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THE LAST WITNESS & Polish Directors On WWII

the last witness
With Piotr Szkopiak's The Last Witness arriving on DVD, we look at how Polish filmmakers have documented WWII.



In spring 1940 the Soviet Secret Police, the NKVD, murdered an estimated 22,000 Polish officers and men in a series of mass executions in Russia’s Katyń forest. The Last Witness is a new thriller based on the harrowing events of the massacre.

Directed by BAFTA Award Nominee Piotr Szkopiak, the story hits close to home for the acclaimed filmmaker; his own mother, Emilia, was deported to Siberia by the Soviets, and his grandfather was executed at Katyń.

The Last Witness is set in post-war England, where ambitious journalist Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer) comes across a disturbing spate of suicides by Polish soldiers. Sensing a story, his first port of call is Colonel Janusz Pietrowski (Will Thorp), a Liaison Officer for the re-settlement of Polish troops under British command. But the meeting with Pietrowski leaves Stephen unsettled, and from here his investigation escalates as he finds himself embroiled in a dangerous, multi-layered conspiracy concerning the execution of 22,000 Polish military and civilians by Stalin’s secret police.

the last witness

Poland has one of the richest cinema cultures of anywhere in the world, and many of its directors have personal histories entwined with the horrors of World War II. Here we take a look at some of the finest films exploring WWII to come from the country.



Westerplatte (1967)
westerplatte

(Dir: Stanisław Różewicz)

On 11th September 1939, some of the first shots of World War II were fired at Westerplatte, a small munitions depot in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk). The depot was being guarded by around 180 military personnel and civilians when German Navy ship the Schleswig-Holstein opened fire during the early hours of the morning.

Stanisław Różewicz’s historical classic tells the story of the courageous few who fought against Hitler’s invading armies. The film was partly shot on location at Westerplatte and is interspersed with newsreel clips from September 1939, which gives it a pseudo-documentary feel, much like Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, which was released a year earlier.

The Battle of Westerplatte marks an important point in recent Polish history and to this day is strongly regarded as a symbol of national resistance to the Nazi onslaught. For anyone interested in delving into the modern history of Poland on film, Westerplatte is the perfect place to start.



The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973)
the hourglass sanatorium

(Dir: Wojciech Has)

The Hourglass Sanatorium is a film derived from the fantastic mind of Polish Jewish novelist Bruno Schultz, who was shot dead in 1941 by a Nazi officer while walking in the Drohobycz ghetto where he was forced to live.

Schultz never actually wrote about the war in his book 'Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass', the short story collection the film is based on. Instead, director Wojciech Has added Holocaust scenes filtered through his own interpretation of the life and death of the revered novelist.

Winner of the 1973 Cannes Jury Prize, the film had to be smuggled to the festival for the screening as authorities didn’t like what it implied about contemporary Poland. The film offers a surrealist reflection on time and loss, and is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of Polish cinema.



The Pianist (2002)
the pianist film

(Dir: Roman Polanski)

Director Roman Polanski knew all too well the horrors of the holocaust. He saw the Nazis arrive at his childhood home and remembers his mother being taken away to Auschwitz. She would not return. Young Roman would later escape from the Krakow Ghetto where he lived under Nazi surveillance to spend the rest of the war in hiding in the countryside disguised as a Christian boy.

Pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman was a fellow Holocaust survivor who channelled his experiences into a memoir that follows his life from the outbreak of war in 1939 through to his subsequent efforts at survival in the Warsaw ghetto. The Pianist is the adaptation of this memoir.

Critically lauded from its release, the film would go on to win multiple prizes including the Academy Award for Best Director for Polanski, marking a high point in a controversial career, and Best Actor for Adrien Brody for his portrayal of the titular pianist. A modern masterpiece that demands to be seen.



Katyń (2007)
katyn film

(Dir: Andrzej Wajda)

Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń documents the terrible events of the Katyń Massacre but unlike The Last Witness, which examines the Allied political cover-up in the aftermath of the war, Wajda’s sobering film directly presents the horrifying truth of the massacre through the eyes of those who lost their loved ones. The tragic events of the massacre are sadly close to Wajda’s heart. His father was murdered at Katyń when Wajda was just 13 years old, and his remains have never been recovered.

Katyń was Poland's Official Submission to the Best Foreign Language Film Category at the 80th Annual Academy Awards in 2008 and went on to be nominated in the category, but narrowly missed out on the top spot. The film was lauded by critics at the time, with the later Roger Ebert commenting, "Wajda has brought some small measure of rest to their names, to Poland, and to history."

Although a harrowing watch, Katyń is essential viewing for fans of European cinema and an important exploration of a crime that was buried for so many years.



In Darkness (2011)
in darkness film

(Dir: Agnieszka Holland)

In Darkness tells the true story of Leopold Socha, a Polish sewage inspector from the town of Lwów who, along with his friend Szczepek Wróblewski, sheltered a group of 20 Jews in the town’s sewage system for 12 months between 1943 and 1944. Socha and Wróblewski’s courageous efforts saved the group from the liquidation of the Lwów ghetto.

Robert Więckiewicz (who also stars in The Last Witness) played the role of Socha, and picked up the award for Best Male Actor at the Golden Lion, Poland’s most prestigious film festival. Holland commented that the biggest challenge she faced was filming…literally in darkness. As the Jews were hidden in the dark, dank sewers under the city, much of the film takes place in near darkness, but Holland's impressive cinematography captures the bedraggled group with realism and humanity.

Equal parts harrowing and nail-biting, and packed with powerful performances, In Darkness is absolutely not to be missed.



Aftermath (2012)
aftermath film

(Dir: Władysław Pasikowski)

Inspired by another terrible moment of Polish history not widely known outside of the country, Aftermath explores the terrible events of the Jebwadne Massacre.

The film follows Franciszek Kalina as he returns to the rural village of Gurowka after years of living in the States. There he meets his brother who is shunned by the village for finding and displaying the headstones from Jewish graves that he’s been finding around town. Delving into the mystery of the tombstones against fierce opposition, the brothers discover that their neighbours murdered the Jewish Poles of the village and stole their land.

Due to the controversial subject matter and the portrayal of the Polish not as victims but as perpetrators of a terrible war crime, the film proved difficult to get made for director Władysław Pasikowski. However, while its release angered many Nationalists who accused it of anti-Polish slander, the great filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, among many other leading cultural figures, praised the film.



Ida (2013)
ida film

(Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski)

Another film that explores the impact of World War II on subsequent generations, Ida is set in 1962 and follows a young woman as she prepares to take her vows and become a Catholic nun. Orphaned during the war, Ida is asked to meet her only surviving relative before she can enter the convent, an aunt who turns out to be the polar opposite of the chaste nun-to-be; a boozy outspoken former communist resistance fighter. Revealing to her new niece that her parents were Jews murdered during the German occupation of their country, the pair embark on a road trip to discover the truth behind the deaths.

Widely praised, the film earned the Polish Film Academy Award for Best Film as well as the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Young Agata Trzebuchowska earned widespread acclaim for her role as the 17-year-old title character, but the inexperienced actress won the part entirely by chance, having been spotted by a friend of the director in a café reading a book.

Ida is a beautifully composed film, and fans of Pawlikowski's latest cinematic achievement, Cold War, should endeavour to seek this out.



Signature Entertainment presents The Last Witness on DVD and Digital 27th August. Amazon: amzn.to/2McbUnT

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