Dir. Andrzej Wajda
(2009, Not Rated, 117 min)
★ ★ ★
Katyn ends just about perfectly. Chronicling an atrocity committed by the Soviets against occupied Poland during World War II, it is thoughtfully structured to lead us full circle back to the event itself, shown with solemn, unblinking realism almost on the level of Schindler’s List. The whole film is worth those end scenes, which are intended to finally confront a crime that at the time was denied by both the perpetrators and the victims.
The rest of the film is imperfect, occasionally prone to melodrama, cutting back and forth between a lot of characters I started losing track of. In the first half it is primarily about Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), whose husband Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski) is a Polish officer taken as a prisoner of war by invading Soviet forces. The opening scene is tragically comic in how it shows refugees on a bridge; from one side they’re fleeing the Nazis, and from the other they’re fleeing the Russians. In either direction they were out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Then, about midway through this film about World War II the film skips the war. Director Andrzej Wajda, with his co-screenwriters Wladyslaw Pasikowski and Przemyslaw Nowakowski, makes clear that he’s not telling a story about a war but about a coverup. In the first half we’re shown a newsreel, shot by the Germans, describing the Russian murder of tens of thousands of Polish POWs. After the war we’re shown another newsreel, made by the Russians, who claim the Germans killed the POWs a full year and a half after it actually happened. The Polish, free of Nazi rule but still under the thumb of their Soviet “liberators,” were threatened into accepting and spreading the lie. There are many scenes between characters discussing the dilemma, some of which play too much like the screenplay summarizing its themes.
Wajda makes a point of his characters’ Catholicism, in powerful scenes such as the singing of a hymn by the Polish POWs, their recitation of the Lord’s Prayer upon arriving at the mass graves in the Katyn forest, and the very last shot of the film, which packs an emotional wallop. But I don’t think he is suggesting noble Christian martyrdom. Rather, he is highlighting a tragedy that occurred parallel to the more widely known plight of the Polish Jews. The twenty thousand killed by the Soviets pale in comparison to the six million Jews exterminated by the Nazis, but atrocity doesn’t grade on a curve.