Thursday, January 15, 2009

On Andrzej Wajda's "Katyn"

Which I've finally seen, on PAL, with the aspect ratio turned to 16:9 so that the English subtitles work. It's a decent movie and overtly political, although the politicization is that of non-Communist Polish patriotism. The funny thing is that there are lots and lots of movies that have been released in the U.S. that have similar hokeyness. It rubs me the wrong way, the Polish patriotism, because I dislike patriotic themes in general, but it's not to the point where the story can't be appreciated.

Briefly, the story is about a Polish officer who is captured during the Soviet invasion of Poland, and what his family goes through during and after the war regarding uncertainty about his fate. The Katyn massacre is finally recognized after the war but Soviet occupied Poland has to buy the line that the Germans committed it. Several characters struggle with the conflict between their own knowledge of the massacre and the official story. Finally, the actual killings at the Katyn forest are re-enacted and you see the officer get shot, among many others whose killing is also shown.

The Katyn massacre of Polish officers and professional and intellectual persons by the Soviets was made possible by a secret clause in the Hitler-Stalin pact that said that if the Nazis invaded Poland that the Soviets could move in and seize eastern Poland, the Baltics, and Finland. The Nazis invaded in '39, thereby starting World War II, and so the Soviets moved in. Now the question is why didn't this get released in DVD Region 1 NTSC format, U.S. format in other words, in the United States; I mean it was nominated for an academy award and Andrzej Wajda is in fact one of the leading post-war Polish directors.

The reason is simple. It's not a conspiracy but the stupidity of Hollywood and the fact that when a certain narrative or story becomes established in the movies it's hard to break through that with a story that doesn't fit into the established categories. The Holocaust and to a lesser extent World War II as a whole have established themselves in American media in a certain way that sucks the air out of the room, so to speak. There's the Holocaust on one side of it and American troops fighting the Nazis on the other, the Nazis persecuted and killed the Jews and the Americans stepped in to fight against Nazi barbarism. It's a sort of thumbnail sketch of the Second World War. It paints us in great colors by contrasting the heroic Americans, who in point of fact only entered the war two years after it started, and who did less to liberate Europe from Naziism than the Russians did, confronting the worst evil perpetrated during the second World War, even though the allies chose not to do things like bomb the train tracks leading to Auschwitz, which would have saved more people from being murdered. Complexities in the story, particularly complexities in the story that don't revolve around either the United States or the Nazis, just don't fit into the formula, and Poland, which was certainly a third party in this, divided between Soviet and Nazi and never liberated by American troops, doesn't fit into it either. Even though masses of people died and suffered who weren't rounded up and sent to death camps like jews , even though other Fascist regimes existed besides the Nazis and Italy who persecuted their own people in particularly horrible ways, the easy way out still stands. Even Mussolini's Italy is usually beyond the story.

There's a very interesting twist in the meaning of Norman Finkelstein's term "The Holocaust Industry", an excellent book, one that I'm fairly certain is intentional. "The Holocaust Industry" concept that Finkelstein refers to is akin to the "Culture Industry" of Adorno and Horkheimer, a kind of hermetically sealed media environment that does its best to stupidly distract people from the real questions of the day and fill them with bread and circuses. The bread and circuses don't have to refer to anything real. In Finkelstein's usage it's a sort of self-perpetuating media frenzy that shuts out voices and ideas that don't fit within the boundaries of established pop culture portrayals of World War II. Books and books marketed for the United States are written of memoirs, which is good, but with a high frequency of popular memoirs turning out to be complete fictions, sometimes with the authors not even being Jewish, which is less good. Yet they fit the popular script and are accepted and loved, like "The Painted Bird" by Jerzy Kosinski, a novel about inhumanity and anti-semitism among Polish villagers that has been proven to have been made up. Kosinski never had the experiences he talks about. Yet it and its brethren are justified even after the falsehood comes out because they supposedly convey the spirit or feeling of terror of the Holocaust, no matter if they've been totally made up. Recently there was a case of a memoir about a young girl who supposedly killed an SS officer, escaped from a concentration camp, and lived in the forest with wolves that was accepted and everything that's been proven to be completely, completely, false; so the pattern lives on. And it's a particularly American pattern too. According to Finkelstein, Israel focusses on uprisings and resistance to the Nazis, both of which get little press here in the U.S. Europe similarly does this although it points to non-Jewish resistance to the Nazis, for instance the French Resistance, Italian Partisans, the White Rose society in Denmark and others. But suffering in World War II is so completely and totally associated with the media construct of Jews being completely passive victims, going to camps and being murdered without resistance of any kind, making the white and black contrast that much easier to continue, that suffering of other groups has no room here.

It's like it's a zero sum game for suffering during World War II in American pop culture: if you let on that other groups suffered you're supposedly turning away from or devaluing the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust, as if there's a limited supply of suffering to go around and sides are going back and forth over it. Where are the stories of the Gypsies who died in the Holocaust? Where are the stories of the victims of the Armenian Genocide, which was as much an act of mass murder as the Holocaust itself? Nowhere in American culture, because we like our stories neat, clean, and simple. Finkelstein also points out that in the end the way the Holocaust is treated in the United States does a disservice to the Holocaust itself, because it substitutes syrupy narratives for the harsh, cold, reality of it. There's "Schindler's List", where the jews in the factory are saved in the end, but there isn't a film that portrays the death camps as places where there both was no escape and no possible saving grace or ultimate miracle.

So see Katyn, if you can, that is if you can figure out how to play PAL DVDs, figure out how to turn your player to a 16:9 ratio and manage to get a copy of it used on eBay sent to the United States from Europe.

The fact that the murder of 20,000 people can't be accommodated into our, the U.S.', picture of World War II is serves as an indictment of the way it's treated in pop culture as a whole.


Mike Gogulski said...

There are other options:

Oddly, I share a surname with someone killed at KatyƄ:

Michael Brooke said...

I hate to torpedo a good conspiracy theory, but the truth is much more prosaic.

Basically, Telewizja Polska got understandably over-excited by the film's Oscar nomination and massive blockbuster success in Poland (it was the second biggest hit of 2007, beaten only by Shrek the Third) and asked foreign distributors for frankly ludicrous sums of money for the relevant rights.

Unfortunately, because the film really isn't that audience-friendly unless you're either Polish or well versed in Poland's WWII history (which, as you know, the film makes little or no attempt to explain), foreign distributors knew that it stood no chance of amounting to more than a middling arthouse success (and even then they'd be pretty lucky) - and therefore made counter-offers that were far less than Telewizja Polska thought acceptable.

British distributor Artificial Eye clearly managed to beat them down to something reasonable, and the film is duly opening in British cinemas in April - albeit eighteen months late. Whether negotiations are still going on with a US distributor, I'm not sure - but unless the price is much more realistic, I can absolutely understand their hesitation. Not least because its moment may have passed - the big Katyn buzz was a year ago.

Frank said...

Let your local theaters know that
"Katyn" now has a U.S. distributor: