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Among the very best world-class filmmakers is Andzrej Wajda, who in the 1950s put Poland on the cinema map with an unofficial trilogy of powerful films reflecting the horrific wartime experience. The pictures cover a teen's reckless resistance (A Generation), the grim fate of the last army holdouts in the Warsaw Uprising (Kanal) and a reactionary assassin working in the days immediately following the armistice (Ashes and Diamonds). Over fifty years later, Wajda has returned to the same subject matter to illuminate an aspect of the story that the Soviet authorities would not allow to be told. The heinous Katyń massacre was committed by the U.S.S.R., yet officially ascribed to the Nazis; it was one of the humiliating lies forced upon the Poles by Stalin's propagandists. Not until the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union was open discussion of Katyń even permitted.
2007's Katyń is a big-budgeted intimate drama about Poles affected by a secret 1940 massacre. Both the Nazis and the Soviets used the war crime was as a propaganda issue. Caught between two utterly ruthless invaders, Poland's refugees don't know whether to flee East or West. The disorganized Polish army is forced to surrender. Captain Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski) refuses to leave his lightly guarded fellow prisoners in the officer corps, even though his wife Ann (Maja Ostaszewska) tearfully pleads for him to do so. The military commitment to honor turns out to be fatal: seeing the opportunity to eliminate the core of potential future Polish nationalism, Stalin orders a mass liquidation. Letters from prisoners cease, just as do communications with other Poles sent to concentration camps: university professors, politicians, respected intellectuals.
When the Hitler-Stalin Pact breaks down and the Germans overrun Russian territory, Nazi propagandists discover the mass graves in the Katyń forest and denounce it as a Soviet atrocity. Later, when the Russians re-take the same area, Soviet propagandists re-write history, claiming that the massacres happened later when the Germans were in control. The same graves are dug up at least three times.
After the 1945 victory, the Soviets occupying Poland insist on the revised accounts. The survivors deal with their sadness and the political treachery in mostly self-destructive ways: denial, suicide, and hopeless resistance against Stalin's propaganda police.
Katyń required many screenplay attempts for even an expert like Andzrej Wajda to decide how best to approach one of the thorniest issues in his country's history. The tragic story contrasts the traditional virtues of honorable warfare and the atrocities of 20th century politics. The director's own father, an army officer, was one of 22 thousand murdered by the Soviet Army. In the same way that the officers assume that they'll be respected as prisoners of war, their survivors and heirs make idealistic, defiant gestures against their implacable Soviet occupiers. A daughter refuses to change a date on a tombstone, and a son spells out the truth of his father's murder on a college application -- knowing full well what their fates will be. Their reactions are similar to those of Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra), an army officer who is one of the few survivors. Nationalistic and family honor have been murdered, and these patriots choose martyrdom over living with lies. 1
Wajda tells most of his story through the experience of the women who must cope. Anna turns down an offer of marriage from a kindly Russian Major (Sergey Garmash of "12"). His gesture might save Anna from being sent to a concentration camp, just for being the spouse of a Polish Army officer. After the German - Russian breakup, the wife of a Polish general (Jan Englert of Kanal) is urged by Nazi propagandists to denounce the Red Army murderers on the radio. They show her an atrocity newsreel condemning the Soviets. When the Russians take over later, they distribute almost the same exact newsreel, but made by Soviet propagandists and blaming Hitler's SS. An elderly woman receives the ashes of her husband, mailed to her from a concentration camp. Her Army officer son's name doesn't appear on the lists of the executed, so she waits in vain for his return. One daughter is a university official who doesn't believe Poland will ever be free; her younger sister accuses her of passively conspiring with the hated occupiers. The sister sells her long blonde hair to obtain the funds to make her own personal "gesture" against her enemies.
Through fifty years of political upheaval, director Wajda's war films are remarkably consistent and uncompromised. As in Ashes and Diamonds the postwar readjustment comes with an abandonment of national loyalty, not to mention common decency. Refreshingly, Katyń avoids speeches and sticks to explaining what happened to a modern audience. Visual symbols come into play when a statue of Christ is shown lying alongside wounded soldiers in a churchyard. The pragmatic Russians tear a red-and-white Polish flag in half. The red part becomes a makeshift Russian flag, while the white half is used for a leg bandage.
At 81 years of age, Andzrej Wajda's skills as a director are not diminished one iota; Katyń does not play like an Old Man's Movie. His direction of the excellent cast is nuanced and precise. We understand quickly that the largely Catholic officer corps is composed of aristocrats, career soldiers, engineers and other professionals. One of the leading characters is a young aircraft designer who just happens to be in the wrong uniform at the wrong time, doing his national service.(Last paragraph spoiler:)
Modern movies about grim events are increasingly explicit when recreating atrocities, perhaps to compete with our bloody "escapist" genre product. Wajda includes an unflinching sequence showing just how the Russians disposed of so many strong soldiers, so quietly. The final image is a hand holding a rosary. The man isn't quite dead yet, but the Russian bulldozer is already burying him. Wajda then lets the film "die out" with about a minute of melancholy music, over black. 2
Koch Lorber's DVD of Katyń is an excellent enhanced encoding of prime elements; this is a good quality release. Colors are cool and some of the prison camp scenes edge into greenish territory, but this may be intentional. Cameraman Pawel Edelman's work is as good as any in the West and less mannered than most. Krzystof Pendericki's somber music is a strong plus and the 5.1 surround audio mix is expert. The audio track is in Polish, German and Russian with English subtitles. All in all, it's a much better picture about the reality of the war in Poland than last year's sentimental, action-oriented Defiance.
Andrzej Wajda is on hand for an excellent 50-minute interview that covers the historical facts (Gorbachev and Yeltsin presented proof that the massacre was indeed ordered by Stalin) and the director's difficulties in finding the right approach to the material. Wajda's creative clarity is matched by the physical energy he shows in a long-form making-of featurette for this big-budget project. Even without major battle scenes, the recreations of Krakow and Warsaw in 1939 and 1945 was a daunting challenge. Cast interviews reveal a wealth of talent and beauty in the Polish film industry ... these impressive actors, mostly unknown over here, are far more interesting than most of our media-fed stars.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. This "living with lies" misery is felt in the most wrenching film in Wajda's war trilogy. At the end of Kanal, Polish Army holdouts are hunted down and exterminated in Warsaw's sewer system. A wounded couple makes their way to a river outlet, only to find that they cannot escape due to a metal mesh screen welded in place over the exit. The exhausted heroine stares out across the river. We don't see what she's looking at, and Wajda was prevented from showing it, but Polish audiences of 1957 knew that she's looking across the river, where an entire Russian division is encamped. The Poles were holding out in the hope of "rescue" by the advancing Russians. But Stalin ordered his army to pause long enough to allow the Nazis to finish wiping out the Polish resistance. Why? So they'll not be around to bother the Red Army when it takes the city. These movies are excellent exposés of the true evil of modern warfare, as still practiced.
2. It may be critical-political posturing, but a good case can be made that the times when America is engaged in open warfare overseas are accompanied by increases in violent and sadistic movie content in mainstream movies.
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.