History is something we recognize as fact, but it is also a story. Over the millennia, artists have creatively blended historical fact with storytelling fictions in order to convey the story of history in epics, songs, novels and — most recently — in films. Sometimes myth is also part of that storytelling mixture, and in this article I will explore the blend of history, fiction, and myth in Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyń, which tells the story of the mass execution of Polish officers and intelligentsia in the Katyń forest during the early days of World War II.
First, though, some history, which is well known to Polish audiences of Wajda’s film, but perhaps less familiar to others. Katyń is the name of a forest near Smolensk in western Russia, one of the locations where over 20,000 Polish military officers and other Polish prisoners of war were executed by the NKVD, the Soviet internal security police, in the spring of 1940. The Polish prisoners had been captured by the Soviets in September 1939 when the Soviet army invaded Poland from the east, according to the agreed upon plan between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, who were then allies. In April 1940, the Soviets began the systematic massacre of the Polish prisoners, who were executed, one by one, with a gunshot to the back of the head. The killing took place non-stop, day after day (except for the May Day holiday), until 20,000 men lay buried in mass graves in the Katyń forest and other secret locations in western Russia. The Nazis discovered the Katyń graves in April 1943 and exploited the Soviet crime for their own propaganda purposes (by then the Nazis and Soviets had dissolved their non-aggression pact and were at war with one another). When the Soviet Army finally drove the Nazis out of the Katyń area in September 1943, the Soviet government then launched a counter-propaganda campaign, proclaiming that the Nazis had been responsible for the massacre, which they claimed had not taken place in 1940, but in 1941, when the area had been under German occupation. The Soviets maintained their innocence for fifty years, until April 1990, when the government of Mikhail Gorbachev expressed official regret for the massacre and acknowledged that the executions had been carried out in 1940 by the NKVD.
The great Polish film director Andrezj Wajda, whose own father died at Katyń, has now made a film about the event — or, rather, as he explains in an interview, about two events: his subject is both the crime of the Katyń massacre, and also the lies that were told about it by the Soviet authorities. At the same time that Wajda has created a film whose central theme is the tension between lies and truth in history, he has also created a work of art, a fiction — not a documentary. The incidents in the film were all taken from memoirs and personal recollections of the events at the time, but the characters of the film are fictional. The film weaves together the story of a general (two generals, as well as a naval admiral, were actually executed at Katyń) and three other military officers, along with the stories of their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. It is these women, in fact, who are the main focus of the film, and this reflects Wajda’s personal experience. What Wajda first knew about Katyń was the effect he saw on his own mother, and the suffering she endured.
It is the tragedy of the mourning women, in fact, which prompts Wajda to weave a mythological motif into the film: the ancient Greek myth of Antigone. As the story is told in Sophocles’s play, Antigone’s brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, had been killed in the civil war of the city of Thebes, contending for the throne that had once belonged to their father Oedipus. Their uncle, Creon, who is now the king, decrees that Eteocles will be honored but Polyneices will be left as carrion on the battlefield. Although Ismene, Antigone’s sister, begs her to obey the law, Antigone rejects her pleas and defies Creon by performing a symbolic burial of her brother. Creon then condemns Antigone to be buried alive.
Wajda sees a parallel here between the defiant Antigone and the women of Poland who defied the Soviet authorities in honoring their dead husbands and in telling the true story of their deaths. There are various ways in which the women in the film are shown defying the authorities, but the most dramatic story is that of a woman, Agnieszka, who wants to erect a tombstone for her brother, whose name was on the list of the dead at Katyń. She has the tombstone inscribed with the date April 1940, even though her sister Irena begs her not to do so. But when Agnieszka takes the tombstone to have it placed in the church, the church officials turn her away. Then, when she takes the tombstone to the family grave at a cemetery, the police arrest her and smash the tombstone. Why? Because of the date Agnieszka has had inscribed on the tombstone: 1940. If the executions took place in 1940, it was a Soviet crime, as Katyń was under Soviet occupation at that time. If it took place in 1941, it was a Nazi crime, under the German occupation of western Russia. All Agnieszka had to do was to remove the date from the tombstone, or to put the date 1941 instead. She refused, and chose the truth instead. Like Antigone, she is buried alive; the last time we see her, she is in prison, descending the steps leading down into her cell.
Of course, making mythological allusions is a risky business in any form of art, so Wajda makes sure we recognize the connection between Antigone and Agnieszka by weaving Sophocles’s play Antigone into the plot of the film. To pay for her brother’s tombstone, Agnieszka sells her hair to the theater in Krakow so that it can be made into a wig. An actress at the theater explains that the German actresses had taken all the wigs away with them when they evacuated the city. The actress needs a wig because her own hair was shaved off in the Auschwitz concentration camp (located just thirty miles from Krakow). As the hairdresser is cutting off Agnieszka’s hair, the actress recites some lines from the role she will play — but still without any mention of the name Antigone. She speaks about someone who has lost the will to live after her brother has died, a woman who has gone mad in a world filled with evil. Wajda is giving us one clue after another, provoking us to see the myth in the history. Finally, just in case we did not detect Antigone in the actress’s recitation of her lines, the myth is revealed unmistakably in the next scene: when Agnieszka collects the money for her hair at the ticket window, there is a large poster advertising the play, with the name “Antygona” prominently displayed in very large letters, plain for all to see.
This story of a tombstone, in a different form, took place in Wajda’s own life, many years after the war. In defiance of the authorities, Wajda dared to inscribe his father’s tombstone with the date 1940, as he explains in the interview accompanying the film: “The date was what mattered” (“Data była ważna”). The date on a tombstone is the historical fact that connects the story of Wajda’s own life with the fictional character of Agnieszka in the film, and with the ancient Greek myth of Antigone.
Thus, not only does Wajda expose the lies of the Katyń coverup, he also gives the story a mythological dimension. The tragedy of Antigone becomes the tragedy of every mother, wife, and child of the Katyń victims, women like Wajda’s own mother, women who could not honor their dead and who could not name their executioners. Unlike the Soviet lies that pretended to be the historical truth when they were not, Wajda uses both the power of fiction and the power of myth to tell, at last, a true story of Katyń.
- Wajda, Andrzej, director. Katyń. Screenplay by Przemyslaw Nowakowski, based on the book Post Mortem by Andrzej Mularczyk. (The DVD contains an hour-long interview with Andrzej Wajda.) 2007.