Sunday, August 23, 2009

`Only Buttons Proved Unyielding'

Last night I watched Katyń, Andrzej Wajda’s film about the murder of 20,000 Polish officers by the NKVD in 1940. Poland’s conscription laws required university graduates to serve as reserve officers, so the Soviets effectively wiped out much of the nation’s professional class – doctors, lawyers, university instructors. The Soviet Union denied involvement in the slaughter for half a century, blaming it on the Nazis.

The final scenes of the film, showing the assembly-line murder of innocent men by pistol shots to the head, are difficult to watch. This is not Hollywood fantasy violence. The killers might be tightening bolts on an automobile chassis for all the emotion they express. Wajda follows the atrocity scenes in the only manner appropriate – two minutes of black screen before the credits roll.

The violence of the rest of the film is muted. We know what will happen but don’t know to whom or when. It’s a movie of small, intimate scenes, concentrating on a single family in Kraków. The father is an officer rounded up by the Soviets and held in a prison camp. He and a friend, another officer, speculate on their future, and one says, “Buttons. That’s all that will be left of us.” The line took me by surprise as it seems to allude to “Buttons,” published by Zbigniew Herbert in Rovigo in 1992. Here’s the poem as translated by Alissa Valles in The Complete Poems: 1956-1998:

“Only buttons witnesses to the crime
proved unyielding outlasting death
and as sole memorial on the grave
rise up from the depths of the earth

“they are a testimony it is for God
to count them and to be merciful
but what resurrection if each body
lies in the earth a clinging particle

“a bird flies over a cloud sails past
a leaf descends mallows grow lush
a mist drifts in the Smolensk forest
and up in the heights a deep hush

“only buttons proved unyielding
the mighty voice of a muted chorus
only buttons proved unyielding
buttons from coats and uniforms”

Smolensk is a Russian city about 15 miles west of the Katyń Forest, where most of the murders took place. Herbert dedicates the poem “In memory of Captain Edward Herbert,” the son of the poet’s paternal uncle. Edward Herbert was among the dead of Katyń, as was Wajda’s father.


Anonymous said...

Buttons have a peculiar & unexpected appeal. Perhaps it's that, as children, they are one of the first things we learn to use, our entry into human civilization; and i vaguely recall liking buttons very much, as a child - the roundness seemed friendly, and i liked the different colours. Buttons 'do us up' - they armour us against the cold - and we undo ourselves, relaxing into the warmth, or another's arms. We do this every day - how could buttons not become little, round, variously coloured symbols in the imagination?

Or think of Lear's "pray you undo this button" - how much rests on the line, on its lack of grandeur, its very naked humanness - the great king a human being at last, fumbling with a button.

Anonymous said...

At risk of being trivial, it occurs to me that buttons often have special significance in children’s literature as well. I’ve just been reading The Hobbit to my six-year-old son and on Bilbo’s escape from the goblins he has to squeeze through a very tight door. Several of his buttons pop off in the act. Later it’s suggested that he regrets the loss of his buttons as if they had been the last symbolic vestiges of civility and culture left to him.

There’s also a Frog and Toad story in which Toad loses one his buttons on a walk and he and Frog spend all afternoon looking for it, laboriously retracing their steps. They don’t find the missing button but they do find a half dozen others. Toad who has been a grump about the whole affair, regrets putting Frog through all this trouble and sews the buttons randomly onto a coat which he gives Frog for a gift. Frog puts it on and leaps into the air with joy.