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The Last Witness
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(Aug 27, 2018)
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Directed by BAFTA Award Nominee Piotr Szkopiak, The Last Witness is a political thriller based on the harrowing true events of the Katyn Massacre in Spring 1940. In post-war England, ambitious journalist Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer: Magic Mike, I am Number Four) comes across a disturbing spate of suicides by resettled Polish soldiers. Sensing a story, his first port of call is Colonel Janusz Pietrowski (Will Thorp: Coronation Street, Casualty), a Liaison Officer for the re- settlement of Polish troops under British command. But the meeting with Pietrowski leaves Stephen unsettled, and from here his investigation escalates as he finds himself embroiled in a dangerous, multi-layered conspiracy concerning the execution of 22,000 Polish military and civilians by Stalin s secret police.
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** Director: Piotr Szkopiak
** Writers: Piotr Szkopiak and Paul Szambowski
** Run time: 93 minutes
The cast includes the following:
** Alex Pettyfer as Stephen Underwood – a journalist who works for the Western Post, a newspaper published in Bristol
** Talulah Riley as Lieutenant Jeanette Mitchell – Mason Mitchell’s wife – and Stephen’s lover
** Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Mason Mitchell – who works for British Military Intelligence – he is also Jeanette’s husband
** Gwilym Lee as Captain John Underwood – Stephen’s brother
** Michael Gambon as Frank Hamilton – the editor of the Western Post
** Holly Augustine as Rose Miller – a typist at the Western Post
** Anita Carey as Mrs Joan Caldercott – Stephen’s landlady
** Robert Wieckiewicz as Ivan Krivosertsev (a Russian peasant from Smolensk) who poses as Michael Loboda (a Polish refugee) – the last witness
** Will Thorp as Colonel Janusz Pietrowski – Polish Home Army
** Piotr Stramowski as Andrzej Nowak – a Polish soldier
** Ian Midlane as Philip Edwards – a civil servant who works at a government archive
** Michael Byrne as the coroner in Bristol
The WW2 massacre that Stephen wants to investigate took place at Katyn and two other locations. Katyn is located in the western part of the USSR, today the western part of Russia, 18-19 km west of Smolensk. More than 15,000 Polish Prisoners of War (POWs) were executed in this massacre.
The timing is critical: was it in the spring of 1940 or in the autumn of 1941? When we know the date, we know who was responsible. If it is 1940, it is the Soviet secret police (NKVD). If it is 1941, it is Nazi Germany.
This is why the case of Katyn is so controversial. Most governments do not want to talk about it. And they want everybody else to do the same. Keep quiet! In Poland everybody knows that the answer is 1940, but for many years – during the Cold War – they were not allowed to say so.
Piotr Szkopiak, the director of this drama, has a personal connection with the story of Katyn: his grandfather was one of the Polish officers who were executed at Katyn. In addition, his mother was arrested in Poland and deported to Siberia. During the war she managed to get to the UK. Piotr Szkopiak was born in the UK in 1966.
As stated above, this drama is set in the UK in 1947. Most scenes take place in and around a camp for displaced persons from Poland located near Bristol. One scene takes place in London. With one exception, all characters are fictional, but they are placed in a historical context.
The exception is Michael Loboda, who was found hanging from a tree in an orchard near Bristol in 1947. According to the director, the story that we see in the drama is built around him. In other words: this is not a true story, but it is based on true events, and many details which are mentioned in the drama are true as well.
“The Last Witness” is a thriller. I do not want to spoil the viewing for anyone. Therefore I am not going to reveal too much about what happens in this drama. I will merely tell you how the story begins. But I have to mention a few details in order to explain my rating.
The main character is Stephen, who works for the Western Post, a local newspaper. He drinks and smokes all the time. His lover Jeanette, who works in the camp for displaced persons, is married to Mason, who has only married her in order to keep up appearances. He is not interested in women. He is more interested in men, but obviously, he cannot say so in public. Stephen’s brother, a captain in the British Army, also works in the camp for displaced persons.
Stephen notices that several Polish soldiers have committed suicide and he wonders why. What happened to them? Why do they not want to live? He thinks there is a story here, but his editor Frank Hamilton tells him to forget it: “Nobody wants to read about suicides! It is bad for the circulation!”
Stephen does not obey this order. He cannot let it go. One evening, when he is in a bar with Jeanette, he overhears an argument between a foreigner (Michael Loboda) and a local man. The local man says the Polish people should go home, because the war is over, but the foreigner says he is not from Poland, he is from Russia.
Now Stephen is interested. Why does a Russian man pretend to be a Polish refugee? It seems this foreigner is hiding a big secret, but he does not want to talk about it. Why not?
During the night, Stephen sneaks into the camp and enters the barrack where Michael and other Polish refugees are sleeping. While Michael is sleeping, Stephen manages to remove a small box from his pocket. Back in his own room, he opens the box. Inside he finds a personal diary which he cannot read, because it is in Polish.
The next day he hands the diary to the typist Rose, whose father is Polish. He wants her father to translate the Polish diary for him. The next day, when she returns with an English translation, Stephen realizes that he has found something extraordinary: the diary is written by one of the Polish officers who were executed at Katyn.
The last entry is from April 1940! This means the massacre took place in the spring of 1940. And Michael Loboda, who lived near Smolensk at the time, is the last witness to this horrible event.
