When Andrzej Wajda won the lifetime achievement award at the Oscars in 2000, viewers might have been forgiven for thinking that the Polish director was easing into retirement. But the 83-year-old has returned with one of his most powerful films to date – winning his fourth Oscar nomination in the process.
Katyń is a film that simply could not have been made before the fall of the Iron Curtain. The wartime Soviet massacre of Polish officers was only finally admitted by Gorbachev in 1990. The crime has haunted Poles for decades, not least Wajda, whose own father was amongst the murdered.
Katyń went on general release in the UK on June 19th. For an introduction, please see Katyń: An Interview with Director Andrzej Wajda.
Krakow Post: This is the first film about Katyń. Did you feel obliged, not only towards your parents, but also towards all the families that lost relatives in the crime?
Andrzej Wajda: The whole difficulty was that the first film about Katyń had to contain a certain amount of factual information, as well as a broader background, so that one understands what is actually happening. In future films, which will hopefully come, one can put the historical background aside, and concentrate on psychological and other aspects.
Here however, I had to the show the year 1939, and how the leading characters are torn from their families. I had to show them in captivity, and how they are lied to that they are in a transition camp. I remember very well how in 1943 we learnt from German sources that the crime was committed by the Soviets, and how Poles went to Katyń [together with members of the international press], and how the mass graves were excavated, and how not only Polish officers were found, but also earlier victims of Stalin. All the documents, all the personal effects supported the original thesis about the crime. When the Germans brought the evidence from Katyń, they passed on the effects to the families, so that people actually had authentic evidence, so that it was not some kind of fantasy. And then, in the year 1945, suddenly the Soviets reappear, and it turns out that it is a “German crime”. And I also had to show that.
Now, history has drawn a circle, and we can see today’s Polish army saluting the fallen pre-war officers – so the lie is revealed. However, I had to show all those historical facts.
For the first film, I had to show the crime and its consequences. The next film could show just the crime or just the lie. Future directors could do a fine psychological drama, showing the victims’ internal plights. Or one could do a purely political film – Stalin, Anders, Churchill, Sikorski. Another good theme would be to show how the West drew back from the crime, so as to avoid conflict with Stalin. How the West completely concealed the crime.
But the first film had to show the crime – and the lie. The crime: that was indeed my father who was murdered there. The lie: my mother was one of the ladies who was constantly trying to find information, she was writing to the Red Cross in London and Switzerland, she clung on to the hope that her husband would return from the war. She was lied to that he didn’t die in Katyń, and only gradually did we discover the truth. We learnt that there were other camps, and those camps were also liquidated. In short, we learnt about the machinery of death.
Thus I had a problem – what to choose for the film, and what to show so that it is better understood. I had to decide whether or not I should show the action chronologically, starting in 1939 and finishing in 1945.
I was also confronted with the question, do I actually show the crime? One could assume that everyone knows that the prisoners were murdered and thus not show the crime.
However, in my opinion the crime had to be shown, especially as there was no literary work that I could base my film on. There was no novel that dealt with this issue. If that had been the case, then the choice could have been made by someone else. Here the decision was my own.
KP: What were the reactions of the descendants of those victims?
AW: I did not speak with them on this theme at all. Because I was aware that if I spoke with them, each of the families had their own story, all of them tragic. Thus they might feel that I had promised them something. And then, when the film appeared, they might say: “How did this come about? You didn’t include this story.” So in order to avoid disenchantment, I didn’t speak at all.
I wanted to avoid a situation where people might reveal their deepest and most painful experiences, and then I would end up not showing them on screen.
And so, for the first time in my life, when I started this film, I met with journalists, and asked them not to come to any of the sets while I was making this film. I asked that they would not speak to me, or the actors. I requested that they would not ask any questions, because otherwise, before the film was ready, there would already be a discussion.
I have to say that I found it quite touching that the journalists took this as a self-explanatory request, and respected my plea. I gave no interviews and there were no journalists on set. I had said that I would take responsibility for the entire film, but not for individual scenes that are discussed out of context.
So I didn’t speak with anybody. There was no other way, I had to do it like that.
KP: You once said of your film The Maids of Wilko (1979) that it had been incredibly difficult to find a classic Polish manor house that felt authentic, because the overwhelming majority had been ruined during the Communist era. Today, the codes of honour of the pre-war era have largely disappeared. Was it hard to find actors who could understand the old mentalities?
AW: I had to choose actors of no less than about 35-40 years. That was the age of my parents, and of the majority of those officers who were murdered. And at that age actors have very well-defined personalities, they have played in soaps and films – they have had their successes. And I decided that it wasn’t necessary to make the film with unknown actors.
When I resolved that the story required more than simply a leading couple, and that there would be four to five stories – that is eight to ten leading characters – I understood that I needed to have expressive personas, so that the viewer could identify with them.
The problem only depended – and I myself was interested in how things would turn out – on how much the actors would be able to retreat in time to understand the pre-war world, to what extent would they believe that there were people who really thought like that?
