“Create your own style.” — Meet Piotr Szkopiak, writer/director of the WWII, based on a true story thriller The Last Witness
I caught up with director Piotr Szkopiak, for an interview on the importance of creating your own style, film-making, the cycles of history, world affairs, the art of the thriller, and telling a story that is very close to his heart in his latest, a based on a true story murder mystery surrounding some very real, very bloody, and very covered up events around WWII and the Allies, called The Last Witness, out today on VOD and Digital HD.
A recent study by the Claims Conference (highlighted in the New York Times) and released on Holocaust Remembrance Day found some very disturbing trends in Americans knowledge of and empathy toward the Holocaust and the Second World War. Just a sampling of this study indicates that 52% of all Americans believe Hitler came to power through the use of force (he did not) and that 70% of Americans say “fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust then they used to” while 58% say that it could happen again.
This is truly disturbing for the further reason that the victims of the Holocaust and Hitler’s Final Solution were not the only people effected by war crimes during the Second World War, yet they were arguably the most visible and indeed their story should never be forgotten. But what of those victims of atrocities surrounding the War whose stories have never really been told at all?
Szkopiak tackles exactly that in The Last Witness, a movie he wrote with Paul Szambowski. In the film, “an ambitious young journalist (Alex Pettyfer) uncovers the horrific slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers during the Second World War. A secret that has been kept hidden for far too many years.” The film also stars Michael Gambon and Talulah Riley.
That horrific slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers was known as the Katyn Massacre (the CIA calls it “Stalin’s Killing Field” in the article linked here) and was perpetrated by the Soviet Union after the Soviet Invasion of Poland from the East in September 1939. Szkopiak’s grandfather, Wojciech Stanislaw Wojcik, was one of the officers executed at Katyn, and his mother, Emilia Szkopiak, was one of the 1–2 million Polish nationals deported into the depths of Russia. They faced forced labour, squalid living conditions, starvation and disease. More than half died.
Between September 1939 and the winter of 1940, Polish POWs were held in camps in Western Russia, the largest being Kozelsk, Ostashkov and Starobelsk. Here they were subjected to lengthy interrogations and relentless political agitation by NKVD officers. The prisoners assumed they would soon be released but the interviews were in effect a selection process to determine who would live and who would die.
The Last Witness is remarkable not just because it tells the story of the victims of a horrible event that was wilfully forgotten by the Allies (and wrongfully blamed on Germany) for fear of rocking the diplomatic boat with the Soviets, but because it skilfully does this in the dress of a murder mystery or thriller. Yes, this is reverentially and realistically treated history by a director who cares deeply for his subject, but The Last Witness it is also a skilfully-executed and taut thriller about a journalist who is dogged in dredging up the truth behind the official stories after suicides of surviving Polish officers on English soil, tip him off that something must be very wrong below the surface. The Last Witness is a film that, indeed, will be enjoyed equally by historical film buffs, devotees of a good thriller, and general fans of a great story.
Szkopiak gets into this balance of realism and tension, creating your own style, the cycles of history, film-making, the passion of such a personal project and much more in the interview below. I hope you enjoy this enlightening talk with a gifted and caring film-maker as much as I did.
Hello Piotr and welcome to The 405! I was hoping we could start with getting a better idea of your artistic history — why did you get into film as your preferred art form?
I didn’t have any film-making background at all. I came to it very much as a lover of movies. As I grew up, I just got more and more into films, and I felt at one point that wouldn’t it be nice to make those films, to make those kinds of films I grew up on, to make those kinds of films that made a big impression on me.
I suppose the spark was there when I thought,”oh someone does that for a living!”, and what a fantastic way to spend your time and create something that can affect people in so many different ways. And I still think it does: film to me is the most powerful art form. Even though there’s so much of it, I still think it has a great strength in all our cultures.
So that’s where it stemmed from really. But after that it was a case of making it up as I go along, and I kind of love making it up as I go along, because I’m always learning and trying things out, and you’re sort of the Lex Luthor as film-maker, experimenting.
It’s fascinating, a never-ending journey really.
Absolutely. I think that sort of trial and error is one of the better ways to learn most anything too. Evolution.
It really is the case with it. I remember not even really reading books about film-making. I started just running around with some friends making short films and watching films. I thought, “I’ll try this out for myself.”
