It seems there is a never-ending supply of subject matter from World War II. Seventy-plus years after the axis of evil surrendered, stories continue to be uncovered everyday, and many of these eventually get the big screen treatment. While some revolve around the events that lead up to the war and others chronicle the actual various campaigns across Europe and the Far East, there are many that focus on the many atrocities discovered in the aftermath of the most devastating eras of human history. Piotr Szkopiak’s THE LAST WITNESS tells the true story of Stephen Underwood, an English journalist who uncovered the massacre of 20,000 Polish POW’s by Russian troops in the complex post-war political climate.
The film begins as Underwood, a dogged and dour struggling beat reporter, pawns off his latest assigned fluff piece to his typist in order to pursue a story about the alarming amount of recent suicides by Polish ex-pats living in the English internment camps. Though he is stonewalled by law enforcement at virtually every lead, family connections at one of the local encampments allows him an audience with Polish forces Colonel Janusz Pietrowski and the officer's mysterious Russian charge. Underwood learns that the Russian is a refugee himself because he is the last witness to the horrific slaughter of 22,000 Polish troops captured by Stalin’s army in the early days of the Russian occupation of Poland. Underwood wants to go public with the story, but an elaborate cover up that goes all the way up to Churchill and FDR is discovered. Though everyone agrees that the heinous acts committed by the Russians amount to punishable war crimes, the subterfuge is seen as a necessary evil in order to maintain the delicate political balance for the greater good. Obviously Underwood’s story was eventually brought to light, but it was not without great consequence to the writer and those around him.
Though the story in incredibly intriguing, the cinematic execution didn’t quite hit the mark. Awkward dialogue and scenes that dragged a bit too long plague an otherwise gorgeously captured film. Szkopiak and his team nail the beautiful period production design and vibe of the post-WWII era, but alas, lack of proper character development and clunky direction in many scenes distract from the ultra-serious subject matter. Furthermore, a love triangle involving Underwood and an internment camp insider serves as an overall story anchor but ends up being an unconvincing and weak plot device. Underwood’s brooding demeanor and utter lack of enthusiasm for the tryst makes one wonder what his paramour sees in the troublemaker/truth seeker to begin with. Perhaps better character develop would’ve made this dynamic make more sense, but unfortunately it just isn’t there.
Terrific performances by Alex Pettyfer as the gloomy Underwood as well as Will Thorp as the Colonel Pietrowski buoy the film at moments when the awkward direction nearly capsizes the film. As one of the film’s unlikely villains (again, with questionable motivation due to lack of back story) Henry Lloyd-Hughes does a fine job reigning in a character that teeters dangerously close to over-the-top caricature. A tragically underused Michael Gambon also holds down the fort as the curmudgeonly newpaper editor who butts heads with the determined Underwood. Though it is understandable that his character isn't central to the story, it still feels awful to have such talent relegated to a cameo.
Overall, THE LAST WITNESS is an interesting chapter about the darker side of WWII’s allies that certainly deserves to be told. Stories about war atrocities committed by the “good guys” are extremely tricky. Szkopiak does a great job conveying the difficult balancing act performed by leaders of the day without betraying the gravity of the terrible acts that transpired under their watch. If only the film itself lived up to the incredible story it attempts to tell. THE LAST WITNESS is definitely required viewing for WWII buffs, but cinephiles may be put off by the coarse execution.
aka Annette Kellerman