If you are after a truly harrowing movie experience (perhaps as an antidote to the over-cheery Christmas spirit) of the kind that’s just not produced by Hollywood, I can recommend a recent Polish movie called “Wolyn” (titled more understandably in English as “Hatred”).
A bit of background first. Wolyn, as it was known in Polish, and Volhynia, as it is known in Ukrainian, is a rural region of wheat fields and birch forests in what is now western Ukraine, but what for centuries was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Polish and Ukrainian peasants – as well as Jews – have lived there side by side from times immemorial, with Poles forming the administrative elite. The spirit of Ukrainian nationalism started stirring up in the 19th century, when eastern Poland was under the Russian partition. When the Romanov empire collapsed in 1917, Poles and Ukrainians fought for the control of the area, Poles wanting to restore it as a part of the reborn Poland, Ukrainians wanting to create the first independent ethno-state in their history. Poles won and during the interwar years Wolyn and other parts of Poland’s eastern marches – the Kresy (the Ends or the Edges) – simmered with often brutally repressed tension. But it was the Second World War that unleashed hell. The area was first occupied by the Soviets in 1939 and then by the Nazis in 1941, who quickly disabused any Ukrainian illusions that they would allow an independent state in alliance with Hitler against Russia (though Germans extensively used Ukrainian auxiliaries and labour during the war in the east). As the tide of war turned against Germany after Stalingrad, the tensions in Wolyn in particular but also elsewhere throughout the Kresy finally erupted as Ukrainian nationalist revived their hope that somehow they would be able establish their own state while the two totalitarian giants were grinding themselves to death in a bloody stalemate. The first step towards a free Ukraine would require cleansing the land of ethnic Poles, long seen as interlopers and occupiers.
What happened next, mostly in the mid-1943 but continuing past the end of the war, has been described as genocide, as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and Ukrainian men massacred some 100,000 Polish men, women and children, exterminating and destroying entire villages. Fortunate were those who died quickly of a bullet, because the killings were accompanied by an orgy of sadistic and barely describable violence that would put Rwandan Hutus and Bosnian Serbs to shame. Probably around 10,000 Ukrainians were killed either in defence or retaliatory violence. This civil war in Wolyn, Polesie and East Galicia is a chapter of the Second World War history that is virtually unknown outside of Poland and Ukraine, but for two years it pitted Ukrainian partisans against Polish partisans, with Germans generally egging on both sides against each other as they themselves fought the Soviet partisans and tried to exterminate the last few remaining Jews. It’s difficult to imagine a more harrowing and hellish environment.
The 2016 movie has received excellent critical reception in Poland. It was banned in Ukraine. It’s everything you can imagine and worse. The first half slowly builds an almost unbearable sense of foreboding, which bleeds into the harrowing second half. A number of Ukrainian actors are said to have declined to star in the movie having read the script and described it a “school of hatred”. The Ukrainian media described at as biased and one-sided. But it’s history; the massacres did happen. The Polish-Ukrainian relations were clearly difficult ones throughout the modern history, and Poles widely seen as an alien ruling element – colonisers, in fact – and therefore an obstacle to the Ukrainian statehood. However legitimate the Ukrainian national aspirations might have always been, the ethnic cleansing and genocide of their Polish neighbours was a monumental crime.
I feel no hatred having watched the movie, contra the apprehensive Ukrainian voices. I would like to think that the present and the future don’t have to live under the continuing shadow of the past. What “Wolyn” teaches us all is just how thin the veneer of civilisation really is. The evil is not some malevolent and unexplained outside force and its acts are not committed by a few psychopathic monsters. It’s neighbours turning against neighbours, “ordinary men” butchering other ordinary men, women and children. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”. There but for the grace of God go all of us, fortunate that we have never been put in extreme circumstances like so many others in the past and in other parts of the world.
Here is a trailer, which really doesn’t give justice to the movie: