‘Katyn’ Review – Polish Film Confronts the Big Lie

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.

10 Responses

  1. Charles

    Indeed, the influx of info about Stalin bloody rule helped, in no small part, to bring Communism down. I have a theory on why Communism failed, as an ideology. It wasn’t Reagan, or fighting a stalemated war against Taliban types we armed with stinger missles. It was Stalin. in the course of his purges, he discredited or killed outright any communist more charismatic, inspiring, innovative, or just plain humane. he buddied with Hitler, ignoring warnings of Operation Barbarossa being imminent, putting the death of 20+ russians right at Stalin’s door.

    After Stalin, there was a line on uninspiring, dim technocrats, and America, following the containment d0ctrine, just had to wait them out.

  2. Ark Ashamed of Bill

    Stalin was the natural result of the radical Marxism formulated by Lenin and required of Lenin’s Bolshevik followers. While Russian history might not have been as bloody if Stalin had not come to power, the radical Marxism of the Soviet regime would still have made it fail. At bottom, Marxism is fundamentally flawed by its failure to take human nature into account and its failure to recognize that modern economies are far too complex to be managed by central planning. Marx claimed to be to economics what Darwin was to science, but Darwin gathered observation on which to base a theory while Marx developed a theory and looked for facts to support it. Observers recognized these flaws at the time. Other Communist regimes which hadn’t suffered massive purges have either stagnated or adopted some form of market economies for this reason.

    The failure of Lenin’s revolution to sweep the world led to Stalin’s “building socialism in one country” and resulted in the exaltation of Russian nationalism that paralleled the joining of of nationalism and socialism by Stalin’s one-time partner Hitler. Stalin’s desire to crush Polish nationalism played a large role in the Katyn massacre.

  3. Jonas Cord

    Despite the 100% failure rate of every marxist government, I have yet to meet or hear of a communist who isn’t firmly convinced that Communism hasn’t been given a fair chance.

    It’s always someone else’s fault that a system that trys to eliminate the idea of Self Interest from a population always collapses.

  4. Gilbert

    If Hitler was the anti-christ, who was Stalin? Quite honestly, I find it appalling that the US & UK allied themselves with that mongrel from the Steppe, henceforth sacrificing Byzantium to the godless-communist-horde. There is no question in my mind that the West had better options than to make a deal with the devil.

  5. Greg


    I’m curious about these “better options”. I am not an expert on this period but a better option than aligning with Stalin does not come to mind.

  6. Doug

    One is reminded of the old saying (Chinese proverb?), “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Germany attacked England (our ally) and then Russia. What were we supposed to do…tell Russia to stay out of it? It’s interesting (and sobering) to consider the number of casualties we would have suffered if we’d had to go at Germany without Russia’s help. Those 20 million Russians who died helped bleed Germany white.

  7. Jim

    One option, take the bull by the horns. Stop the supply convoys and let Patton and the air forces loose to the east after Germany and Japan surrendered. Surely a good portion of the surviving Axis military (subject matter experts in regards to fighting the Russians) could have been leveraged against the Soviets. After all, the Germans (and Stalin and his generals) had done a good job of bleeding the Russians nearly white.

  8. Larry Burgess

    They say that politics makes for strange “bed fellows”…..the same is often true with war. World War II is a perfect example of that very thing….

    Who knows how many Americans would have died, and how long it would have taken us and the Brits to defeat Hitler, and bring down the Third Reich without the Russians…. My guess is that the war in Europe would not have ended before 1947 or 1948. Of course, we would have used the bomb on both Germany and Japan…..

    A valid argument can be made that it was primarily the Russians who defeated the Third Reich & we and the Brits were minor players in the conflict….I say that with out taking anything away from the American and British armies who fought the Nazi’s not only in Europe but also North Africa, Italy & the Mediterranean.

    No one knows how many Russians died in World War II but a large portion of those killed was in the Germany invasion of Russia. We do know the Russians lost more civilians than soldiers in the war, and the number normally given when talking about Russian soldiers killed is over 20 million….

    We were lucky that Hitler decided to invade Russia when he did. Our D-Day invasion was a wonderful thing but what is often over looked is the fact that at the same time we went ashore at Normandy, the Russians had unleached a giant attack upon German forces in the east….

    This prevented the Germans from moving troops from the eastern front to Normandy. The Russians called it Operation Bagration. It was much, much larger in size than the Normandy invasion and resulted in the defeat of the German army in the east.

    The Bagration offensive was the largest Allied operation of World War II. Over 2 million man made up the attacking Russian army. Some historians have described the Russian attack as a type of “red army blitzkrieg.”

  9. Larry Burgess

    I’m surprised that so many Americans belieive that we should have turned our military might against the Russians after the defeat of the Third Reich…..I believe that would have been a major mistake on our part.

    Doug, your statement that the “Germans had done a good job of bleeding the Russians nearly white” is very interesting…. Actually, that statement is not true. History tells a different story….

    The Russian army that captured Berlin, and inflicted great losses upon Hitler’s army was far from finished in May of 1945. If anything, the Russians were getting stronger and stronger from early 1944 and on….

    The defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad and at the battle of Kursk, along with Operation Bagration, had literally destroyed the German army and its will to fight. The German Luftwaffe (air force) had ceased to exist much earlier…… The British and American air forces had literally eliminated the German Luftwaffe as a fighting force. The Luftwaffe was not a factor in the D-Day invasion which contributed to our invasion success.

    The German resistence at the gates of Berlin in April of 1945 consisted largely of Hitler Youth and elderly German men who were poorly trained and no match for the Russian army.

    I realize that Patton had some strong opinions about what we should do with the Russians after the defeat of the Third Reich, but fortunately our political and military leadership (Truman & Eisenhower) didn’t see it the way Patton did….

    Keep in mind that we were still fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, and we were counting on the Russians joining us in the defeat of Japan. Stalin had told us that once the Germans were defeated, the Russians would declared war against the Japanese and join us in the Pacific. We had every reason to believe that….

    There’s also a lot of evidence that Americans at home were tired of the war by May of 1945 and they felt that after the defeat of Hitler, it was time to start bringing American troops home…. This is exactly what happened despite Truman’s determination not to do so……

    If we had been forced to invade the islands of Japan (thank god for the bomb…) in order to defeat them, many of the million plus American troops involved in the invasion would have been “green troops,” largely untested in battle. That sound strange bit it’s true……

  10. Therese

    The final visual of this film summed up the pain a Polish nation experienced because of the Katyn massacre. A bulldozer moves towards the mass grave, gouging soil and dumping it onto the newsly executed Polish officers. No funeral rites for them, no dignity, just soil in their mouths and noses that had stopped breathing barely moments before. The dumping of soil over the bodies symbolised decades of lies and propaganda about this crime. Countless other people would die in the subsequent years since then, for attempting to speak and publicize the truth.
    This is a most powerful film, not only about the anguish of those waiting for their death and those wondering about them. It is an important because it reminds us, most poignantly of individuals’ and communities’ needs to acknowledge the truth of the past: to honour the fallen and to interrogate the perpetrators.


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