Saturday, November 16, 2013

Siberian Exile (orig. Syberiada Polska) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R) (7/10)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing* (R.Oświeciński) review* (J. Demiańczuk) review* (M. Sochoń) review* (K. Rutkowski) review* (P. Zaremba) review*

Siberian Exile (orig. Syberiada Polska) [2013] [IMDb] []*(directed by Janusz Zaorski [IMDb] []*, screenplay by Michał Komar [IMDb] []* and Maciej Dutkiewicz [IMDb] []*, based on the novel (PL-orig) (FR-trans) by Zbigniew Domino [Amazon] [Wikip-PL]*) played recently at the 25th Polish Film Festival in America held in Chicago between Nov 8-24, 2013.
The film, the first feature film of its kind, tells the story of the Poles (according to the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum as many as 2,000,000) who had been living in the part of pre-WW II Poland that was occupied by the Soviet Union (as part of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany) who were then deported by the Soviets East to Kazakhstan and Siberia beginning in February, 1940. (The infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact created a very temporary peace between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, allowed Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to divide Poland between them, and finally allowed Nazi Germany to safely begin World War II with the invasion of Poland without fear of creating a two front war).

I personally buried a 95-year-old parishioner here at Annunciata Parish in Chicago, IL a couple of years ago who along with her family had been among those Poles who were deported.   And I was friends a number years ago over Facebook with a young ethnic Lithuanian from Siberia whose family had been deported there when the same fate came to hundreds of thousands of citizens from the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia following their occupation by Soviet Union (also as part of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact).

Further, present at the screening of the film, held at Facets Multimedia in Chicago as part 25th Annual Polish Film Festival in America, were not only the film's director Janusz Zaorski [IMDb] []* but also members of several local Chicago families whose Polish parents and grandparents had been part of these deportations as well.  Director Zaorski [IMDb] []* shared after the screening that he made the movie in good part to honor family members who had been among the hundreds of thousands to perhaps millions of Poles deported in this manner.  All this is to say that this is a remarkably important film, again the first of its kind to tell this story of enormous suffering, betrayal and ultimately resilience on the part of the Poles who suddenly found themselves part of the Soviet Union.

The director shared that he filmed this film, with a largely Polish (from Poland) cast IN SIBERIA in and around Krasnoyarsk, the Russian-Siberian city that later became famous for its role in Soviet technological development and its space program) using at times Siberian extras and that the _premiere_ was held in Krasnoyarsk as well, to an audience which turned out to be largely composed of descendants of those hundreds of thousands to several million Polish deportees. The director related to us, attending the screening at Facets in Chicago, that the end of that first screening in Krasnoyarsk, the ethnic Poles present stood-up and sang the Polish national anthem.  Present also at that premiere had been apparently a descendant of one of the NKVD (Stalin era secret-police) prison guards who proceeded to tell the director that his film was "a package of lies" and that the only true sentence of dialogue in the entire film was that of the NKVD camp commandant declaring to one of the Polish deportees that "[he] hated all Poles."  Needless to say, that was one heck of premiere of one heck of a film.

The film itself then ... tells the story of a Polish family that had been living in a village in Eastern pre-WW II Poland prior to the outbreak of war.

The film begins with two yound teenagers, Staś Dolina (played by Paweł Krucz [IMDb] []*) and Cynia (played by Agnieszka Więdłocha [IMDb] []*) doing what a couple of young teenagers, living in the countryside, in love (mostly with life, but also clearly at least partly with each other) could be expected to do ... on a beautiful late summer's day (Sept 1, 1939...): Running along a lovely little pond in the midst the fields and forests of rural Poland (the countryside could have easily been rural Wisconsin or rural Bohemia where my dad's family is originally from) they decide to jump-in.  Modesty of the time (and honestly, modesty of any time) keeps them at least partly clothed (they jump-in in their underwear).  YET, THIS IS NOT AN ORDINARY SUNNY LATE-SUMMER'S DAY ... when they surface, they see a German Skuka dive-bomber dropping a bomb and destroying a nearby and probably previously in the minds of these two kids UTTERLY INCONSEQUENTIAL WOODEN BRIDGE.  World War II has arrived.

