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‘The memory should stay alive’

When Andrzej Wajda, widely considered Poland’s preeminent filmmaker, completed the film “Katyn,” it carried a personal weight. Wajda’s father was among the more than 20,000 Polish prisoners -- mostly military officers and other members of the elite -- massacred and buried in mass graves by Soviet secret police in 1940.

The fate of the officers was covered up for decades by Soviet propaganda, and has remained a touchy issue between Poland and Russia.

Wajda’s stark, sorrowful 2007 film was the first serious treatment of the tragedy, and was largely ignored by Russia. But after the Saturday plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and other leading figures as they headed to a commemoration of the Katyn massacre, Russian state television broke the taboo and broadcast the film to millions of Russians on Sunday evening.

Wajda, still making films at 84, sat down with the Los Angeles Times during a break this week at a film studio in Warsaw, the Polish capital. These are excerpts:

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What was your motivation in making this film?

The Katyn massacre, despite the fact that so many years have passed, is still current. My purpose in making the film was that the massacre not be forgotten, that the memory should stay alive. My father died in [in the Katyn massacre], so I always felt a responsibility. But as long as Poland remained under Russian influence, it was impossible to make this film, because the Katyn lie existed. This lie also existed in the West -- that Germans were responsible.

But during Communist years, you did make several films that dealt with World War II. How did you do it?

Film is a visual art. Ideologies are generally expressed verbally. In those days I talked in pictures, not words, because if I had used words to say what I meant, it would have been censored. There was a certain understanding between us filmmakers and our viewers.

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How did you develop the script for “Katyn”?

I was aware that I was making the first film about Katyn, so I knew it couldn’t just be details and fragments. It had to be broader. It had to show the historical context and the crime, but it also had to show the lie. My mother was a victim of the Katyn lie. We didn’t know what had happened to my father. My mother lived in hope that he would come back.

Mostly I used women’s diaries. The mothers, sisters and daughters. But I also found writings from a Russian officer who had saved a life. How could I not show this? This is Stalin’s crime, a crime of the system.

Did your mother ever come to accept what had happened to your father?

She died in 1950, 10 years after [the massacre]. She never accepted his death, especially because there was no official acknowledgment. The documents said he was lost at war. But if you died in Katyn, it could not be mentioned in documents.

When did you find out the truth?

We learned quite late, in 1942 when the war was already underway, that prisoners at other camps were also murdered. . . .

Stalin said they all ran away to Manchuria. It was completely absurd. But in 1943 the Germans found the mass graves and made a huge deal about it with propaganda.

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This was the first time we knew it had happened . . . but my father still wasn’t on the list of people who were identified.

Only when I went to the West and read all the information printed in Paris about the massacre did I learn the truth. I was a producer by then, it was the end of the 1950s.

You’ve called Katyn “an open, festering wound” for Poland. Do you still feel that way?

As long as this situation is not fully explained, this wound is still very much open. But recent events have opened a new chapter. I think now [after the Kaczynski crash] they [Russian authorities] will give us the full explanation of the Katyn murders.

I am also very thankful and glad that the film has now been shown on Russian TV. The first years, we never dreamed it would get to Russian screens. They showed it at the Polish Embassy and the Polish Institute of Culture [in Moscow], but outside of that, it didn’t exist in Russia. So this is beyond my imagination, beyond my happiness.

megan.stack@latimes.com


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