Without this, they wouldn’t have been able to play the roles. And I have to say that it was very touching and positive for me how these actors found the characteristics of the Polish intelligentsia. Because the Katyń crime was not so much a crime against the Polish army, but against the intelligentsia, as more than half of those 22,000 victims were teachers, academics, doctors, professors, historians, painters – put simply, it was the entire elite.
The best evidence to that is the fact that if you meet people in Krakow or elsewhere – members of the intelligentsia – and talk to them, it turns out that in most cases they have someone in the family that was murdered. It seems that this 22,000 is not so many people, but look how until the present day this crime haunts the Polish consciousness, despite the many years that have elapsed.
It was a crime against the entire Polish educated class, and the film shows that this was what both invaders wanted – on one hand, the Soviets who murdered the officers and intelligentsia, and on the other the Germans, who arrested the professors at the Jagiellonian university.
My film provides an accurate account of these events. The arrest of the professors was completely unprecedented as the university had always been autonomous and untouchable. The rector and professors had absolutely no idea what was in store for them. It was a complete shock – most of the professors had studied at German and Austrian universities and they were not unacquainted with German culture.
KP: Did you know right from the beginning that you were going to depict the massacre itself in such a literal, unflinching way?
AW: Yes, I knew. But for a long time I deliberated as to whether to put it at the beginning or the end of the film. Owing to the fact that the rest of the film is based on written accounts, the only thing that remained a mystery was the process of the mass murder itself. There are no witnesses. Nobody was saved and none of the murderers broke the silence. And so I thought that maybe the film should start with the crime, as if from the eyes of God.
But I realised that after such a beginning, it would be difficult to construct the film further. And so I found the key in the notebook in which a captive officer was recording events. This is by the way the real diary of one Major Solski, and we know exactly what was written there, and his last sentence was that they were being brought to a wood, and that it is dawning and it is six o ‘clock, and “we don’t know what they will do with us”. Those were his last words.
These documents were brought by the Germans in 1943. While fleeing in 1945, they wanted to take the evidence about Katyń with them, having packed it all into a few trunks. However, the Polish doctors from the Institute of Forensic Medicine who had been allowed to work on the case copied the documents and hid them, and they survived. The originals were lost, because the train carrying them to Germany was bombed somewhere on the way to Leipzig.
However, the fate of the trunks is one of the conundrums from the end of the war. Some claim that they were taken by the NKWD (Soviet Secret Police) and that they are hidden down in some dungeons in Moscow. Anyway, the fate of the trunks is uncertain because there is no evidence. The story of the film is based on the accounts of ladies who later told their stories. Most of the scenes are based on real events, for example the wife of the general who was summoned to make a statement about the death of her husband – this scene is taken from life, based on the accounts of the widow of General Smorawinski. We used a lot of authentic dialogue.
KP: In one scene set after the war, the character of Agnieszka, sister of one of the victims, rails against her sister for not taking a more confrontational stance towards the new regime. “You have found yourself a place in this new world,” she says, “yet I am entirely in that which is gone. I choose the world of the murdered, and not of the murderers.” In your opinion, do you think that that was the outlook of the majority of the intelligentsia who survived the war?
AW: No. Such a decidedly resolute outlook was in the minority. Because Polish society, between 1945 and 1947, lived under a certain illusion that Poland would not be completely Sovietised. That it would have some sovereign status. We enrolled in university because everyone had high hopes that finally the country would be rebuilt. The end of this was the year 1948, when the two parties – PPR (The Polish Workers Party) and PPS (the Polish Socialists Party) – merged and a mono-party state was formed. So it was not until the late 40s and early 50s that Polish society realised how much Stalin was going to subordinate Poland to his will. Nevertheless, in the year 1945, those that demonstrated their lack of consent to the new system were decidedly suppressed by the police and political authorities.
However, there was a certain hope. Youth was starting to learn again, the first films were made, and even the poems of Czesław Miłosz were in print. Of course, quite a large group of the surviving intelligentsia supported the new system, which wasn’t without meaning – they had hopes that we would be able to have a say in our own destiny.
However, there were quite a few people, like the young lady I depicted, who were aware of what the system was from the start. The story of the broken tombstone is true, and it happened in Silesia.
KP: You have made films with autobiographical dimensions before, such as Everything for Sale (1969). Emotionally, was Katyń the hardest?
AW: You know sir, it was not the most difficult, because it is not my exact history. Of course, I remember my mother’s plight, and I know that I lost my father. But it is not a precisely autobiographical film, because in that case I would have had to have limited myself a great deal. And that wouldn’t have been good for the first film about the crime, because the first film had to include a certain amount of historical information.
The true problem for me was not whether I could do this film, but rather one of the script. Because I was constantly trying to find a better script, a better key to the story. But time passed and I had to take a decision – I realized that I couldn’t delay it any longer.
KP: Having finished, did you feel that a weight had been lifted?
AW: Yes – decidedly. I knew that I had to confront these themes, and I am glad that the film is behind me.
