English Title: Katyń

Original Title: Katyń

Country of Origin: Poland

Studio: Akson Studio, TVP S.A., Polski Instytut Sztuki Filmowej, Telekomunikacja Polska

Director: Andrzej Wajda

Producer(s): Michal Kwiecinski

Screenplay: Andrzej Mularczyk, Przemyslaw Nowakowski

Cinematographer: Paweł Edelman

Art Director: Marek Kukawski, Ryszard Melliwa

Editor: Milenia Fiedler, Rafal Listopad

Runtime: 118 minutes minutes

Genre: War/Drama

Language: Polish

Starring/Cast: Andrze Chyra, Maja Ostaszewska, Artur Żmijewski

Year: 2007

Volume: East European

Eastern Poland, 1939: the Ribbentrop/Molotov pact between the Germans and the Soviets sees Stalin's armed forces crossing the Eastern border and taking thousands of Polish officers, generals and soldiers into captivity. Anna, the wife of one of the officers, pleads unsuccessfully with her husband to abandon his men and return with her to their home in Krakow. When the Nazis and the Soviets assume complete control of the country, the lives of the captives’ families are thrown into disarray, and as the war continues the wives, mothers and family members of those in captivity cling to the hope that they will be freed whilst they themselves struggle to survive under the terms of the occupation. When the news is broken that mass graves have been uncovered in the Katyń woods near Smolensk, the Polish people are confronted first with the horrific details and then with a web of lies as they seek to learn the truth about the massacre.

Andrzej Wajda's late masterpiece is a harrowing portrayal of the Katyń forest massacre and the effect of the crime on the Polish nation. Securing Wajda's fourth nomination for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as being the first movie to directly address the incident, the fittingly sombre and uncompromising narrative recreates events as seen predominantly through the eyes of the women separated from their loved ones. Wajda's own father, an army officer, was one of the victims of this tragic event, giving the director a personal insight that is reflected in the thoughts and actions of the characters involved.

The project took Wajda over a dozen years from gestation to completion, and only became possible after the fall of communism. Best known to International audiences for his early career 'War trilogy' of Pokolenie/A Generation (1955), Kanał/Canal (1957) and Popiół i Diament/Ashes and Diamonds (1958,) Katyń stands as the culmination of a life's work in cinema; a canon dominated by the contemplation of the social and political changes in his home country. The film's score is provided by Krzysztof Penderecki, with the composer using existing pieces to accompany the images as opposed to writing directly for the film. The soundtrack complements rather than dictates the atmosphere allowing the narrative themes to be fore-grounded and facilitating a focus on individual characterization. Collective and personal memory, self denial, hope, propaganda, patriotism and honour dominate the movie; the shocking massacre of nearly 14,000 Officers, Generals and Intellectuals being the catalyst for these issues to be explored.

Drawn from a combination of personal experience, memoirs, testimonies and historical facts, but portrayed through fictional characters, Katyń revisits the ruthless attack on the Polish intelligentsia from both sides during World War II. Non-linear in narrative structure and utilizing onscreen titles to locate time and place, Katyn addresses both the massacre itself and the deceit that followed its exposure; as blame for the act is laid at the feet of both of the occupying forces. The a-linear approach adds to a sense of pieces of a puzzle being slowly fitted together, reminiscent of the Polish people’s struggle to learn the truth about the atrocities that were eventually found to have been committed by the NKVD on Stalin's command (something only admitted to by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990). Beginning with a hugely symbolic scene as the camera drifts through a dense mist to reveal a panicked mass of people crossing a bridge in both directions - a nation at a crossing point - the film progresses chronologically up to the eve of the atrocity before jumping to 1943 and its exposure. As the Polish people begin to learn of the brutal murders (carried out to make the eventual transition to communist rule all the easier) and try to come to terms with what this means to them individually and as a nation, the narrative again jumps, this time to the end of the War and the beginning of the communist regime, when details of the crime were suppressed from the masses. Wajda withholds the actual massacre for the film's climax, and his portrayal of the genocidal murders has a shocking immediacy, with close-ups and hand-held camerawork evocative of documentary film-making. Indeed, the use of close-ups throughout the film is a resolute sign of Wajda’s commitment to staring the horror of the overall situation full in the face, and the relentless, mechanistic slaughterhouse style executions are the final, indelible images with which the viewer is left.  

The multiple viewpoints are ideal for creating a sense of personal tragedies and collective impact, with the two sisters of the Lieutenant Pilot killed in the massacre succinctly illustrating the post-war divisions in Polish society. One is adamant that the truth about the crimes be confronted and the other buries the idea to protect the living from further hardship, the responsibility to the dead and the living causing familial rifts that were echoed throughout the country. The crossing of the paths of various characters also adds weight to the air of collective torment and of how all levels of Polish society were affected (either directly or indirectly) by the events of 1940. The symbolic site of an effigy of Christ being covered as if dead early in the film is later given tangible substance by the Church’s refusal to question the official Soviet view of the events.

Whilst Wajda’s film is undoubtedly accusatory, he allays anti-Russian sentiment by the inclusion of a conflicted RedArmy officer who is driven by his conscience to save Anna from incarceration. The finger of blame is instead directed at the official Soviet Governmental and Military machine over the actual individuals responsible for committing the murders (the propaganda newsreels shown by both sides of their exhumations of the mass graves are virtually identical). The unprepared Polish officials, some of whom fled to safety at the very outset of the German invasion, are also exposed as being responsible in part for the fate that befell their country.

Dignified, bold and challenging, Katyń is reminiscent of much of Wajda’s work: that of an elevation of cinema from a purely escapist form of entertainment to a medium in which memory, history, social observation and personal experience come together to inform and open up avenues for cross-generational debate. As one of the incarcerated POW’s comments, ‘history will judge the guilty of the disaster.’and through films like Katyń contemporary generations can see for themselves how historical events have shaped the modern world.

Author of this review: Neil Mitchell