The first act of Katyn traces the ruin of Andrzej's family between the millstones of Hitler and Stalin. His father is a college professor whose university in the German occupation zone is closed down by the Nazis for holding unauthorized classes. The professors are packed onto trucks and taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Some months later, Andrzej's mother receives a package in the mail along with a polite message of regret from the German authorities. The professor died of heart disease, and his captors have done the courtesy of mailing his ashes home. It's a chilling moment and typical of Katyn's approach to the terror of World War II. We're used to images of industrialized mass killing as perfected on Jewish prisoners: mass gassings, mass shootings. The Poles don't suffer that way in this film. They're eliminated one at a time, albeit with just as much remorseless efficiency, and the horror of it is that it makes every killing seem more personal, more vicious.
Cut to 1943, in German-occupied Krakow. Loudspeakers recite a litany of names, and it settles in gradually that these are the names of Polish officers whose bodies have been exhumed by the Germans from mass graves in the Katyn Forest. The list is also published in newspapers, and we find Anna scanning one eagerly for news of Andrzej. Improbably, his name is not there. He may still be alive, Anna believes, and Andrzej's mother feels certain that she couldn't lose both her husband and her son to the war. Meanwhile, the Germans want the widow of Andrzej's commanding general to record a denunciation of the Soviets, whom the Germans blame for the massacre. She's unwilling to collaborate with the occupier, despite the bullying of a Nazi officer, until she's taken into a private room and shown newsreel footage of the exhumation. She can barely stand afterward, though it isn't clear whether this persuaded her to make the propaganda recording.
Maja Ostaszewska as Anna
Danuta Stenka as the General's widow studies a tape recorder suspiciously.
Notice that Wajda has jumped in time past the actual deaths of the officers. His focus is on the survivors reaction to the news of the massacre and the changing narratives that different occupiers impose on events. He also creates something of a mystery, though that effect may be felt more by non-Polish viewers. For us, Wajda's avoidance (so far) of showing the massacre leaves open the question of who killed the officers. The Germans say the Russians did it, but they are Nazis, after all. They could be lying -- and this is exactly what the Russians say when they "liberate" Krakow and occupy Poland. They show the same exhumation footage the Germans used, but what the Nazis called the typical Bolshevik execution method -- a bullet in the back of the head -- the Russians call the typical Gestapo method. They also claim that forensics prove that the officers were killed in the summer of 1941, when the Germans would have overrun the camp during their invasion of Russia.
Above, Magdalena Cielecka as Agnieszka. Below, the broken headstone.
Danton. Katyn reminds me very much of the French film in its first act, which concentrates on people anticipating certain destruction at the hands of merciless power, and that makes me wonder whether Wajda already had the Katyn story in mind and was using Danton as an indirect dry run at it. But Danton won't prepare anyone for the relentless atrocity that closes Katyn. The one-at-a-time slaughter makes this film look less like a war movie or Holocaust film (comparisons may be inevitable) and more like a horror film. Wajda doesn't go overboard with gore effects, but the final scenes of this movie will still be hard for sensitive people to watch.
Critics around the world have been tempted to read a political message into Katyn. The Koch Lorber DVD invites such a reading by describing the subject as "The Crime Stalin Couldn't Hide." Wajda's been accused of making an anti-Communist or anti-Russian movie, and in the latter capacity the film has been labelled propaganda for Poland's current right-wing anti-Russian government. I honestly didn't see it. There's nothing Communist or communistic about the Soviets' treatment of their Polish prisoners or their attempts to suppress the truth about Katyn. It's simply what any tyrannical occupying power (and arguably any occupying power, leaving adjectives out of it) would do. It so happens that the Nazis stumbled upon the truth, but you get the impression that they would have just as happily lied and blamed a massacre of their own on the Russians. The scene with the General's widow shows that the Germans were interested less in the objective historic truth than in the propaganda advantage they could get from it. The German-Russian collaboration at the start of the film suffices to establish Wajda's point that Nazis and Soviets were two of a kind. The Poles are interested in the truth because their loved ones are involved, but they can't necessarily handle it. Anna lingers in denial long after Jerzy sets her straight, still assuming that the next knock on her door will be Andrzej finally making it home. Other Poles like Agnieszka's sister are willing to forget history in order to get on with the present and build the future, and who's to say that if the truth is just a reason to hold grudges, some truths should be forgotten for the future's sake? In Poland's case, however, insisting on the truth was a form of resistance to occupation. Poland's present-day sovereignty consists in part in being able to tell their version of the Katyn story without worrying what the Russians think, and doing so is about as political as Wajda's Katyn gets.
It's a film of undeniable power, underscored with Krzysztof Penderecki's ominous music and introduced amid swirling clouds during the opening credits that suggest the mists of history parting at Wajda's command. There's a self-conscious epic quality to it that's probably appropriate for a subject that must rank among Poland's greatest tragedies. Structurally it digresses a bit in the middle by introducing new characters to take the struggle for truth in directions Anna won't follow. Anna's story is tangentially related to Agnieszka's because the former works in a photo studio that provides the image that the latter wants to use on her brother's headstone, but the two women don't interact beyond that. There's another even briefer subplot involving an unruly student who ends up getting run down by a truck that makes the movie feel more erratically episodic than it should. But once we come back to Anna and she receives Andrzej's journal Wajda closes the movie with scenes of unforgettable power that make most objections to his story structure trivial. Katyn is one of those films that fits Woodrow Wilson's description of Birth of A Nation as "history written with lightning." It's one of the best European films of the decade.
Here's a trailer with English subtitles, uploaded to YouTube by Kiedra666