Lotna - A film by Andrzej Wajda
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."
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:
The choice of the subject deliberate, so was that of the message which the film was meant to convey, as Wajda himself has stated:
"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."
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.
"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?"
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