The Last Witness (2018)

The Last Witness is a UK/Polish political thriller directed by Piotr Szkopiak, starring Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike, I am Number Four), Michael Gambon (Harry Potter, Victoria and Abdul), Talulah Riley (Pride and Prejudice, Westworld), Robert Więckiewicz (In Darkness, The Mighty Angel) and Will Thorp (Coronation Street, Casualty).

The movie tells the story of Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer), an ambitious, young journalist. In 1947, the body of a Polish ex-serviceman is found on a beach near Bristol. This isn’t the first time this happened, but like before, the police say it’s a suicide. Underwood doesn’t believe this explanation and wants to investigate the case. Unfortunately his boss isn’t interested in the story, still, Underwood won’t let go. Others try to dissuade him from his investigation; his girlfriend who is married to an influential, gay man and his brother, who is in the army.

The dead men lived at a resettlement camp for Polish ex-service men who didn’t want to return to their Soviet-occupied home country after the war. Underwood contacts Colonel Janusz Pietrowski, a Liaison Officer at the camp, and finds out about a conspiracy. Pietrowsky tells Underwood about a Russian who also lives at the camp and who saw something, back in Poland, during the war, that might offer an explanation for these alleged suicides.

One night, Underwood enters the camp and steals a diary and letters that are in the possession of the Russian man. The letters belonged to a Polish cadet. Underwood has the documents translated. What he finds out fills him with horror. In 1940, 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia were killed in a massacre that would later be known as the Katyn massacre. In 1947, it was said that the Nazi’s killed those men. For many reasons the governments of various countries decided to cover up the the real story and go with that interpretation.

The movie dramatizes this aspect, making it information that had to be kept a secret at any cost. Underwood, who is very persistent, finally manages to find out the truth and puts himself in great danger.

While this film is inspired by events that took place during the war, the story as such is purely fictional. I’m not always keen on films who go as far as The Last Witness in fabricating a story to explore an aspect of the war, nonetheless, I found this very watchable. I actually enjoyed it. I liked the cinematography, the music, the mood, and the actors very much. The movie has a dark, brooding atmosphere that goes well with the tragic theme and heightens the suspense. The end was rather surprising.

A lot of people are interested in WWII but shy away from watching war movies.This film explores an atrocity, but it can still be watched by those who don’t necessarily watch war movies. It’s explicit but not graphic. On the other hand, those who watch war movies must think of this as a thriller, inspired by true events.

The movie is inspired by the Katyn massacre that took place 1940, in Poland. Emilia Szkopiak, Piotr Szkopiak’s mother, was deported to Siberia by the Soviets in 1940. Her father, Piotr Szkopiak’s grandfather, Wojciech Stanisław Wójcik, was executed in the Katyn Massacre. In 1942 Emilia left the Soviet Union and eventually settled in England in 1947 where she continues to live to this day.

If you’re interested in the Katyn massacre, here’s a review of Katyn, an excellent movie on the topic.

The movie is out on DVD and digital on August 27th.

Thanks to Signature Entertainment for letting me view this film in exchange for an honest review.

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Katyn (2007) or The Crime and the Lie about a Gruesome Massacre on Polish Officers

This is an outstanding movie. Truly outstanding from every possible point of view. Narrative style, cinematography, actors, story, technical aspects. Absolutely great.

The Polish movie Katyn is about the massacre of some 22000 Polish officers by the Russian army and the subsequent  disposal of their bodies in the Katyn forest in 1940. Once the mass grave is found in 1943 the so-called Katyn list is established.  After having waited anxiously for the return of their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers the families are now informed if or if not their loved ones have been among the victims. However not all the victims are on the list. Many more a still missing and may or may not have been murdered. Many wives still wait for their husbands in 1945.

The movie focuses on two families. One is the family of a Polish General, the other the family of a Polish officer. The story is told in two sequences. The first half tells the story until the massacre, the second tells the story of the lie and ends again with the massacre but this time shown much more explicitly (The way these murders were executed…How can people do this to people?). After the first half we think the story should be over but in reality it only just begins. Seeing it first from the point of view of the victims, we are then guided towards the point of view of the families who wait for them. Their ordeal is a different but very cruel one. Even though everybody knows who killed those officers, officially it is said to have been a massacre committed by the Germans. To say otherwise would be very dangerous. The political climate of the time that made it impossible to even mention a critical view of this incident until 1989 is palpable in all its atrocity.

On my DVD of this movie is an interview with the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. He tells the interviewer how difficult it was to make this movie. He didn´t know how to tell the story. Should he tell his father´s story, who had been among those officers, or his mother´s who was one of those who did not give up hope until 1945. He decided eventually to tell both stories, juxtapose them, have one mirror the other. This is very skillfully done. Wajda belongs to the so-called Polish Film School and has made many movies, two of his better known earlier ones also deal with WWII:  A Generation aka Pokolenie (1955) and Kanal (1957) about the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

This film is truly the work of a master, of someone who does not just deliver a story but who weaves it carefully, adding symbolism and criticism alike. And  still it is highly watchable.