Friday 4 September 2015

"Portrait of a Soldier" - a quite remarkable film.

I had the privilege this week to see a preview of "Portrait of a Soldier", a new documentary by the film-maker Marianna Bukowski about the Warsaw Rising of 1944, in which Polish forces attacked the retreating Germans in a brave, doomed attempt to seize control of their capital.

The film tells the story - through extended interviews, cut with original film footage - of a young female soldier; Wanda Traczyk-Stawska.  Now a sprightly octogenarian, Wanda was 12 when war broke out. Witnessing the horrors of the German occupation of Warsaw, she swiftly developed a desire to fight back, which would be realised when the Rising was launched at 5pm on 1 August 1944.

As Wanda explains, the Rising was supposed to last no more than a few days, wresting the city from German control, before the Soviets arrive to "liberate" it from the east.  However, the Germans responded with unprecedented brutality, while the Red Army waited on the far shore of the river Vistula for Hitler's SS troops to do their nefarious work.  In the event, the Rising lasted an astonishing 63 days.

Wanda began as a messenger, but soon graduated to a fully-fledged fighter.  "I looked like a boy", she said, "I fought like a boy".  She fought throughout the Rising, being awarded the Cross of Valour, and seeing many of her comrades die, before surrendering and heading into German captivity.

Her recollections, delivered with wit and humour, are tremendously affecting. She talks of the remarkable Olympian and photographer Eugeniusz Lokajski, for instance, who was killed that September: "I knew the very best of him", she says.  Her story of the unidentified fighter, eviscerated by German sniper fire, who died in her arms: "the most beautiful boy I had ever seen", will not leave a dry eye in the house.

Warsaw rose in anticipation of Allied aid but little materialized. Over 63 days, the Polish capital was ravaged and systematically destroyed by the Germans, who murdered their way through the suburbs in a horrific attempt to sap their enemy's will to resist by wholesale murder.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Wanda reserves her highest praise for the city's civilians, who endured unspeakable horrors and fully ten times the death toll (some 200,000) of the Polish military forces, yet did so with honour and steadfastness.  Only with their support, she says, was the Rising possible.

"Portrait of a Solider" is a thoroughly remarkable film. Combining sumptuous production values, searing original footage and the poignancy of Wanda's own recollections, it provides a new and illuminating viewpoint of one of the bravest and most brutal military campaigns of World War Two.

I urge you to see it.

"Portrait of a Soldier" is released on 8 September via Journeyman Pictures also via ITunes and Amazon Instant Video.

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