The next scene takes place on Sept 17, 1939.  Here the day is cloudy and the peace of the village where Staś and Cynia are from is broken that morning by the buzz of now Soviet aircraft (bi-planed) dropping leaflets and the entry of the Soviet Army (mostly by foot, with the commander on horseback) with a tape-recorded message blaring though a megaphone set on a horse-drawn cart telling the citizenry "Don't be alarmed.  The Invincible Red Army of the Soviet Union has arrived to 'liberate you' from the oppression of the rich peasants who exploit you."  Staś and Cynia's families, though by no means rich, apparently owned fields ...

The third scene takes place in the dead of night, on Feb 10, 1940.  The NKVD comes on horseback and with sleds.   Soviet soldiers / NKVD pound on most of the villagers' doors, waking them up and give them 15 minutes to pack belongings and tell them that they are being moved.  Where?  Not a clue ... but certainly somewhere bad.

The next scene takes place at a train station, the town's name already written in Cyrillic.  Both Staś and Cynia's families are packed on box-cars (along with most of the other families from the village) and ... in the subsequent scene they are shown being transported by foot / sled across OTHERWISE STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL IF SNOW-COVERED FORESTED COUNTRYSIDE somewhere in Siberia arriving at barracked, somewhat barbwire-fenced, camp with a Communist Era "Red and Gold" banner draped across the entrance declaring "Welcome Polish Deportees."  The story now begins ...

Where the heck are they?  Who knows.  Yes, it becomes clear in the film that they have an idea of the towns and cities that they passed and therefore pretty much the (in general) district that they find themselves in.  But basically they're in a barracked, somewhat barbwired camp SOMEWHERE some fairly long distance from some Siberian town (In the original book, apparently they found themselves somewhere near Lake Baikal and therefore somewhere in the region of Irkutsk).

Interestingly, "security" wasn't portrayed as particularly harsh.  It didn't have to be ... where the heck would one run to if one tried to run away?

The basic rule was set-down quickly by the camp's NKVD Commandant named Savin (played by Andrey Zhurba  [IMDb] []*): "To eat, you must work."

Work doing what?  Chopping trees.  (The Polish deportees found themselves in the middle of the Siberian Taiga, forest that went on for hundreds, indeed thousands, of miles in pretty much every direction)  How many trees?  Basically "a lot."  The quota appeared to be unclear and certainly arbitrary. 

What seemed clear was that everyone needed to be seen working hard chopping and sawing wood, even those who NORMALLY wouldn't be doing so: women (sometimes even pregnant women) and children.  AND there was no particular concern on the part of the Commandant / NKVD if anyone fell sick or for that matter even tried to run away.

In the film, Staś' mom Antonnia (played by Urszula Grabowska [IMDb] []*) falls ill with typhus as the first winter turns into spring.  The camp's doctor flatly tells the family "there's no medicine" and has her simply "rest" (for weeks... until she "gets better," or ... dies) in the infirmary.    Staś' father, Jan (played by Adam Woronowicz [IMDb] []*) then tries to leave the camp in search of medicine.  Where?  How?  Interestingly, the camp's Commandant doesn't particularly care that Jan goes missing, apparently for several days.  Again, there was really NO PLACE TO RUN (AWAY) TO.  And if Jan somehow came back with medicine, THAT DIDN'T MATTER TO HIM EITHER.  BECAUSE WHETHER JAN OR ANTONNIA (or their kids, or ANY OF THE OTHER DEPORTEES AT THE CAMP) LIVED OR DIED DIDN'T MATTER ... there'd be plenty of other Poles from Soviet Occupied Eastern Poland that could be deported TO REPLACE THEM.  And if, conceivably, the Soviet Union "ran out of Poles" well, there'd be deportable Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Chechens, Tatars (the list goes on ...) all soon existing in similar camps to replace them as well.  (Previous to WW II, those camps were filled with deported Kulaks (rich Russian peasants) and Ukrainians ... until the Soviet Union largely ran out of deportable Kulaks and Ukrainians).