KP: Martin Scorsese once said that whilst he was studying film in New York, his favourite professor told him to “stick to what you know”. Do you think that that is good advice for a young director?
AW: Undoubtedly good advice. Because a director should tell a story that is close to his own existential experience (…) When my film Kanal (1956) was such a success, many people wondered whether war really looked like that. But those scenes were true to life. However, this story could only have been written by Jerzy Stawinski, who survived it all. When he gave me the script, I knew that it had to look like that. So I definitely think that this is a good piece of advice.
KP: In Katyń, there is a young patriot, Tadeusz, who like yourself, aimed to study at Krakow’s Art Academy. To what extent is this character a self-portrait?
AW: You know, he is rather an echo of Maciek in Ashes and Diamonds (1958) – the young man who dies unnecessarily and accidentally with his entire future before him. It seemed to me that such a figure was needed in this film.
I wanted to show the defiant, indomitable spirit of that generation. That was a great tragedy – these young people who felt that the war would finish otherwise. Because for what had they sat in the forests all that time? For what had they fought the Germans, and fought in the Warsaw Rising? They all hoped that the London government-in-exile would return to Poland, and that the Polish armed forces who fought in the West would return. They hoped that these sacrifices were made so that Poland would be a free country, and that no one would dictate the rules. Nobody expected that the West, having defeated Hitler, would simply leave Poland to Stalin as his prey. Thus it seemed to me that such characters were necessary, as a reminder. And likewise, the young lady who cuts her off hair is a kind of Antigone.
KP: You have worked with many composers over the years. For Katyń, rather than commissioning original music, you decided to use fragments from the work of celebrated composer Krzysztof Penderecki.
AW: From the very beginning I was decided that I would use the music of Penderecki. All the more so because he had told me that were I to make Katyń, I could count on him – that he would let me use his music. He gave me the chance not only to use one piece, but to choose from a wide range.
But why the music of Penderecki? Because I was worried that if I commissioned music from a composer as such, then he would wait until the film was ready, and then, when he saw the film on the screen, he would make music that was either patriotic or religious. And this would have cloaked the film. Because music can be overly suggestive to viewers. And this I didn’t want. I wanted the music to accompany the film, rather than illustrate it. Penderecki’s decision gave me that chance.
KP: You won your first award at Cannes in 1957. Several years ago, you wrote the following: “When I was young I had high hopes that we could change – and better – the world. Cinema was to be one of the most effective ways of doing this. We believed that people of different countries and different races and different continents would learn to know one another through the art of film, that knowing one another better would make them friends and allies.” How does this view correspond with your present outlook?
AW: You know sir, cinema does not play the same role today as it once did. And for two reasons. Political films, and films about society, require that a large audience watches them in a big cinema, not alone in front of a television. Because only in a cinema is there a social reception of a film. Then we participate in a shared experience. When we watch television, we are not even sure if we have seen the entire film.
Political and social cinema is appealing to poorer people, whereby if the ticket is expensive a richer audience appears. If somebody can afford a ticket for the entire family, they don’t want to look at someone else’s sorrows, they want some entertainment.
That is why I think that films dedicated to social issues are getting relegated to smaller cinemas and film clubs. Whereby in my time, when a ticket cost about the same as a box of matches, everyone went to the cinema, as the role of television was incomparably smaller. And then you could say that cinema really shaped the views of society. Today it is different.
It is true that in this instance, Katyń was seen by several million people. But this film had been long-awaited, so it’s rather an exception to the rule.
That’s the first reason. Secondly, in the time of my youth, Polish cinema had a chance in the West because Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain, and what lay behind was interesting for people. This interest allowed for our films to appear on Western screens.
Today, when Poland is a free country, our younger colleagues make films about themselves. However, identical films are made by their colleagues from say, France or Germany. Thus Polish films don’t play such a key role anymore. They are a part of the greater whole of European cinema.
So these are the two reasons why the great role that was played by the Polish Film School has passed. Can the situation change? Well, I don’t know, but we still hope that maybe political cinema is not the only interesting genre, and that in a free country, maybe an interesting exploration of our social problems can appear. For instance, on how democracy is formed after years of a communist system. Or how people are starting to be independent again. And what is the role of the Church? All in all, social problems are very interesting. As of yet we don’t have films that synthetically show what happened in Poland and how Poland is getting transformed.
However, the situation of the olden days will not return, mainly because television took over the governance of souls on very many subjects, especially politics. A viewer will not come to the cinema to see yet more politics.
KP: Are you an admirer of any directors at large today?
AW: Yes, yes. I’m very taken with everything that Almodovar does. I think he’s a wonderful director who understands very well the psyche of the man of today and the world before our eyes.
And you know sir, Almodovar is a disciple of Bunuel. And that confirms that art arises from art – he is a director who draws from Spanish cinematic traditions. And that is why his films are so deep and beautiful. They very much appeal to me…. I remember when I first saw Talk To Her it made a tremendous impression – I think it is one of the most original films I have seen in recent years.
(Interview translated from the Polish by Nick Hodge and Marta Urbańska)