The Struggle Against Forgetting
Analysis by Binoy Kampmark
The Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz writes somewhere that history has taught the Poles what it means to not exist. ‘Deprived of a state, they lived for over a century on death row.’ The nature of this historical erasure, this perennial placement in a purgatory seemingly without end, is captured in Katyń, the haunting tribute of Andrzej Wajda to the murder of 15,000 Polish officers in the forest bearing that name between April and May 1940. The proposal to do so had come from the Soviet People’s Commissar of Domestic Affairs, Levrenty Beria. Their murder had an obvious tactical object: the elimination of any functioning intelligentsia that might resist Soviet efforts to incorporate Poland’s eastern territories after the invasion.
The punishment of the dead, one of them being Wajda’s own father, persisted beyond the mass graves. Moscow denied its hand in the killings. The Germans, so went the official line, had been responsible for the mass liquidation. The dates of the executions were duly changed by Soviet investigators led by the Red Army surgeon, Nikolai Burdenko, who saw it fitting to suggest August and September 1941. This orthodoxy was pursued with fanatical insistence till 1990, when the Soviet role was grudgingly admitted.
The film commences with this political vanishing, a foretaste of what Wajda has called “naked historical facts”. On September 17, 1939, we find refugees meeting on a bridge, one fleeing from the Soviet invasion from the East, the other from the German invasion from the West. The film then continues to pack stories at pace: survivors wracked by guilt; the accumulation of lies; abandoned wives. The sequences are hurried, dialogues scanty, symbolism heavy.
The film demonstrates what Wajda is best at – the politically charged subject. After wavering in the cinematic business with the end of the Cold War (the enemies had packed up and left), he returned to the more sure ground of Polish history. Such ground, deeply familiar to his native audience, is often perplexing to non-Polish audiences. Cultural obscurities are more frequent than some would like.
No such difficulty presents itself with the massacre itself, filmed as a brutal, logistical exercise. Wajda does not spare the viewer, offering little in the redemptive sense. Arguments have been made suggesting that the director missed a chance to teach empathy, to identify the kind streak in humanity. But empathy is difficult when confronting the handiwork of secret police: piles of bullet-filled corpses, camps, habitual historical distortion.
In this sense, Wajda is being traditional. Moral categories are easily identifiable in this film. There are victims (the Poles), and there are the executioners (the Soviets). He even has time to allude to the Sonderaktion in Kraków, Nazi Germany’s own effort to cleanse Poland of its elites. But Wajda makes it clear that he is in the business of excoriating sanguinary regimes and cleansing nations, not wholesale condemnation. “This film is not against the Russian people,” he told the British Guardian (2 May 2008). “It is about the horrors of the Stalin regime.”
There is a continuing ambivalence shown towards the murders, notably in Russia, where investigations have ceased. The Russian Supreme Court unceremoniously quashed an appeal to reopen the investigation. Historically ominous trends are also emerging, a legacy of the revivalist program of the Putin and Medvedev administrations. Figures such as Joseph Stalin are being dusted and cleansed of political offenses. Poland was recently blamed for the outbreak of World War II by a Russian historian, one Colonel Sergei Kovalyov, in a research paper published on the Russian Defense Ministry’s website. Re-running the worn appeasement thesis, Kovalyov argues that yielding to Germany’s “reasonable” demands would have spared the world a lot of bother.
It might well be that some great calamities, according to the British historian A. J. P. Taylor, are more often marked by blunders rather than wickedness. Katyń, despite its flaws, provides an antidote against such a philosophy, a deep bruising of the senses that will, it is hoped, make us remember.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Email: bkampmark — AT — gmail . com