Katyn, the Oscar-nominated film by the octogenarian Polish director Andrzej Wajda that opens in the UK today, can be seen as a 20th century version of the story of Antigone – the woman who defies the city-state of Thebes by giving her dead brother a fitting burial. In this version of the myth, there are thousands of dead who have already been buried—by bulldozers. They make a different, even more basic demand of the living: to speak the truth about how they died and in particular at whose hands. In Wajda’s film, Creon, the king of Thebes, is both Hitler and Stalin.
Katyn tells the story of the massacre by the Red Army of 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in a forest near Smolensk in 1940. The massacre—in which Wajda’s own father was killed—was discovered by the Germans three years later after they had invaded the Soviet Union. Joseph Goebbels immediately used it for propaganda purposes: the Nazis saw in it the chance to create fear about Bolshevik domination of Europe and to create a split between the allies. The Russians, meanwhile, blamed the fascists for the massacre. It was only after the end of the cold war that the Kremlin admitted the truth.