Narrative films that take on a historical subject typically fall into one of two camps: those that amplify dramatic tension at the price of factual fidelity, and those that wind up dry or disjointed because they focus on nothing but the historic record. Katyn, by the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, is an important and even ingenious mosaic narrative that explores the repercussions of an infamous Soviet atrocity from World War II.
In September 1939, just after
the outset of the war, while the Poles were busy fighting the German
invasion in the west, the USSR took advantage of the weakness in the
east and launched their own invasion. The Germans and Russians
ended up dividing Poland between them. The Russians imprisoned
the Polish military units remaining in their territory. They wound
up releasing many of them, but held onto many thousands of officers.
Along with these military men were imprisoned Polish intellectuals and
civic leaders. The Russian leadership viewed them all as ideological
threats to the Soviet system: should their power be reconstituted at
some point in the future, they'd pose a challenge to the USSR.
Therefore, sometime in 1940, Stalin had about 22,000 of them executed
in and around the Katyn Forest.
It's hard to describe what
happens in Katyn because it's such a delicate, thoughtfully
put together film, and putting its specific action into words would
ruin Wajda's special approach to historical narrative. As in
many of his older films, Wajda's deep sense of the past pulls together
a mosaic of characters whose inter-connected experiences show us a range
of effects and consequences of the central historical events depicted.
Think of Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano or Gillo Pontecorvo's
The Battle of Algiers. These films employ an investigative
approach that is somewhat mirrored here (although Wajda's earlier
films predate them both and have a similar feel, so the influence may
be in reverse). However, what's even more salient about them
in terms of Katyn is that they utilize an immediacy that foregoes
the kind of intrusive exposition common in historical narrative films.
Instead of spoon-feeding the viewer facts and data through contrived
dialogue, Wajda constructs a loose narrative in which the connections
between scenes and characters become increasingly clear as the film
progresses, and in this way the slow accretion of information reflects
back on earlier moments, illuminating the film as a whole by the time
it's ended. It's a very tricky accomplishment that is carried
off with invisible panache.
The main characters in Katyn
are fictional composites, and represent a cross-section of Polish society:
the wife of an imprisoned lieutenant; his mother; his friend who survives
imprisonment by turning to the Soviet side; the wife of an executed
general; her daughter. The disparate experiences of these well-written
characters serve to illustrate different bits of the historical record.
The performances are admirable. The actors are simultaneously
charged with portraying historical abstractions and individual personalities.
Wajda's direction keeps them grounded in the reality of the film's
world, while his screenplay and editing trims the sail of historical
We follow these characters
from the initial imprisonment of officers and intellectuals, through
the initial public reports of the massacre, and into the aftermath of
the post-war Soviet occupation of Poland. When the Nazis learn
of the massacre in the midst of the war, they fire all engines in blaming
the Russians and propagating anti-Soviet sentiment among the Polish
populace. After the war's end, the Russians blame the Germans,
and persecute those who suggest Russian culpability. As Wajda
states in the bonus features, the film deals with both Katyn as a crime,
and Katyn as a lie.
Production values are high;
the photography is exquisite and extremely well-lit. The beautifully
eerie music is by the legendary composer Krzysztof Penderecki; the credits
say "Music by," but I was unable to ascertain for sure whether the
score is original or whether Wajda selected pieces from his existing
body of work.
A truly rare experience, Katyn provides valuable historical perspective on a contentious, controversial event that affected millions of lives. It also shows that history is a function of conquering powers' ability to shape the "truth" as it is experienced by the conquered - something that no society can afford to overlook. Highly recommended.