On August 1st of 1944, as the Soviet Army approached the outskirts of Warsaw, the Polish resistance rose up against the German occupation. Since the Germans had recently been dealt a crushing defeat by Marshall Zhukov’s troops in Belorussia, Operation Tempest — the plan by which the London based Polish Home Army would seize control of large parts of the country before the Soviet Union could install a communist puppet state — met with initial success. The Polish resistance expelled the German garrison from large parts of Warsaw, captured the Gęsiówka concentration camp built on the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto and liberated 300 Jewish prisoners, and attempted to recreate the normal, day-to-day life that existed before the Nazi invasion.
Even though it is relatively unknown in the United States, the Warsaw Uprising is one of the largest urban insurrections in history, far surpassing the French student uprising of May 1968, dwarfing the Newark and Detroit riots, and equaled only by the Paris Commune and the Tet Offensive. When it was over, 10,000 Polish Resistance fighter and an equal number of German soldiers were dead. Yet it meant destruction, not liberation for the people of Warsaw. The Soviet Army, after having annihilated the Germany Army Group Center in Belorussia only weeks before, paused on the banks of the Vistula.
Whether it a stab in the back, or simply an issue of logistics — the Soviet Army outrunning its supply lines — is the subject of an ongoing historical debate. But there’s no debate about what happened next. The German government took advantage of the rebellion to carry out a pre-existing plan to destroy Warsaw. They massacred 250,000 people outright, expelled another 700,000. According to Wikipedia, “the destruction of the city was so severe that in order to rebuild much of Warsaw, a detailed 18th century landscape of the city painted by the Italian artists Marcello Bacciarelli and Bernardo Bellotto, who had been commissioned by the government before the Partitions of Poland, had to be used as a model to recreate most of the buildings.”
After the Soviet Army finally moved into Warsaw in January of 1945, a Stalinist puppet government ruled Poland until 1956, when it was replaced by a less authoritarian variety of communism under Władysław Gomułka. Full public recognition of the history of the Warsaw Uprising, however, did not come until the 1990s. According to Wikipedia, “until late 1960s, the very name of the Home Army was censored and most films and novels covering the 1944 Uprising were either banned or modified so that the name of the Home Army did not appear there. Also, the official propaganda of both Poland and the USSR suggested that the Home Army was some sort of a group of right-wing collaborators with Nazi Germany. From 1956 on, the image of Warsaw Uprising in Polish propaganda was changed a little bit to underline that the soldiers were indeed brave, while the officers were treacherous and that the commanders were characterized by disregard of the losses. The first serious publications on the topic were not issued until late 1980s. In Warsaw, no monument to the Home Army could be built until 1989. Instead, efforts of Soviet-backed Armia Ludowa were glorified and exaggerated.”
Andrej Wajda, who’s sometimes considered to be the Polish Jean Luc Godard, took advantage of Władysław Gomułka’s reforms in 1956 to create what’s probably still the greatest film about the Warsaw Uprising. Unlike The Battle of Algiers or Le Petit Soldat, both of which were banned for several years in democratic France due to their treatment of the Algerian Revolution, Kanal, which tells the story of a group of Polish Resistance fighters to escape from the Old Town to the City Center through the sewers at the very end of the Warsaw Uprising, was shown commercially in Poland. Described by the communist press in Poland as a film that “showed the tragic fate of those who followed the wrong orders,” it also won a Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival. Wajda, in other words, was so talented that even in communist Poland he was still able to make himself heard.
If ever a film embodied the word “doom” it’s Kanal. Compared to this early masterpiece of the Polish New Wave, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan can almost look sunny and optimistic. We are introduced to Lieutenant Zadra, their leader, Jacek Korab, a young soldier who’s wounded halfway through the film disabling a Nazi tank, his lover Daisy, a courier and sewer runner who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Gena Rowlands, Halinka, an innocent young woman who’s seduced by a married, older man, and “Michal the Composer,” a classic pianist who loses his mind later in the film. Wajda shows us not only a cross section of the doomed city, but a group of resistance fighters who are more than just a professional army, but a people rising up against an occupier. “Watch them closely,” a narrator announces, “for these are the last hours of their lives.”
I decided to watch Kanal again — I saw it a few years ago — after watching the new American war film “Lone Survivor,” a dark, brutal account of four Navy Seals pinned down in Afghanistan after a failed assassination of a the leader of an Islamic militia. The differences between the two films are striking. Kanal has strong female characters who fight alongside the men, especially Daisy, who’s both a sexy blond bombshell and a believably tough resistance fighter at the same time. The Americans in Lone Survivor are all professional soldiers. There’s also the difference in the way Peter Berg, who directed Lone Survivor, and Wajda dramatize the horror of war. Berg, who realizes his film will be seen mainly by Americans, people who have little or no direct experience with war, tries to overwhelm our senses. Lone Survivor is loud. Berg gives us plenty of fake blood and broken bones. Wajda doesn’t have to. Every Pole in 1956 knew what war was like, the Warsaw Uprising being a far more terrible and destructive battle than the American occupation of Afghanistan.
By assuming his audience knows what gunshots sound like and how it feels to look out over a trench and see German Panzers coming in your direction, Wajda is able to see war not simply as a fire fight but as the destruction of sympathetic individuals within the context of the destruction of a whole nation. The Navy Seals in Lone Survivor are likeable individuals, but nothing that happens in the film affects their souls. They start out as wholesome, all American heroes. They die, or they escape as wholesome, all American heroes. Wajda’s resistance fighters, however, are flawed, three dimensional citizens. They resist the German occupiers until it’s hopeless, but, after they descend into the sewer to make their escape to the center city, they lose their minds. Most who get out of the dark, stinking hell are executed by the Germans when they reach the surface. Daisy chooses to stay in the tunnel rather than leave her wounded lover. Zadra, the lone survivor, commits a crazy, morally reprehensible act the moment he realizes he’s safe. If Peter Berg shows us the destruction of the body, Wadja shows us the destruction of the body and the soul.
The hopeless ending is, perhaps, the reason Wajda was able to get the film through the censors. “Following the wrong orders” leads to madness or death. What’s more, if the Warsaw Uprising was censored by the Soviet Union and largely ignored in the west — except in Britain, the British being the only people who attempted to send aid — it was never far from the minds of people in the reconstructed Warsaw, raised again in a heroic effort in the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps the censors saw the dark, horrifying film as a necessary “escape valve” for nationalist sentiments. But that’s not the way I saw it. The Poles in 1944 rose up against hopeless odds, and, by doing so, saved their national identity. Poland was not incorporated into the Soviet empire. The memory of the Warsaw Uprising survived right through the 1980s. The damned souls of Kanal demonstrate that when a people rebel, they can’t be stamped out as a people. Poland never became East Germany, even under a Stalinist puppet state, proof that even the most futile “lost cause” is never really lost. Perhaps we Americans should take that to heart as the corprotocracy continues to break up the fabric of our nation and subjugate our souls to neoliberalism, an ideology as insidious in its own way as Nazism or Stalinism.