AP Interview: Filmmaker Andrzej Wajda recalls tragic,
entwined fate of father and country
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
WARSAW, Poland: In the chilling final scene of "Katyn," the new film from Oscar-winning director Andrzej Wajda, Soviet secret police execute one Polish army officer after another in a dank cellar, washing away the blood with buckets of water.
The mechanical choreography evokes a butchery in a slaughterhouse.
For Wajda, filming the scene proved one of his greatest personal challenges: His own father suffered that fate in the 1940 massacre, and he knew surviving spouses and children of the 22,000 Polish soldiers killed under Josef Stalin's orders would see their deaths played out on the big screen.
"This was the most important thing to me - how to make the movie in a way that would not hurt them, how to make them accept this as the truth and to say, 'yes, this is how it happened,'" the 81-year-old Wajda told The Associated Press.
He described "Katyn" - named after the forest where the officers were massacred - as his most personal movie ever.
The pain of remembrance was compounded by the fact his mother lived out her life holding out hope that that her husband, Lt. Jakub Wajda, may have survived, since his name never appeared on any official list of Polish soldiers killed in World War II.
"She nourished the illusion that he was alive somewhere and would come back from the war," Wajda said. "Until her death, she hoped he would be found."
He said his goal was to mix family history with that of his nation.
"I wanted to tell a story about something in my area of experience, about my father and my mother. It all happened in a time that I still remember," he said, speaking at the film school he founded, where he had just finish giving a lesson to a group of young filmmakers.
The film was released in Poland this fall, and has so far sold 3 million tickets in a country of 38 million people. It is schedule to make its international premiere at the Berlin film festival in February.
Wajda is hopeful the movie will get widespread international distribution, but he acknowledged that the complicated historical context may prove esoteric to some foreign viewers.
The film opens in 1939 after Germany has invaded Poland from the West and the Red Army has moved in from the East, carving up the country based on the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Hitler and Stalin.
Wajda depicts Poland's agony in the opening scene where, on a bridge, Poles fleeing the Nazis collide with their countrymen fleeing the Soviets.
It is symbolic, but based on actual events. So is another scene showing a Soviet soldier who removes a Polish flag from a building, rips it apart and uses the white portion to wrap around his foot as a sock. The red half is put back on the building.
The message is clear: Poland is obliterated and the communists are in charge.
The flourish is typical Wajda.
"Those who know my films know that I make such symbolic scenes, that this is my specialty," said Wajda, who received an honorary Academy Award in 2000 for a career that included such acclaimed works as "Ashes and Diamonds," "Kanal," "Man of Marble," and "Man of Iron."
"Katyn" depicts not only the crimes carried out in the Katyn forest and elsewhere and the devastation of the families, but also what Wajda called the "Katyn lie."
He traced the fate of the wives and a sister of fictional officers who struggle to learn the truth about their loved ones from the Soviets who controlled Poland during and after the war. The crimes are blamed on the Nazis. Another thread of the film details a young woman who erects a gravestone for her brother killed at Katyn; it is quickly destroyed by the Communist government.
Wajda, who was 13 when the war began, did not feature his father among the characters.
"It would have been hard for me to tell his story since I don't know what really happened," Wajda said of his father, whom he described as a dutiful officer.
Despite his father's absences, Wajda vividly recalled "wonderful moments when he taught me how to ride a horse. At that time, the whole Polish army was still on horseback. It was like a 19th century army being gradually modernized to a modern one on wheels."
His father also taught him to draw, which inspired him to study fine arts before attending the Lodz film school.
To him, Katyn is one of the most tragic war crimes in history and a topic he could not have tackled before communism collapsed in 1989 because Moscow refused to acknowledge it.
"I never thought I would live to the moment when Poland would be a free country," Wajda said. "I thought I would die in that system. It was so surprising and so extraordinary that I lived to see freedom."
Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska contributed to this report.