Andrzej Wajda’s new film Katyn opens with an archetypal image from World War II in Poland. Hundreds of Polish refugees are crossing a bridge over the River Vistula. Behind them can be heard the guns of the advancing German Wehrmacht. On the other side the Red Army approaches. The better off Poles decide to take their chances with the Nazis, while the Jews and the proletariat continue toward the advancing Red Army troops. The obvious significance of the scene is that the choice between totalitarian systems is no choice at all.
Later, as German and Soviet officers meet to toast one another, Polish prisoners are rounded up and marched off to God knows where, the officers with the Red Army, the foot soldiers with the Germans.
Katyn is easily the equal of Wajda’s great war films Canal and Ashes and Diamonds, and is doubtless the 81-year-old director’s most personal work. Katyn, as every Pole knows, was the village near Smolensk, where in 1940, more than 21,000 Polish officers were massacred in the surrounding forest by the Soviet NKVD (for Poles NKVD stood for “Nie wiadomo kiedy wroce do domu,” or “Impossible to tell when I will return home”). Partly this an act of revenge for the Bolsheviks’ embarrassing defeat in the 1920 war, and partly to eliminate the Polish intellectual elite or any one else that might resist the implementation of Communism and Soviet occupation.
The rest of the story is not as well known as it should be, save to Poles and the better historians: The Germans invade Russia, find and unearth mass graves near Katyn, and use this discovery as a propaganda tool to turn the Poles and the West against the Soviets. At length the Red Army gains the upper hand and drives the Wehrmacht back to the River Oder, while they unearth the graves yet again, this time blaming the atrocity on the Nazis. While most Poles knew better, the British government parroted the Soviet line during the Nuremberg Trials. And there it stood. Until Gorbachev in 1990 acknowledged the atrocity, Poles who attempted to blame the Soviets quickly disappeared. Today, under V. Putin, the Russian government seems to be backtracking. As Anne Appelbaum reported in the New York Review of Books, following the film’s release last year a government-owned Russian newspaper declared that Soviet culpability for Katyn was “not obvious,” and questioned the sincerity of Gorbachev’s admission and the reliability of archival publications.
I say this is Wajda’s most personal film because the director’s own father Jakub, a Polish Army captain, was one of those murdered in the forest at Katyn. Wajda knew the story “had to be told” on film, completely and honestly, but the director also knew this would have to wait until there was enough emotional distance between himself and what Poles call “the Katyn lie.” And obviously there could be no such film as long as Poland remained under the Soviet Union’s boot. Finally, he was waiting for a script he felt did justice to the memory of the Katyn dead. He found it finally in the book “Postmortem: The Katyn Story” by Andrzej Mularczyk. Mularczyk’s book (and the screenplay he helped write) is the story of the aftermath of the massacre, and the Soviets’ lies and cover-ups that those who survived the war were forced to live — and in some instances die — with.
WAJDA’S FILM WAS POLAND’s submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it failed to win an Oscar.
No one who has followed the history of American filmmaking would be surprised. The plain fact is that anti-Soviet or anti-Communist films not only do not win Academy Awards in the U.S., they do not even get made. More than six decades since the commencement of the Cold War there has yet to be a single made-in-the-USA film about the Katyn Forest massacre, the Soviet gulags, the Great Terror, the Moscow Show Trials, the Hungarian Uprising, or the Ukraine Famine. It’s not as if these wouldn’t make interesting stories. Arguably the subject matter is at least as absorbing as that of Che Guevera’s motorcycle diaries.
Instead one has to turn to European or Canadian cinema to find first-rate films dramatizing the Soviet terror that cost an estimated 2.7 million lives. Specifically films like director Casper Wrede’s 1971 adaptation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a joint Norwegian-British production. Of course, “first rate” is just my opinion. Most American critics simply dismissed Wrede’s film as pure “torture”: “The trouble with making a movie about tedium and hopelessness is that it runs into the danger of being itself tedious,” wrote the critic Toni Mastroianni.
Mastroianni certainly knew his audience. After all, what self-absorbed American wants to sit through a hopelessly depressing film about starving and freezing Russian political prisoners, a film in which there can be no happy ending, and no thrilling escape to break the monotony? Perhaps Stalin was on to something. His terrors were so banal, so tedious that instead of turning away in horror, most Westerners simply yawned. Call it “The Tediousness of Evil.”
The same year that witnessed the declaration of martial law in Poland which crushed the Solidarity Movement saw the release of Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), a gorgeous love song to Bolshevism. Reds is the biography of the American journalist John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World, a comrade of V. I. Lenin, and the only American to enjoy the dubious distinction of being entombed in Red Square.
However, the true face of Bolshevism was captured in director Agnieszka Holland’s To Kill a Priest (1988), which premiered just as the revived Solidarity Movement was toppling the Communist government in Poland. The film tells the true story of the young, populist chain-smoking priest Jerzy Popieluszko, a supporter of Solidarity murdered by the secret police in 1984. Tellingly Holland had to secure funding from four international production companies to complete the film, in particular Columbia Pictures during the brief, 12-month tenure of Englishman David Puttnam (The Killing Fields, Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express). But on the whole it was a French production.
The reason for this want of anti-Soviet films has been well documented in Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley’s Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s. The 1930s and '40s, writes Billingsley, saw thick veins of Communist influence running through the Hollywood studio system. Studio Stalinism, the underground movement to smuggle Communist ideology into American cinema, found a surplus of useful idiots in Hollywood, many of them disillusioned with capitalism and enamored with the so-called Russian Experiment. Hollywood was then the equivalent of a one-party state, or, as screenwriter Budd Schulberg put it, the Communist Party “was the only game in town.” The party’s stratagem was surreptitiously to include five minutes of the Party line in every script, and such was the influence of the Communist Party USA that they were able to hire pro-Soviet story analysts to read incoming scripts, weeding out the anti-Communist material. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo openly bragged that among the works kept from reaching the screen were Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and The Yogi and the Commissar; Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom; and James T. Farrell’s Bernard Clare by James T. Farrell. (This couldn’t have been easy, considering Sidney Kingsley’s adaptation of Darkness at Noon had won the 1951 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Tony Award for Best Play.) As Billingsley notes, it wasn’t what the Party put into Hollywood films that mattered, but the anti-Communist, anti-Soviet material it kept out.
In the postwar years Hollywood’s pro-Communist screenwriters went back on the attack. Indeed, so successful were they in scripting films that depicted the inequities of American capitalist society that many screenwriters were perceived as being Stalin’s hirelings. This perception initiated the infamous congressional investigation undertaken under the direction of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
As the Cold War dragged on Hollywood radicals, nursing the wounds of the McCarthy era, believed they had a moral obligation to the memories of the blacklisted writers to ridicule the “exaggerated” fear of Communism: the result were a series of black comedies best exemplified by Doctor Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Later, the studios turned out films like The Front (1976) and Guilty by Suspicion (1991) in which blacklisted screenwriters achieved a kind of ideological martyrdom.
The Hollywood communists, writes Billingsley, knew that any film depicting Soviet atrocities would force some to conclude that HUAC was right, and worse “would violate the legend of the blacklist.” In the end the CPUSA succeeded at keeping all mention of Stalinist atrocities out of the theaters — up until and including today. Had the rest of the Russian experiment been as successful as the Hollywood portion, the Soviet Union might still be around today.
Dalton Trumbo may lay moldering in the grave, but he would no doubt be glad to hear that to date there is no English-language distributor for Wajda’s film, and no plans for its U.S. release.
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