All that seemed to matter to the Commandant/NKVD was that NOTHING beyond "making the quota" occurred in the camp.  So, eventually Cynia and her father (interestingly, it becomes clear as the film progresses that they are Jewish, while Staś' family was Catholic) get removed from the Camp to, presumably a more punitive camp elsewhere.  Why?  Because they were caught teaching the kids in the camp a little about Polish history.  

So how long was this to go on -- with life reduced to simply "Making the Quota," "Not Getting Sick" and "Not being caught thinking/talking about anything (substantial) else?"  NO ONE KNEW (not even the Commandant).  Quite possibly FOREVER.   And in that, of course, was the horror.  

To the film's credit, the film isn't solely about "suffering Poles" vs "Evil (Soviet) Russians.  Most most of the Russians portrayed were portrayed as sincere Russian patriots / sincere believers in Stalinist Communism.  Indigenous (non/pre-Russian settlement) people formed part of the story (one saves Staś' father Jan's life) as do others in Siberia as a result of previous waves of deportations.  In particular, the Camp doctor's daughter, a nurse named Lyubka (played by Valeria Gouliaeva [IMDb] []*) is portrayed as really a kind soul.  She makes sure that Staś' mom Antonnia gets treated well (at least given her rest) and she tells the Dolina family that she (and presumably her father) had been deported from Leningrad to Siberia some (fair number of) years before.  Does she miss Leningrad?  She tells the Dolina's that she hardly remembers it any more.  There's also a Ukrainian guard who falls in love and against the Commandant's wishes marries one of the Polish inmate/deportees Irena (played by Sonia Bohosiewicz [IMDb] []*).  Interestingly, he's allowed to marry her even if the Commandant was against it... yup, it was a very strange and seemingly arbitrary system. 

So how long did this go on?  Well, until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.  Then Stalin, certainly Evil but ever a pragmatist, found better uses for Poles (besides having them just chop wood until they eventually died at random camps in Siberia): He needed them as soldiers.  And the Poles were certainly willing to fight against Germans FOR POLAND.  So the camp was soon closed and everybody (inmates, guards, hospital/supporting staff) was allowed to go to whatever city they were near (again in the book it would be Irkutsk) and the men were allowed to go off to war.

AS THE END OF THE WAR APPROACHED, the Polish deportees were GIVEN THE OPTION (though HIGHLY DISCOURAGED FROM DOING SO) to return to what would be "west-shifted" post-WWII Poland.  The Dolinas seek to exercise their option to return home.  Much still ensues, and ... (SPOILER ALERT... though I've already written about most of the film already...) THEY MAKE IT BACK.

During the discussion following the screening of the film, the director noted that of the Poles deported to Siberia in this way (according to the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum as many as 2,000,000), 1/3 died, another 1/3 remained in Siberia or otherwise never returned to Poland and 1/3 did return to Poland.

What a story!

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  1. This film was very good. It's really horrible what the Russian did to the Poles. To this day they won't admit it, same with Katyń. Great review of this film Fr. Dennis

  2. Fr Dennis - OOPS! surely you keep missing a zero. While nobody has definitive numbers, there could have been 1,500,000 Poles taken captive by the Soviets, including those deported, arrested, or drafted into the Red Army. There is absolutely nobody who claims the number was only 150,000, not the Director, and not even the Soviet apologists. Please fix your blog! Visit for more. [Stefan Wisniowski, Sydney Australia]

    1. Dear Stefan Wisniowski, the number I used was that given by the film's Director himself (and repeatedly) during the Q&A after the screening here in Chicago.

      I myself thought it was low and though the Director's English was quite good, it could have been a mistake in his English. (These kind of errors do happen when one's speaking a language that's not one's first). Then I being of Czech descent rather than Polish, I didn't want to question his figure.

      However, I did look-up the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum ( AND THE VARIOUS OFFICIAL ENDORSEMENTS THAT ITS RECEIVED and made then the appropriate corrections.

      Thanks for noting the error and I certainly meant no harm. God bless -- Fr. Dennis (Zdenek) Kriz