‘Katyn’ Review – Polish Film Confronts the Big Lie

By Gene Seymour
3/5/2009 • World War II

Andrzej Wajda
Time: 121 minutes. Color.
Polish with English subtitles.

The specter of World War II still haunts Poland’s filmmakers, most especially the esteemed and prolific octogenarian Andrzej Wajda. Practically from the beginning of his career, Wajda has jabbed at the smoldering embers of wartime memory. His early trilogy of war films—A Generation (1954), Kanal (1958), and Ashes and Diamonds (1958)—remains an intense and haunting psychic record of his country’s underground resistance movement against Nazi occupation. Influential to this day, the films also reflect what the cold war imposed, politically and emotionally, on his country. In the ensuing decades, Wajda honed his approach to touchy subject matter while continuing to use every tactic at his disposal to force audiences to confront painful truths.

Katyn grandly, profoundly culminates Wajda’s lifelong engagement with Poland’s 20th-century traumas.

Katyn grandly, profoundly culminates Wajda’s lifelong engagement with Poland’s 20th-century traumas. In that Russian forest in April 1940, at least 10,000 captured Polish military officers were secretly murdered by Soviet police, who likewise slaughtered about 10,000 civil servants, teachers, and others considered part of Poland’s educated elite. It was one of the most horrific acts during the brief draconian pact between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Afterward, Nazi occupiers placed the blame correctly upon the Soviets. But with the war’s end, the vanquished Nazis were tagged for the crime. That big lie was forced upon Poland until Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted the truth in 1990. This resonates in the film’s opening scene, set not long after September 1939: desperate Polish citizens flee for safety at opposite ends of a bridge—one side from the Germans, the other from the Soviets. Here we see yet again Wajda’s gift for stark, telling allegory. At age 14, Wajda lost his father to the Katyn massacre. His intimate relationship with the event and its festering aftermath is evident in how he focuses here upon individual victims. Among them is a college professor who is herded into a truck with other teachers while his son awaits his ultimate fate in a prison barracks with other officers. As father and son go among the missing, their respective spouses are shown back home, grasping at sketchy news, clinging to faint hopes. But other victims’ families are less hopeful, and much angrier at the “official truth,” especially after the war. In one of the film’s many subplots, a bereaved woman risks punishment when she orders a gravestone with her brother’s accurate date of death, while her sister chooses to live with the lie. And that is where Katyn leaves its characters: suspended in time with their grief and rage. Only at its climax are the raw details of the massacre recounted with blunt, graphic force.

Katyn premiered in Warsaw, Poland, in September 2007. The film received a 2008 Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It was released in the United States in February 2009.

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