Stalinist Poland (1947-1955) in context of movie Interrogation

Stalinism is considered to be an extreme form of totalitarianism, as it affected the whole world and earned the epithet „the Black Age of Stalinism“. Poland was no exception among other Eastern European, at that time „Eastern Bloc“ countries closely tied to this ideology. Being a satellite country, meaning being heavily influenced in terms of economy, military and politics had a major impact on none other than the citizens of Poland.

Communism in Poland was preceded by a cruel and bloody civil war in which more than 8,700 opponents of the communist government were killed. An organized resistance against the communists was eliminated at the end of 1947.  This ideology did not recognize the term „fair play“, which was already reflected in the falsified elections at the beginning of January 1947. The Polish security apparatus constantly prosecuted representatives of the opposition, very often unjustifiably. Many former politicians, soldiers, and officials were arrested with little to no explanation. Furthermore, the Catholic Church traditionally has a strong position in Poland. The new totalitarian power gradually focused on monitoring them – in 1950 the first bishops were arrested, and in 1953 Bishop Kaczmarek was put on trial, and he was sentenced to 12 years. And in the same year, Cardinal Wyszyński was interned. Polish society has been exhausted from long-term occupation. To make matters worse, the trials took place during this period, in which infamous espionage for benefit of the Western states was considered the most important point of the indictment. 

The 1950s were the most drastic period of the Communist regime. They were characterized by persecutions of almost all strata of society and already mentioned contrived trials. The fabricated trials went hand in hand with interrogations, which were disproportionate and extremely cruel. These practices are portrayed in the movie „Interrogation“ by Ryszard Bugajski, which is yet another historical and journalistic film. The plot explores an interrogation of a young apolitical woman Antonina Dziwisz, who is kept in prison against her will and mostly without any valid reason. For her, this is a completely new reality – the reality of totalitarianism. Her world slowly collapses, as she realizes that there is practically no return from the situation, she finds herself in. Even if she was to leave the prison, the damage has been already done. 

Antonina was accused of collaborating with the intelligence services, specifically with the American services. The counterintelligence service within The Ministry of Public Security arrested as many as 1,495 men and women on charges of espionage in the years 1949-1955. The largest „employer“ was to be American intelligence with 320 agents and 10 networks. At that time the accusation of espionage was usually only an excuse to deal with political opponents or people considered hostile. For this period, it is very difficult to distinguish the „normal“ operational work of the services, focused on detecting threats from the outside, from strictly ideological activities. Certainly, ideology had an advantage over logic, as Dziwisz found out brutally.

Her reality has been altered – from the authorities wanting her to sign false confessions to practices of interrogation, that were used at that time. Tonia is humiliated, tortured, and paced in a small cell where the room is flooded with water. Every time she is resistant to sign that confession, you see an abusive system and its officials who know what they are doing.  A few examples of specific jargon created for the tortures: „glove“ – putting rods or similar objects between the fingers of the hands and squeezing the hands, which caused fractures; „ballerina“ – beating with a thin rod or ramrod on the heels and toes; „stand-up“ – forcing a naked victim to stand in front of an open window, sometimes in a cell filled with water and feces, for several or a dozen nights, often on winter nights. Beatings, burning, and physical abuse were considered ordinary. There is a scene in the cell where one of the cellmates tells her that the only way to get out of this is to confess to being guilty, even if you haven’t done something – make something up. 

This was a reality in the Communist regime as some people confessed when police interrogators threatened them. Confessions under beatings and torture, at first as an unofficial means of gaining a confession, were common. They became official in the year 1937. Stalin reportedly ordered the secret police to „beat, beat, and beat again“. People in a position of power started making up „crimes“, perhaps they were so caught up in the mass arrests. Accused people admitted guilt from fear without even knowing the charges. Excessively determined and devoted top Communist Party officials and even some ordinary people had such faith in the party that they refused to believe it could ever be wrong.

In the movie, we can see overcrowded dirty cells, starved prisoners or terrible food, suicidal thoughts, and sleep deprivation. On top of everything the interrogations either in the movie or in real life were not only about physical abuse but mental abuse as well: humiliation, dehumanization, degradation, and striping oneself of their dignity. The destruction of intimacy was as painful as the beating. Interrogation becomes a reality that shows abuse of power possessed by the officers offered by the system and the regime under the Stalinist pro-Soviet Poland. Throwing in innocent people, trying to frame them for crimes they didn’t commit, abusing and torturing them until they are exhausted.

Antonina, among other women, is an imprisoned woman known as a Witkowski communist. Contradictory to the fact she is imprisoned for no logical reason, dialectically, in a Marxist way she tries to defend her tormentors. The character confirms that it’s an iron law of history and that the revolution always eats its own children. As I already mentioned some convinced and devoted communists could not change their minds even if the party did them wrong and they sincerely believed that it is right.

Another character worth mentioning is Lieutenant Tadeusz Morawski, who portrays a person disappointed by the previous regime as he stayed in a German concentration camp. Morawski has genuine faith in reconstructing free Poland through communism and he does not have a subservient attitude towards the system unlike many others, this did not stop him from torturing Antonina. Bugajski not only challenged the stereotypical notion of a „real hero“, but also managed to create a timeless portrayal of people who attempt to break others in the name of ideology. This universal perspective is reinforced by both the vivisection of Tonia’s defiance and by Lieutenant Morawski’s deeds. Although Morawski was formerly a Nazi camp prisoner, he willingly takes part in torturing others; the humiliation he suffered is not much different from the one he inflicts on Tonia. Even though his past is dark, and, in the end, he helps her escape the prison and he cannot be defended.

The film ends with Tonia finding her child and going back to her husband, even though he wanted to divorce her. It is implied that the husband has been taking care of the child, nevertheless. All in all, the movie Interrogation, or in polish Przesłuchanie was first released in 1989 although it has been made seven years earlier in 1982, which was a courageous move by the director in this era. The film was released unofficially via underground distribution on videotapes during Martial Law in Poland. Martial law involves the temporary substitution of military authority for civilian rule and is usually invoked in times of war, rebellion, or natural disaster. The film did not have its official release until the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia in 1989. This is just another example of how communists closed their eyes before reality as they tried to ban such a truthful masterpiece for several years and „put it on a shelf“. Another festival this film attended was the festival at Cannes in the early 90s which was a great success however it did not appeal that much to the French audience mostly because of the melodramatic relationship between Antonina – the prisoner and Morawski – the torturer. Poles, probably due to too traumatic memories of communism, are slowly forgetting about it. Possibly, years later this movie will be perceived differently by the Poles. As of now, this film could be recognized as a kind of manifesto of freedom.


Zdroje:

BUGAJSKI, Ryszard, How Interrogation« was created. Warsaw, Standardowe: 2010.

DAWSON, HUTCHINSON, A., KONDRACKI, JERZY A., and others, Poland, Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Mar. 2023, Poland | History, Flag, Map, Population, President, Religion, & Facts | Britannica.

KEMP-WELCH, Anthony, Poland under Communism: A Cold War History (1st Edition). Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2008.

LUBELSKI, Tadeusz, History of Polish Cinema. Creators, films, contexts. Katowice, Videograf II.: 2009.

MCCAULEY, Martin, Stalin Stalinism. London, Person Education Limited: 2003.

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