Film that exposes Putin’s rubbish. “Vilnius 1939”

Despite appearances, it is extremely important to remember that we didn’t surrender Vilnius without a fight. Russian propaganda keeps repeating that the Soviet Union cannot be considered an aggressor because the Poles put up no resistance in September 1939. Read: the Russians “came in” to save their minority and not to enslave Poland.

That the army has been mobilised – that’s a fact. But whether it’s a war or a Lithuanian march on Vilnius – that’s still a question. Lithuania is facing a dilemma of choosing. The Germans and Soviets may tempt her or even exercise pressure on her to do the same, i.e. to capture Vilnius without formally declaring war on Poland and proclaiming “neutrality” in the Polish-German war. But succumbing to such a temptation is doubly dangerous. Firstly – they can do what they did to Poland after letting her take the Trans-Olza, secondly – the final outcome of the war remains unknown and it would be unadvised for Lithuania to side with Germany. If only it was Poland herself to offer Lithuania the capture of Vilnius! But then again, would Germany agree to that?

Such were the deliberations of one of the most eminent Lithuanian constitutionalists of pre-war Lithuania and a great Lithuanian patriot, namely Michał Römer, which he put down on the eve of the Soviet army’s attack on Polish Vilnius.

For very few have hitherto realised that Vilnius did not surrender without a fight, a fact that Römer recalls at the very outset. The military operation took place on September 18-19, 1939 and the defenders managed to destroy at least over a dozen Soviet armoured vehicles. The city itself was one of the strongest military centres in north-eastern Poland. The day before the Soviet onslaught some 14,000 soldiers were stationed there.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Despite appearances, it is extremely important to remember that we didn’t surrender Vilnius without a fight. Russian propaganda keeps repeating that the Soviet Union cannot be considered an aggressor because the Poles put up no resistance in September 1939. Read: the Russians “came in” to save their minority and not to enslave Poland. That is why the patriotic and veteran milieus, as well as the Polish diaspora, enthusiastically welcomed the making of a professional docudrama about the defence of Vilnius. Our editorial team was even more enthusiastic about the film, which is produced by our colleague, Dr Piotr Kościński, the chairman of the Joachim Lelewel Foundation.

Historic(al) value

Residents walk the main streets of the town, shop, discuss, a woman admires a fresh sunflower. The idyllic side of life is intertwined with military preparations: soldiers check the reinforcements, clean their weapons and put up posters reading “Strong, Serried and Ready”. The command reports that the fortifications have been completed – that’s how commences the trailer for “Vinius 1939”, which is produced by the Joachim Lelewel Foundation and the Wilnoteka centre, in co-production with TVP.

The motion picture is intended to give a highly detailed panorama of the defence of Polish Vilnius and what had happened there just before the Soviet invasion in September 1939. The filming was carried out mostly in the streets of Suwałki and Vilnius, while the interiors were shot in Mińsk Mazowiecki. The historical aspects were consulted with the most eminent experts in this field: Dr Agnieszka Jędrzejwska and Wiktor Cygan, authors of books on these events.

– In recreating the reality of the period and rendering the historical truth we have achieved such perfection and detail that one of our historians pointed out that every officer in the Vilnius command should wear a Virtuti Militari cross – says Pior Kościński, the film’s producer. – We didn’t have the foggiest idea about that so we had to find five appropriate crosses, and promptly at that. Just to give the spectator the most realistic impression of the time – he adds.

Local historical re-enactment groups, whose members play the soldiers, were heavily involved in the production. By the producers’ own admission this is a much better solution than hiring professional actors, as big names could effectively distract viewers from the core of the issue the film is tackling.

– Admittedly, this is a feature film, albeit a documentary – points out the director, Janusz Petelski. – Historical events shown in the feature scenes give colour to the documentary. They have a greater impact than the same situations recounted by a historian talking to the camera or by a narrator. At the same time, however, they somewhat impoverish the viewer by depriving him of the possibility of imagining the course of events for himself.

