A furtive exchange of glances made the girl blush like a rose. The guy over the table is Janek – the most handsome man in the battalion. ‘He’s gazing at you, Zosia. He fancies you,’ said the girl’s friend, giving her a gentle nudge in the side. ‘Oh, stop it!,’ Zosia replied, her cheeks now flaming like a torch. Suddenly, Janek ambles towards her, smiles, kisses her on the cheek and breezes away. Zosia, petrified, casts her eyes down and goes back to filling old gas pipes with explosive powder.
A few years ago if I thought of the Warsaw Uprising, the most devastating Polish defeat in WWII that cost more than 200 000 lives, I would find it difficult to picture a scene like this. It would somehow seem inappropriate. Like many of my fellow countrymen I was taught to think about the Uprising in terms of either a heroic, awe-inspiring bid for freedom or a desperate, ill-advised act of patriotic frenzy condemned to failure. There was no other way of seeing that, nothing in between. The problem was that, to me, these two irreconcilable interpretations were vague and incomprehensible, surrounded by political bickering, formal ceremonies, and all the wreath-laying to the sound of patriotic songs.
All of that was unbearably pompous and deadly formal.
The ubiquity of the political and historical accounts of the Uprising has rendered the actual insurgents mute. It has disenfranchised them of their inalienable right to recount their various stories. But now, thanks to the film “Warsaw Uprising”, the world’s first feature film made entirely from original newsreel footage from the Uprising, they have their voices back.
And we should listen to them as the story they’ve got to tell isquitedifferent from that of historians and politicians.
The film transports us to the very heart of the Uprising. To a place where nondescript regular people manage day by day on a piece of stale bread and a bowl of thin soup. People who stink of sweat, wear ripped soiled clothes, have scruffy hair and anxious faces. People who, despite their circumstances, enjoy an exchange of banter, exude energy and warmth and, if they are lucky, indulge in smoking foreign cigarettes.
The intrepid, swashbuckling heroes and heroines throwing their sacred bodies unflinchingly on the barricades and under Nazi tanks are simply not there. Those mythical figures are confined to patriotic songs, pompous celebrations and the ‘sage’ preaching of some right-wing politicians. What you see on screen are often bright, sunny faces of ordinary men, women and children. You see hundreds of people engaged in public duty, flailing their makeshift guns and home-made grenades, proud to be fighting for their freedom and genuinely believing that victory was within their reach. Against all odds. People deeply wanting to capture their experience on a film reel so that future generations would know what the Uprising was really like. Arrogant and conceited, we have been deaf to their voice.
What the whole relentless debate about the Warsaw Uprising has been devoid of all these years is this down-to-earth, quotidian dimension, which the film so perfectly brings out. Suddenly, it turns out that the people fighting in the Uprising actually enjoyed some social life. Of course, it was somewhat crude and interrupted by bombing or night raids, but still it was their social life. People would meet up at the table in courtyards between combat actions, sharing words of support and even chatting each other up. A lot of these friendly exchanges would take place in various workshops where women and men made armour, ammunition, bombs and grenades from cleansing agent cans and explosive mixture obtained from unexploded bombs.
Some couples would even go as far as to get married and throw a proper wedding party with vodka to drink and some bread and butter to eat. On more peaceful days, children would play at soldiers in the streets among the debris, as if subconsciously attempting to tame the ongoing atrocities of war.
Many children also took part in the battles, often dying from a wandering bullet. Such heart-wrenching and soul-tearing scenes are also captured on the film like the burial of a small boy, whose body, already infested with maggots, had been wrapped up in a sheet and laid to rest in a shallow grave in the backyard of a tenement house. Or stacks of decaying human bodies uncovered by the cameramen when they got through to the Nazi-occupied part of Warsaw where the insurgents had already lost their fight.
This is what the insurgents’ reality was like. Gruesome scenes alternated with genuine moments of laughter. A sense of community we may now only wish for in modern Poland was almost palpable. The insurgents were blessed. They were blessed with not knowing what we now know about the Uprising. They were unaware of how miserable and hopeless their situation was, which actually enabled them to bite the bullet and cope, day after day, desperately attempting to end the Natzi occupation and regain what had been stolen from them – their dignity, peace and freedom.
The truth about the Uprising is bitter-sweet. The real Warsaw Uprising is like Chekov’s plays, it is simply what life is – a mixture of laughter and tears. There is no need and no place for empty honours, medals and monuments. The real heroes of the Uprising were regular inhabitants of Warsaw who plucked up just enough courage to stand up against the invader and fight for their lives by baking bread, washing socks, dressing wounds, shooting Nazi soldiers, hurling grenades, digging holes in the ground, cooking soup and doing everything that was needed to just get through another day. Often with a beaming smile.
This is the lesson we should learn from these brave people like Janek or Zosia. We should realise that we all take part in our little uprisings that start every day when we heave ourselves out of bed and go out to work. It’s high time we threw the conservative, anachronistic and proud patriotism overboard and started building our country on the foundations of social trust, tolerance and diligent work. So that the shadow of war and conflict never falls upon us again.
The last scene from the film, which showed the dismal sight of ravaged tenement houses against the backdrop of deadly silence, made me feel small, fragile and vulnerable. Definitely not in a position to make judgments about the Uprising. As the final credits came up on the screen, the deadly silence from the last scene poured into the cinema hall. No one moved, no one said anything.
This utter silence was telling. As if, confronted with such a direct and unmediated account of what happened between August 1 and October 2 1944, we found ourselves, finally, at a loss for words.