That’s still even the case now. If I get a script and it’s got an action sequence, or a car chase or something, I’ll go back to my favorite car chases and stop, rewind, pause, see how that in director, in the shots they did, put them together, the sound design and that sort of thing.
So it becomes, even with two people talking — I did a lot of soap operas when I started, and in most cases that’s two people talking — you can still make that cinematic. So, you go to Stanley Kubrick and you watch how he does two people talking, and then you try it out and it works.
You develop your craft. You look at what the best directors did and then you try it out yourself and see what works for you and in the end you create your own style.
Then when I read the books about directing and interviews with directors, they would kind of say the same thing. They would say they try things and realize they’re on the right track and carry on.
That’s creativity, I suppose.
Most certainly. Reminds me of Orson Welles’s quote, “create your own visual style. Let it be unique for yourself but identifiable to others.”
Another question I like to ask is a natural segue from that subject: favorite films and directors? Which would you consider most influential on you as a filmmaker?
Easy, The Godfather was a big turning point in my life. I saw that when I was about 18. I remember watching and when it got to the end, just wanting more. I just wanted it to carry on.
Italian culture is very similar to Polish culture. At that point, everything came together at once: I loved the music, I loved the photography, I loved the atmosphere, I loved the immigrant story. As a younger man, it was just like everything to me.
Then on the flip-side, Raiders of the Lost Ark. When I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was 15 years-old, and I remember coming out of the cinema and saying exactly that, “someone does that for a living: how cool is that?” [Laughs]
Before that point, I wasn’t really paying to directors, but I just was blown away.
So the combination of those two films I think always gives a good idea of where I’m coming from. It’s not like just from heavy drama or purely mainstream cinema. You could say The Godfather, with its heavy box office, was not a independent, art-house movie.
Great influences to have: I love both those films.
Yeah, I really think those two were the ones that really kicked it off for me.
There you go. Getting into The Last Witness, I was wondering if you would elaborate a bit on your very personal connection to the history depicted in the film. What do you think your grandfather would have to say about The Last Witness? It was a fine tribute I thought — not skimping on the thriller elements but treating the history involved with an incredible respect.
I hope he would like it. That he would see what I’m trying to do and he would be proud of it. I mean, my mother is a good test. She hasn’t actually seen the film yet because I wanted her to wait. I wanted her to wait so that she could see it in the cinema when it was released. She’s only got another three days before she sees it, so she’s going to be a good gauge as to what my grandfather would think I think.
I was very aware of the responsibility I had, not just to make a good film, or try to make the best film I can, but also that I’m dealing with not just historical facts — not just Polish history — but English history, American history, European history, world history, and also dealing with personal history, as my grandfather was one of the soldiers executed in the Katyan Massacre.
So, if you can imagine just all that together, I didn’t make it easy for myself, did I?
No, you did not. It turned out very well though, I thought.
But yeah, in answer to your question, I desperately hope that he’s looking down and he’s proud of it.
I would say he is. As I said, your movie functioned very well as a thriller, while not neglecting the touch for detail and respect for the history. In short, I thought you nailed it.
I think one thing that really struck me about the film in doing research before watching it, was the seemingly large contingent of voices that still call even Russia’s 1939 Invasion of Poland from the East somehow revisionist history(Russia itself even said as much), a claim I can’t imagine any serious student of history would believe. This seems to show a tendency to look at WWII and its attendant European atrocities as somehow monopolized by Nazi Germany specifically — which just isn’t true.
Why do you think some people subscribe to this way of thinking?
Because of how it settled post War. The Russians were always regarded as allies. So the Second World War was won by Britain, America and the Soviet Union, and obviously with the Soviet Union, as they say now, it was “a glorious war” that they won.
I have always felt that that was so wrong, because an Colonel Pietrowski (Will Thorp) says, people tend to forget, but in 1939 the Russians invaded in alliance with Nazi Germany. Germany would not have invaded Poland if it wasn’t in alliance with the Russians. If that non-aggression pact hadn’t been signed, then things would’ve been different. So the fact that the Russians came in 17 days later, saying that they’ve come to protect the Russian minorities — which is exactly what they said when they went into Crimea and the Ukraine recently.
