Katyn

(Andrzej Wajda, 2007) In 1940, over 20,000 Polish men were executed by Soviet officials and dumped in burial pits in Katyn Forest. It was only a matter of time before Andrzej Wajda, Poland’s great nationalist filmmaker, represented an atrocity that directly or indirectly touched most Poles of a certain generation. Wajda imprints history onto the character of Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), an officer in the Polish military who disappears, along with countless others, as the Nazi and Soviet armies press in. But he wisely gives more screen time to those left behind. Wives and mothers and sisters (and sometimes fathers and nephews) paint the kind of absence which the disappearances create in families and communities. We see Polish officers interned in freezing barracks, but we mainly see their relatives trying to make their way between cities in a land occupied by hostile armies, trying to erect unauthorized headstones on loved ones’ graves, and trying to find out what happened to their kin. The personal stories are woven in with moments of pure history: the reading of actual names of the disappeared in a town square; the use of file footage showing the discovery of the mass graves. But Wajda avoids recreating the maudlin epilogue of Schindler’s List, choosing instead to massage blunt history directly and elegantly into his narrative.

It’s harrowing subject matter rendered in monochromatic quiet rather than Spielbergian schmaltz, and though Katyn has weaknesses, its strengths prevail. The individual stories are what keep the film mostly honest in a typically dishonest genre. Maja Ostaszewska, as Andrzej’s wife, communicates the sorrow of an individual rather than a wronged national. Women chafe under the propaganda of the Soviets and find ways to undermine it, but their motives are personal as well as political, so idealism rarely saturates the screen. In larger terms, the arrest of an auditorium full of academics jars us with beautiful art direction and with the impact such mass killings must have on a culture. And if the film’s opening scene feels forced (Poles sandwiched on a bridge between two advancing armies), and if the message is ham-handed (his compatriots remain divided about the film’s effectiveness), Wajda makes up for it with his gut-wrenching conclusion – an unrelenting series of executions that captures victims’ faces as they register their fate. Those executions and the scenes that build up to them make Katyn a cathartic experience worth chasing. – Ranylt Richildis

(Originally published as part of In Review Online’s While We Were Sleeping in 09 feature, on December 30, 2009.)

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