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Lotna - A film by Andrzej Wajda
The Mythology of Romanticism in the Context of War

by Peter K. Gessner


Lotna Film Poster
by W. Janiszewski, 1959

Lotna, set in September 1939, at the beginning of World War II, was and remains a controversial film in large part because in one scene an encounter is shown between Polish cavalry and German tanks, a scene reiforcing, however unjustly, the myth that Polish Army did behaved coragiously but foolishly and ineffectively. In fact. during this campaing the Germans casualties amounted to 50,000, a greater number than the combined French and British forces were able to inflict during the German invasion of France the following year.

The film's Opening Night was a notable happening of the late fifties: it generated much stormy discussion. That it was received with such vehemence was due to the fact that it dealt with the very sensitive subject of the September 1939 campaign. As Stanisław Grzelecki, a Warsaw critic, guessed, in a piece he published in the daily "Życie Warszawy" on 8 October, 1959, Wajda intention for his film was that it was supposed to be a kind of artistic conclusion to the age of Polish romanticism.

The film aroused passionate debate and objections because, it was maintained that Wajda, by presenting a battle between the cavalry and thanks that had never taken place, had been unfaithful to the truth. "That may be," commented Wajda, "but the phrase 'with swords against tanks' remains a permanent part of the Polish language, and art does live by its own rules, and these have been invoked by the artists." [1}

Historians related that though there were some encounters between Polish lancers and German tanks, these were inadvertent, occuring either because the tanks came on the scence while the Poles were attacking German infantry or artillery, or simply during attempts to break out of German encirclement. There were no charges as such by Polish cavalry against German tanks. In fact, the Polish cavalry, according to Rzepinski, moved using horses but fought using infantry tactics. The formation was equipped with machineguns, 75mm horse guns, 37mm Bofors anti-tank guns, a small number of Bofors 40mm anti-air guns and also the small number of anti-tank "Ur 1935" rifles. A cavalryman also had a sabre and a lance but these weapons were generally left with horses. Maybe so, but films create a reality of their own, one that can supersede historical events, and Lotna has contributed to the widely held mistaken impression that the Polish Armed forces were ineffective during the September campaign in 1939. In reality, they sold themselves dearly, holding out not for the two weeks envisaged in Poland's 1939 argreement with France and Britain, but for four. Those two weeks were supposed to allow the French to mount an offensive, involving the 90 division, 1500 tanks and 1400 planes, against Germany's western flank. It never took place; not a single French soldier crossed the Rhine in Poland's defence.

Wajda, having previously directed three very well received films - Pokolenie (A Generation; 1955), Kanał (Sewer; 1957) and Popiół i Diament (Ashes and Diamonds; 1958) - came to viewed as the co-founder of the so called "Polish Film School" which became famous the world over. He confesses that, as the result of these successes:

"I felt more sure of myself. I had long been looking for a screenplay whose subject was the year 1939, and which included the final cavalry charges - against tanks, of course." [2}

The choice of the subject deliberate, so was that of the message which the film was meant to convey, as Wajda himself has stated:

"What better way to express the departure of the world of light cavalry, and the approach, ever nearer, of the world of technology, than the charge which I showed on the screen?" [1}

In making Lotna, Wajda set himself the task of demythologizing the September campaign of 1939, as he had earlier sought to demythologize the romance of Poland's underground army in Popiół and Diamant (Ashes and Diamonds) and the Warsaw uprising in Kanał (Sewer). In doing so he tried to liberate the collective consciousness of the mystifications and falsehoods so characteristic of the poetics of social-realism.


A ceremonial troop of Polish Army lancers
Photo from the May 3 - Polish Constitution Day - celebrations in Krakow in 2001

However, as Derek Jones explains, Lotna "provided fodder for the increasingly vociferous, though largely surrogate, debate between so-called 'patriots' and 'scoffers' in the 1960s. Its vehemence was symptomatic of the Party's lurch towards national chauvinism and its clampdown on culture after 1960. The 'patriots', based in the Army, accused the 'scoffers' - the 'Polish School' and satirists such as Sławomir Mrożek - of deriding the Polish military tradition by misrepresenting it as a series of heroic but absurd deeds. The image of Polish cavalry charging German tanks in Lotna was singled out for particular opprobrium." [3}

Writing of the film, Wajda states that it "held great hopes for him, perhaps more than any other." Sadly, it also one that he came to think was "a failure as a film." The making of the film was made difficult by actors' lack of riding skills, the weeks that had to be spent acquiring these, and the distraction from acting that riding remaining of the horse. Additionally there were what Wajda considered mistakes in casting, and the film also suffered from his having failed to produce a tight screenplay, one which would have made clear, before he began shooting, who was the hero of the story. For all of that, the film remains a significant one. First. because of the reasons that led Wajda to make the film, and secondly, because, in spite of its shortcomings, the film managed to convey - to the Polish audience for which it was intended - the intended message.

Andrzej Wajda and Wojciech Żurkowski as the authors of the screenplay treated the literary original very conventionally. "I don't treat this film as a settling of accounts with the past," Wajda stated, "All I wish is to do was to stir the emotions of the viewer, to show the collision of the war with the Fall, the most beautiful of our seasons when people gather-in the fruits of their labors. And, by means of this film, I want to bid good by to a beautiful Polish tradition," [4}

In the film, the cavalry squadron is a symbol of a world, which though it has already disappeared, has survived in the national consciousness. A group of heroic individuals, in spite of the war and the relentlessly approaching end of a basically romantic era, constitutes a separate closed universe. History would appear to be taking place offstage. The action of the film, as described by the director himself, consists of five sequences. "The first is the presentation of the cavalrymen in the Fall landscape and their arrival at the palace. Lotna, a horse, is given to the squadron's commanding officer by the owner of the local estate. In the second sequence shows the squadron taking a rest at the manor and nearby village. The third sequence contains the squadrons notorious charge against the tanks, the death of the commandant, the return to the village, the wedding of the cadet Jerzy with Ewa, the teacher. The next sequence shows the squadron's route through the crowded roads, a halt in some woods, a bombardment and the death of Jerzy. The last sequence is clearly symbolic - the death of Lotna and the breaking of the sword by one of the squadron's remaining cavalryman." [5}

Polish units may not have engaged in senseless actions such as the depicted cavalry charge, but it was ill equipped to fight the much more technologically advanced German Army. Wajda focused on the greatest dramas that during relatively recent history enmeshed Poles and used the cinema as a way of identifying and treating social pathologies. His ablility to do so explicitly was effectively precluded by the watchful eye of the censors in the service of the reigning communist party eager to appropriate unto itself the interpretation and memories of events in Polish history. He resorted therefore to presenting on the screen individuals in untenable situations who performed heroic, but senseless and useless deeds.

The above is based on a number of Polish language sources. Among them Tadeusz Miczka's Andrzeja Wajdy powinnosci wobec widza, Kwartalnik Filmowy Nr 15/16. - (1996/1997), pp. 26-46


Notes

1.   J. Fogler, Wajda Films PWN, Warsaw, 1996 p. 88.
2.   J. Fogler, Wajda Films PWN, Warsaw, 1996 p. 81.
3.   Derek Jones Andrzej Wajda
4.   FilmPolski.pl  Lotna
5.   Forum Filmowe "»" Klasyka  Lotna (1959)


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