system. Based on the novel by Rolf Hochhuth, this excellent film is in Polish with English subtitles.

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Beautiful Stranger (1992)

 “I predict a great disaster for Russia.”

Set in 1917, right before the Russian Revolution begins, the Polish film, Beautiful Stranger is based on the novel by Aleksei Tolstoi. Twenty-three-year-old Lt. Nikita Obozov (Wojciech Malajkat) is on furlough from the front, and he’s enjoying a last evening with friends in a restaurant when Rasputin arrives. Rasputin, at first brings life to the sedate atmosphere of the eatery–demanding champagne for the gypsy band, and dancing in between the tables. But when Rasputin goes too far, Obozov steps in to protect the honour of a lady. With this act, noted by a quiet officer sitting nearby, Obozov marks himself as both reckless and a romantic.

The next day Obozov is ordered to deliver secret documents to Stockholm via an overland train journey. He’s been selected for this mission thanks to his behaviour in the restaurant. To Obozov, the mission represents an escape from his normally arduous army life at the front, but within a few hours, a beautiful, seductive older woman (Grazyna Szapolowska) who’s also on the train in the compartment next door teases Obozov–causing him to forget–temporarily at least–the hidden secret documents.

This Polish film has an inherent romance that is absent from the more cynical worldview of Russian film, so in a sense, the film set in Russia and about Russians is an anomaly. Beautiful Stranger tracks the relationship that grows between the naive Lt. Obozov and the gorgeous woman, as they travel on the train from Russia to Stockholm. Train journeys are the most romantic form of travel, and the film capitalizes on this aspect of the setting. Obozov’s head spins at the possibility of a romantic liaison on the speeding train, and he also dreams when he sleeps–and in his dreams, he replays a recurring event that took place in a frozen field at the front. This recurring scene–a nightmare he’s tucked away–returns at the very end of the film to provide a perfect, poignant ending.

The sense of romance in the film is high, but there’s really very little plot here. The acting, a little stilted at times, is hampered by the fact that the dialogue is just a few seconds behind lip movement. Directed by Jerzy Hoffman, Beautiful Stranger is in Polish with English subtitles.

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The Debt (1999)

“I did a terrible thing.”

Set in Poland, the film The Debt (Dlug ) is based on a true story and concerns two young men Adam Borecki (Robert Gonera) and Stefan Kowalczyk (Jacek Borcuch) who have a great idea. They have a contract that permits them to sell Italian mopeds in Poland, but there’s only one problem. They lack financing. In one scene, they meet with a bank official who tells them that everything looks great, but that doesn’t mean they can get credit. Frustrated and depressed, they bump into an old acquaintance of Stefan’s, Gerard Nowak (Andrzej Chyra) who tells them he may have an investor. Desperate for cash, Adam and Stefan don’t heed a few warning signals, and they discuss their plan with Gerard. He offers them financing, but the terms are outrageous. Gerard begins extorting large sums of money from the two men for expenses he supposedly absorbed on their behalf.

Adam and Stefan’s lives soon spiral out-of-control as the brutish Gerard and his bodyguard, Junior demand payment. With $1000 a day interest added to the outstanding sum Gerard claims he’s owed, it becomes impossible to repay the debt. Adam and Stefan have few options and they are all unpleasant.

This is a tale of two young men who just want to get ahead in a capitalist system, but don’t meet the necessary criteria to qualify for financing their dream. This situation opens them up to exploitation from a ruthless Russian gangster, and once they’ve become his victims, he is reluctant to let them escape–dragging them deeper and deeper into a maze of debt, violence and crime. The Debt is an intense, gripping drama, and as Adam and Stefan’s lives unravel rapidly, the story becomes incredibly dark. Wonderful performances from the actors in this realistic crime film create a riveting atmosphere, and it’s impossible to peel one’s eyes away from the disaster that we realize must inevitably occur. On the downside, the film failed to thoroughly explain exactly how Stefan knows Gerard, and it remains unclear if Stefan was at all aware of Gerard’s less-than-savory ‘business’ ventures. This chilling film, directed by Krzysztof Krauze is in Polish with English subtitles.

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