By Sergey Toymentsev.
Piotr Szkopiak’s The Last Witness offers a fictional rendition of a cold-blooded execution of 22,000 Polish officers and civilians by the Stalin’s secret police in 1940, a horrific slaughter known as the Katyn massacre, of which both the US and British governments were well aware yet deliberately kept silent about to maintain diplomatic peace with their Allies against the Nazis. Framed as a political thriller set in post-war England, the film foregrounds a young ambitious journalist Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer) eager to prove he is capable of writing more serious stories rather than covering local weddings and funerals. One of such stories could be on a series of inexplicable suicides of Polish soldiers from a Displaced Persons Camp nearby, the mystery of which is being diligently guarded by the military officials. After he accidentally meets Michael Loboda, a newcomer to the Camp who, in fact, turns out to be one of the witnesses of the Katyn massacre, Stephen undertakes a dangerous investigation of his testimony plunging him into the thick layers of ominous conspiracy covering up this tragedy.
Your film is dedicated to the memory of your grandfather. Why and how did you decide to make it?
The film is based on the play The Katyn Witness that my co-writer Paul Szambowski wrote. The play deals with the events surrounding Michael Loboda in the UK. Paul saw my first film Small Time Obsessions and he contacted me saying that his play The Katyn Witness would make a good film if I was thinking about making another film. So I looked at that and I agreed. And we started writing on it together. So that’s where it started from. And then, obviously, the personal connection that I had made it more interesting because my grandfather was executed in the Katyn massacre.
To what extent is your film historically accurate? Did you spend some time researching historical archives before making it?
There’s not very much known about Michael Loboda, also known as Ivan Krivozertsev. Paul had done all the research he could before writing the play. He was very meticulous in reading everything he could about Krivozertsev and the events surrounding the Katyn massacre as well. When I came to that I obviously read all the research he had done. So we tried to make our film as historically accurate as we could, paying attention to all the details surrounding the Katyn massacre. The letters that are read out in the archive in the film, for instance, those are actual words that the foreign minister Owen O’Malley wrote to Churchill. We wanted to make sure all those details were accurate because this is not just important for Polish history. It is English history, it is European history, it is world history. So we wanted to be as accurate as we could. Obviously, there’s something very contentious in the film which I have absolutely no evidence for. But given the situation and given what we found out about Krivozertsev, this is the take we took in the film.
The genre of your film is a political thriller and it is framed as a journalistic investigation. Why do you think this kind of narrative would enable you to tell the story of the Katyn massacre better?
When I first came to it, obviously it was very difficult to tell the story of the Katyn massacre. In 2006 Andrzej Wajda made a film about it from the Polish point of view. That was very much about the families and the prisoners of the war themselves. Now, from my point of view, I didn’t want to make another drama about the Katyn massacre. I felt it wouldn’t be that engaging. What I wanted to tell in my film was more about the cover-up and what happened after the war in 1947 because that was directly related to my parents’ generation and why they didn’t go back to Poland. That is why there is a large Polish community in the UK. For instance, my mother and her generation had to live with that in the conspiracy of silence, if you like, for fifty years. And my mother didn’t know where her father’s body was until 1990, when Gorbachev had given the details of the other two mass graves sites.
You mentioned how your film is different from Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn. But is there anything you borrowed from it?
I very much always saw it as a double bill. I kind of feel like you can watch Andrzej Wajda’s film and my film one after another. They work in parallel because they tell different stories, but the Katyn massacre is there at its core, at its center. And funny enough, the flashbacks to the Katyn massacre that I show in the film I shot in a style very similar to Andrzej Wajda’s film because I wanted to have that visual link, if you like, between the two films. I am hoping that if people watch my film and Wajda’s together, this event would become a bigger story. That I would love to happen.
Your film is a British-Polish co-production. But given that it accuses the British government of the cover-up of the Katyn massacre, how did your British colleagues react to your project? Was there any resistance from them to engage in it?
No, because most people come to this story from the English point of view. And the English knew nothing about the story and that almost served as proof to me why I should make the film. Because all along, from when I was writing the script and when people reading it, the most common reaction was “is this true?” And then I had to explain that it was, that this did actually happen, and the cover-up did take place. So that showed the extent to which that conspiracy of silence and the cover-up had worked all that time. Because especially a new generation, in England and even in Poland, will have very little knowledge of these events and their significance.
Can your film have some political relevance to the current relations between Russia and the UK?
As a filmmaker, I have to make clear I am not a politician or historian. I’ve done the research I can, I’ve tried to make an engaging film that puts the subject out there. And then, really, it’s out for discussion and I think it’s probably the best the film can do, which is to bring the material forward so that people can then debate it. People can disagree with what’s in the film by arguing whether this is true or not. But then off you go, the internet exists now, you may find for yourself where I got my facts from. It is all very clear where evidence comes from and then you can make your own decision. But as for the relations between the UK, America, and Russia today as well as the current political and cultural situation in Europe, I think they are the direct result of what happened in the Second World War. I think we are dealing with those issues even now. The thing about WWII is that it was not black and white, it was grey. And towards the end it was a bit of a mess. It didn’t just affect Russia, America, and Britain but it affected the Middle East and so on. All the political ramifications that we are dealing with now ultimately stand from the post-war decisions that were made by the main powers.
Any new project you are working on right now?
I am working on a thriller called Winter in July with the same producer and writer as in The Last Witness. It’s about a brother and sister fighting for justice on opposite sides of the law in contemporary Europe, in a Europe having to deal with the new threats to its security, including terrorism, corruption, and political extremism. So I like to think this project is following on from The Last Witness but bringing it into a contemporary setting.
Sergey Toymentsev is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University as well as Senior Researcher at Russian Institute for Advanced Studies, Moscow State Pedagogical University. He received his PhD in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University in 2014. He is currently working on his book manuscript entitled Deleuze and Russian Film, which offers a Deleuzean history of Soviet and Russian cinema from Eisenstein to Sokurov. His articles and reviews have appeared in Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry, Comparative Literature Studies, Scope, Studies in Russian & Soviet Cinema, Film Criticism, KinoKultura and others.