Piotr Szkopiakt, the director of the 2018 political thriller The Last Witness, streaming on Amazon Prime, provides a high-intensity political thriller based on true events. The film follows journalist Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer) as he navigates through a multidimensional coverup seeking the truth about the role Britain played in the Katyn Massacre, which saw 22,000 Polish military and civilians executed by Stalin’s secret police in Spring 1940.
Underwood uncovers evidence and follows the trail of Polish suicides among their soldiers waiting for postwar repatriation. Tracing the reasoning behind these suicides leads him to an accidental meeting with a Russian man named Michael Loboda (Robert Wieckleicz) Laboda holds one of the keys to uncovering a secret that the British, Polish, American, and Soviet authorities have taken great care to keep hidden.
We are quickly drawn into Underwood’s journalistic mission to discover Loboda is pretending to be Polish. Underwood, working to uncover the detailed evidence, is forced to steal from Laboda a steel rusty box containing letters and a diary. He discovers that these materials all belonged to a Polish victim of the Katyn massacre.
After Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union concluded their Nonaggression Pact of 1939 and Germany invaded Poland from the west, Soviet forces occupied the eastern half of Poland. As a consequence of this occupation, tens of thousands of Polish military personnel fell into Soviet hands and were interned in prison camps inside the Soviet Union. But after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941), the Polish government-in-exile (located in London) and the Soviet government agreed to cooperate against Germany, and a Polish army on Soviet territory was to be formed.
The Polish general Wladyslawl Anders began organizing this army, but when he requested that 15,000 Polish prisoners of war whom the Soviets had once held at camps near Smolensk be transferred to his command, the Soviet government informed him in December 1941 that most of those prisoners had escaped to Manchuria, China and could not be located.
The fate of the missing prisoners remained a mystery. Then on April 13, 1943, the Germans announced that they had discovered mass graves of Polish officers in the Katyn forest near Smolensk, in western Russian.
A total of 4,443 corpses were recovered that had apparently been shot, point-blank, from behind the head, one after another, and then piled in stacks and buried. Investigators identified the corpses as the Polish officers who had been interned at a Soviet prison camp near Smolensk and accused the Soviet authorities of having executed the prisoners in May 1940.
In response to these charges, the Soviet government claimed that the Poles had been engaged in construction work west of Smolensk in 1941 and the invading German army had killed them after overrunning that area in August 1941. But both German and Red Cross investigations of the Katyn corpses then produced firm physical evidence that the massacre took place in early 1940, at a time when the area was still under Soviet control.
The Polish government-in-exile in London requested that the International Committee of the Red Cross examine the graves and also asked the Soviet government to provide official reports on the fates of the remaining missing prisoners. The Soviet government refused these demands, and on April 25, 1943, the Soviets broke diplomatic relations with the Polish government in London.
For Poles, Katyn became a symbol for the many victims who lost their lives under Stalinism. Although a 1952 U.S. congressional inquiry concluded that the Soviet Union had been responsible for the massacre, Soviet leaders insisted for decades that the Polish officers found at Katyn had been killed by the invading Germans in 1941. This explanation was accepted without protest by successive Polish communist governments until the late 1980s when the Soviet Union allowed a non-communist coalition government to come to power in Poland.
In March 1989 the Polish government officially shifted the blame for the Katyn Massacre from the Germans to the Soviet Secret Police, the NKVD. In 1992 the Russian government released documents proving that the Soviet Politburo and the NKVD had been responsible for the massacre and cover-up and revealing that there may have been more than 20,000 victims. In 2000 a memorial was opened at the site of the killings in Katyn.
On April 7, 2010, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin joined Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at a ceremony commemorating the massacre, marking the first time that a Russian leader had taken part in such a commemoration.
In November 2010 the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian Federal Assembly) officially declared that Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders were responsible for ordering the execution of the Polish officers at Katyn.
The Last Witness thankfully does not show the inconceivable horror that took place in the forest, choosing instead to give only glimpses of the trauma it left on the few Polish survivors and only featuring, at most, five minutes of the violence that occurred at Katyn. Szkopiak’s methods are therefore palatable for us the viewing audiences.
Instead, the film provides the viewer with a solid murder mystery-thriller that just happens to have at its center a horrific historical event. The film is set in Britain during the post-1945 period of World War Two. We get to know Stephen Underwood, a purposeful yet somewhat naive reporter for a small-town British newspaper who smells a story when a number of Polish soldiers from a local Displaced Persons Camp all commit suicide.
Unfortunately, Underwood seems to be the only one interested in uncovering the details of why these soldiers died. Neither the British, Poles, Soviets, or Americans care much for the true facts to surface. Even over his disinterested newspaper editor’s fervent objections, Underwood continues on the trail to write the story wherever the facts lead him.
I found this movie one of the better-constructed depictions of what happened not only at Katyn but how the Allies, Poles, and Soviets willfully covered up the massacre. This is a must-see film for WW2 history buffs or those interested in the Soviet-Polish relations. It is well-acted, and the story is accurately told. There is little actual violence in this film so I would recommend the film for ages 16 and over. The mere concept that over 20,000 Polish soldiers will be executed would be too much for a younger audience.
Jeffery Giesener, former CEO of SourceMob, has both public and private company experience. Today, retired and enjoying life in San Diego, he’s a freelance writer who has a passion for both cinema and baking his Mom’s (Of Blessed Memory) European recipes.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World