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.