This is how the story begins and this is where my presentation ends. If you want to know what happens to Stephen and the people around him, you will have to watch the drama all the way to the end.
What do reviewers say about this historical drama? Here are the results of two review aggregators:
** 40 per cent = Rotten Tomatoes
** 54 per cent = IMDb
As you can see, the ratings are not impressive. There is a reason for this. The topic is important and interesting, but the story about it is not very successful. There are some serious flaws:
(1) The script is not well-written.
(2) The actors do not play their roles well.
(3) There is a romance, but it is not very romantic, because there is no chemistry between Stephen and Jeanette. There is too much focus on the romance, which means less focus on the investigation, which is after all the main reason for the whole drama.
(4) The main character is not very sympathetic: he drinks and smokes all the time. When the foreign peasant (Michael) does not want to talk to him, he simply enters the camp during the night and steals a box from him; a box which may or may not contain the secret Michael does not want to talk about. Is this a case of honest journalism? Stealing evidence from a person he wants to interview!
(5) Stephen is not a good reporter. Nor a good detective. He has a unique diary in his possession, and what does he do in order to keep it safe? He places it in a suitcase, which he hides under his bed! When secret service agents enter his room, while he is out, this is the first place they look. How can he be so careless? The diary that he stole from Michael is now stolen from him!
(6) Michael Gambon is a famous actor, but in this drama he only plays a minor role. He only appears two times: in the beginning and towards the end. And each time we only see him for a brief moment. The fact that Michael Gambon is in this movie is not enough to save it.
(7) Stephen works for a local paper, the Western Post. But there is no such paper in Bristol. Where does the name come from? The answer is simple. There are two daily papers in Bristol:
** The Western Daily Press
** The Bristol Post
The movie-makers took the word “Western” from the first and the word “Post” from the second. When we combine them, we have the Western Post, a fictional newspaper published in Bristol.
(8) The movie-makers wanted to create a thriller. Perhaps this is why some aspects of this drama do not seem realistic. I cannot say more than this without revealing too much.
A Russian peasant who lived near Smolensk could have seen the Polish POWs when they were transported to the area in the spring of 1940. But I doubt that he could have been a witness to the actual executions. I am quite sure the NKVD kept the execution area sealed off. They did not want any accidental witnesses to this event.
The peasant could still have been in the area in 1943 when the Germans discovered the mass graves. They needed someone to do the digging, so they hired him and other local people to work for them. When he saw the dead body with the small metal box, he decided to pick it up and hide it in his jacket.
He could have left the USSR in 1944. He could have managed to get to the UK in 1947. And he could have decided to pose as a Polish refugee and call himself Michael Loboda. It is not impossible. In this sense he could be “the last witness” to the massacre at Katyn.
As stated above, many details mentioned in the drama are true. Here is one example: the O’Malley Report which Stephen finds in a government archive. It is a real historical document, named after its author: Sir Owen O’Malley (1887-1974), who was a British diplomat:
** Ambassador to Hungary 1939-1941
** Ambassador to the Polish Government-in-Exile (in London) during the war
** Ambassador to Portugal 1945-1947
There are, in fact, two reports written by O’Malley. Both reports try to find out when the massacre at Katyn took place. Once you know the answer to this question, you know who was responsible:
The first report (dated May 1943) concludes that the German version of events is probably true: Soviet secret police (NKVD) killed the Polish POWs in the spring of 1940, while this area was under Soviet control.
The second report (dated February 1944) concludes that the Soviet version of events is probably not true. The Polish POWs were not killed by German forces in the autumn of 1941, while the area was under German control.
The British and the American governments knew the truth about Katyn, but they could not tell the truth in public, because this would offend Stalin and endanger their alliance with the USSR. The western powers needed the USSR to fight Germany from the east, while the western powers were attacking this country from the west. This is a case of Realpolitik. This is why O’Malley’s reports were classified and placed in a secret archive. The British people were not allowed to learn the truth. The British government helped Stalin cover up the truth.
In 1990, the Soviet government finally admitted that the Soviet version of events was a lie: Soviet forces had killed the Polish POWs in the spring of 1940.
The story about Katyn is important. It deserves to be told. But “The Last Witness” is not really about the massacre at Katyn in 1940. Only a small part of the drama (less than 10 minutes) is devoted to events in 1940.
“The Last Witness” is about a reporter who lives and works in Bristol in 1947. It is about his attempt to investigate the massacre. We follow his investigation step by step. We see what he finds out. We also see the obstacles that he is facing: the difficulties and the danger. He knows he is being followed, but it does not seem to bother him. He does not take any precautions. This is odd. No serious reporter would behave in this way.
It could have been a great drama. Unfortunately, it is not. It is a big disappointment. And therefore I cannot offer more than two stars.
PS # 1. Katyn is a Polish historical drama that premiered in 2007. It is directed by the famous Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda (1926-2016). In my opinion, it is much better than “The Last Witness.”
PS # 2. For more information, see the following books:
** Katyn: Stalin's Massacre and the Triumph of Truth by Allen Paul (2010)
** Katyn 1940: The Documentary Evidence of the West’s Betrayal by Eugenia Maresch (2010)
PS # 3. The following article is available online: “Polish Foreign Affairs Ministry releases British Katyn documents,” Radio Poland, 3 April 2015.