Whatever they say, it is an invasion, they invaded. They imprisoned the Polish officers and the intelligentsia and deported others during a huge wave of ethnic cleansing, including the likes of my mother and her family — the figures are disputed, but I think it lands at over a million — Poles deported into Siberia, half of whom died.
So, tell me that isn’t an act of war? That that isn’t an invasion?
Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. I just don’t see how someone could claim that its “revisionist” with what we know today and still think they have any intellectual honesty.
Yeah. That’s what everybody seems to forget. As you said, after the War, it was revised in that the Allies won, and the Soviet Union was an ally. This is why the whole business with Katyn was so contentious, because what they didn’t do at the end of the War — Britain and America — was say that you know these Allies who we thought were our friends? Actually they’re just as bad as the Nazis. That’s just not going to happen at that point.
No. One would hope it would after all this time though. Which brings to a slightly clearer light a question we kind of touched on, what does the film have to say about the cycles of history?
It’s very interesting that in the UK for instance, you just had a British Foreign Secretary accuse Russia of murdering a Russian citizen on UK soil. Now The Last Witness deals with… you know, again, I’m being contentious with The Last Witness because I have no evidence Loboda (Robert Wieckiewicz) was murdered, because it is still regarded as a suicide, officially it is a suicide.
But then I looked into it and Paul (Szambowski) looked into it, and look into the research, you look at it and go c’mon. Tell me he wasn’t gotten rid of. The coincidences there are just too unbelievable. And you look at the form, if they killed 22,000 Polish officers, what would be one guy?
So, you know, these are all opinions, I’m not a politician, I’m not a historian, it’s just what I think possibly happened. And really I wanted to stimulate debate, because as you said, these are stories and these are people who have been forgotten, and they shouldn’t be forgotten because they are important. And not just important to Poland, but important to everybody, just to be reminded of what happened because you can’t just say “oh it was in the past! We should only deal with what’s in the present”.
As you said, unfortunately the rhetoric that’s coming out of America, that’s coming out of Russia, is very similar to the rhetoric that was coming out of Nazi Germany in the ’30s as Hitler was saying “I want to make Germany great again”.
So that’s why you have to constantly be going to study the past to hopefully learn from the past because these things have all happened before and you’ve got to be wary of where these things go.
I couldn’t agree more Piotr. What were some of the challenges in balancing the tension that makes a good thriller with the history involved?
Realism really was the number one thing, because when I started writing the script and Paul came to me and said “I think my play would make a good movie”, I thought that two times because it’s a drama — it’s a heady historical drama ultimately.
What I liked about his play, in the same way Schlinder’s List did it, he focused on one person but the backdrop was this massive conspiracy and the whole Katyn incident. How do you tell the story of a huge event like that, you know, in a very simple, engaging and interesting way?
Yeah. Huge in scope.
I thought, that’s it. In the end, we’re telling a murder-mystery. So, the McGuffin if you like, the conspiracy can be anything, it doesn’t really matter. How I approached it was hopefully The Last Witness would work as a thriller whatever the McGuffin was.
It’s just like in a Hitchcock film, the backdrop can be anything, in this case it just happens that that backdrop is true and it’s obviously a massive event. You know what I mean?
My intention always was that I wanted to make a good film. I’m a film-maker, if I wanted to make a heavy drama about Katyn I’d make a documentary but those documentaries have been made, and that’s likely not the best way to try and engage an audience that knows nothing about the events at all.
Really the best way to engage an audience like that is through the films that I’ve enjoyed. And the thriller, to me, is still the best way into this, and it just fell into place that it was something that I could enjoy making and working with that tension.
On top of that, it is sort of motivated because then you can also deal with this event and hope that people enjoy it as a thriller and make it easy if they look further they can research the Katyn Massacre and come to their own conclusions as to whether what I am saying is true or not.
I respect that approach.
It’s to stimulate debate.
Our last question Piotr, what is next for you?
I’m going back to a script I wrote even before The Last Witness. This I wrote on my own and it’s a thriller about a brother and sister on opposite sides of the law ultimately looking for justice but in a land having to deal with new threats of political extremism, of corruption and mechanisms.
So, it’s kind of based in what’s happening now, kind of Brexit Europe, and dealing with the two sides… how to get justice in this more and more turbulent world.
Very much again a thriller, and hopefully an engaging movie.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer in movies” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: email@example.com as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.