In my article on historical cinema and its value, I talked about how new times and places can be opened up for those watching, and inspiration to study can be fired. Yet as I revisited the piece recently I became aware that all of the examples I gave were of American movies, often with heavy British involvement. I think that was natural. Born and raised in England, years of living abroad could not change my fundamental connection to the history and culture of this country.
Now I have decided to go some way towards redressing the balance. To move outside the realm of English-language cinema is to see not just different experiences and perspectives, but to have consciousness raised and to discover events that have been lost in the wave of movies more internationally famous. In this article I want to look at two films that take place during and shortly after the Second World War. I have chosen this period primarily because it is one so familiar to audiences in the English-speaking world, yet one where many events have not been covered by Hollywood in any real detail. Few American war movies have stepped outside the experience of people from America – or perhaps Britain. Even those which have, Schindler’s List and Enemy at the Gates being two examples, have been made by film-makers who are not from the nations they are portraying and are peopled mainly by British or American actors. Greater awareness of the story of Oskar Schindler and discovery of the tale of Vasily Zaitsev is great, but a world at war has thousands of places and people that are unknown to viewers of a different background.
This article is about two Polish films, both directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, about aspects of the Polish experience of the war and its aftermath of which I was embarrassingly ignorant.
A brief warning before looking at the films: Neither of these are easy watches. Any knowledge of the experiences of the war in Poland should tell us that there will be no Hollywood-style air punching glory and triumph. And there too is the value of the experience.
It is hard to say which of the two films is quite the most harrowing, but it is probably this one. It is the story of the Polish region of Wołyń (Volhynia), an area heavily populated by ethnic Ukrainians as well as Poles. The start of the war and the arrival of Soviet forces fires a drive for Ukrainian nationalism in the area and leads to the most appalling acts on both sides. At its core are two young characters, one Polish and one Ukrainian, trapped by their love for one another between the partisan forces on both sides. What follows is a litany of tragedy and pain.
Opening Deer Hunter style with a long wedding sequence, the normal life of a small community of these two nationalities is established. Being in a predominantly Ukrainian area, the Polish characters rarely speak their own language, yet they seem to be fairly well integrated. It is the Ukrainian characters who demonstrate their resentment of being – as they see it – under the yoke of the Poles and the Polish government. Swiftly this resentment turns to outright hostility with the arrival of the Soviets. Polish flags are replaced by Ukrainian ones on public buildings. Mobs start to abuse and even mutilate their Polish neighbours. The sense that things are only going to get worse is there at every moment. The violence spreads, with Polish members of the community beginning to attack others who they see as traitors.
And then, in the final act of the film, the story descends into a vision of Hell. The Ukrainian militia run amok, their weapons blessed by their priests. There are disembowelings, slaughter of pregnant women, children wrapped in hay and burned, people being skinned, eyes gouged out and a man being ripped in half by horses (yes, that actually happened). It is a vision of a society trapped in endless hatred, unleashed by the licence of war, a horrific exploration of inter-community conflict. Just when you feel that it can get no worse, the Polish get in on the act too.
It is a part of history about which many in Britain may never have heard. To see it in a film made by someone from a nation in which it happened, where the memories of it affect attitudes and relations today, is eye opening and, which is more important, extremely valuable. It is an agonising film to watch, bleak and without any sense of hope, but it simply must be experienced.
Wojciech Smarzowski’s earlier film, Róża touches on similar themes to Wołyń. Again we see a community fractured by the different nationalities that come into it. Again we see the effects of prolonged mistrust and hatred, the violence – physical, verbal, sexual – that is set loose by war. Here, however, the setting is not the war itself, it is in the dying down of conflict in 1945 and beyond. Again, it is a time, a place and a society of which many are undoubtedly ignorant.
Set in the region of Masuria, an area of Poland formerly in Prussia and populated by ethnic Germans, Róża examines the effects of defeat on the world and lives of a people. Here the ‘Germans’ are slowly forced from homes and made into an underclass in society by the Polish authorities and migrants who are moved in to occupy the land. The focal characters are the titular Róża, an ethnic German who has lost her husband in the war, and Tadeusz, a Polish man who comes to the area. The development of their relationship is at the heart of the film, as Tadeusz attempts to protect Róża from the threats posed by the Polish, the Soviets and even her fellow Masurians. Róża is rendered helpless in the face of this combined hostility, as are so many others.
The film is, once again, a difficult one to watch. Inside the first sixty seconds, Tadeusz’s wife is raped and shot by German soldiers. Within the next three minutes we see the summary execution of a group of other soldiers. Sexual violence is a constant, yet one more way that the male characters – as always – exercise power over women. Róża herself is a victim of such treatment at the hands of Soviets and Poles. This kind of brutality is, and has always been, a terrible part of war (for a detailed examination of this issue, Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies, Their Battlefield is a must-read), but it is combined here with the defencelessness of the ostracised. Beyond Tadeusz himself, Róża has no protection of any kind. She has been abandoned by her people, oppressed by the Soviets and abused by the Polish. She is a symbol of the plight of thousands of people who find themselves in the same situation after every war.
In Britain, the war ended in 1945. The country was pretty much bankrupt and lives had to be rebuilt, but it was over. Soldiers came home, families were reunited. In Masuria, as in so many other parts of the world touched by the conflict, there were no longer homes to return to, and the war never truly ended. If those of us removed by time and place from the experiences in Masuria and Wołyń take nothing else from these films, it should be awareness of that fact. We, all of us, have so much to learn.