Countering disinformation

Extremely valuable is the footage shot in the same streets of Vilnius where, 84 years ago, real soldiers defended themselves against the Soviet aggression. The crew made no effort to hide the fact that arriving at the site and attempting to recreate these events had aroused a great deal of patriotic emotion.

– And we would love to see the same emotion in the viewers who will be able to get acquainted with our film, among other channels, on TVP Historia – concludes Kościński.

The foundation has finished shooting the film and it is now being edited. The makers hope to release it this autumn.

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Emotions, going back to the roots or remembering pre-war Vilnius is one thing, but the main objective is to counter Russian disinformation and propaganda. That’s because, to this day, the Kremlin authorities officially maintain that the USSR was never an aggressor against the Second Polish Republic, and that Moscow only entered WWII when Hitler attacked it. Before that, they say, their troops were supposedly protecting the civilian population.

– Various attempts to distort the historical truth have not ceased. Not only are the heirs of Nazi collaborators involved in this, it is now being practised by some honourable international institutions and European structures – Vladimir Putin said before the invasion of Ukraine. And he added: – Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. That’s a historical fact. The USSR entered Poland because she had completely lost control of the situation. At that time, with the Polish government somewhere near the Romanian border, any negotiations were out of the question. Anyone who objects to the lies is being immediately accused of participating in the information war.

“Vilnius 1939” clearly and emphatically exposes Putin’s rubbish.

The budget – economy version

The budget of the film contains with PLN 300,000. According to the producers, that is insufficient to make a Hollywood-style blockbuster. Kościński points out that his foundation was forced to check each one-zloty coin before spending it. The main donor is, of course, Polish Television but money has also been raised through online collections, among the Polish diaspora, the initiative has been subsidised by The Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression as well as by private sponsors. It is still possible to support the production with a few pennies via this platform: – Wilno 1939.
Documentary-historical productions are not films that would attract millions of viewers to the cinema. Nor are they as suitable for product placement as, say, popular family series. That’s a very specific field, which requires a lot of energy, work and know-how, and, at the same time, it’s terribly complicated in terms of subsidy – or, more precisely: in self-subsidy.

We are all the more impressed because the filmmakers managed to stay within their budget and create a documentary of enormous value.

– Filming in Lithuania was the most expensive part – explains Kościński. – Accommodation, food, transport for the whole crew. Huge sums were also spent on the platform trailers, used to transport the vehicles of the time.

Great support from the Lithuanian side came from Walenty Wojniłło of the Wilnoteka centre, co-producer of the film. In Lithuania it is impossible to just arrive in a town and start shooting like in Poland. Everything requires permission and good relations with the local authorities. The Modlin fortress became Grodno

Although docudramas aren’t the kind of productions that make money, this is the second time the foundation has tackled a very difficult subject. Previously, they had got down to the 1939 defence of Grodno – the document, released in 2014, was entitled “Blood on the Pavement” and it was viewed, on the Internet alone, by 200,000 people. It was broadcast three times on Belsat TV, while the Polish diaspora in Belarus are eager to share it via their own channels.

At that time the Union of Poles in Belarus was striving after making this footage. They supported the foundation and even invited the TV crew to Grodno. The filming was done in total secrecy, as the Belarusian authorities would never have agreed to produce and broadcast such a film. So, Dr Kościński and his collaborators travelled to the East as a group of tourists. The Belarusian KGB did not know what was the purpose of their stay in Grodno.

It’s also worth noting that most of the filming took place in Poland, more precisely in the Modlin fortress, which became pre-war Grodno for the duration of the production.

– Karol Wasilewski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

The docudrama about the defence of Vilnius in September 1939 is being produced by the Joachim Lelewel Foundation in partnership with the Wilnoteka centre; it’s being made in co-production with Polish Television. The film will be available on TVP Historia and other channels.
Main photo: The director and re-enactors at the Hill of Three Crosses – still from “Vilnius 1939”. Re-enactors, mainly from the Polish group “Nowa Wilejka Garrison” helped organise the shooting. Photo: Piotr Kościński and Krzysztof Wilczyński.
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