Wednesday, November 25, 2009

KATYN (2007)

Poland has been partitioned between Germans and Russians four times in its history, thrice in the 18th century, finally resulting in the extinction of the country, and once in 1939, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact freed Hitler to invade from the west. Days later, Stalin invaded from the east. Andrzej Wajda's film opens on a bridge as refugees from the German assault head east, only to be warned by people on the other side that the Russians are coming. Among those who cross anyway are Anna and her daughter Nika. Anna's husband Andrzej is a Polish officer recently captured by the Russians. Security is still pretty lax, so Anna can walk her bike over to where the captured officers are being kept and invite Andrzej to escape. He refuses. His oath to Poland outweighs his oath to remain with Anna 'til death do them part.

Bolsheviks and Nazis share the spoils of Poland in the early scens of Katyn.

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.

For a while, Andrzej continues to write heavily-censored letters from his Soviet-run prison camp, where his fellow officers maintain discipline and are treated relatively well. By the spring of 1940 the letters stop coming, and eventually the Russians start rounding up the officers' wives and children. One Russian officer is being quartered in Anna's home. He has a crush on her and wants her to marry him. He urges this on her as much for her own sake as for his; he speaks cryptically about being unable to save loved ones of his own at home, and wants to atone for that here. When Anna reminds him that she's married to Andrzej, he blurts out that he and the other officers are "no more," but Anna doesn't follow up on that hint and refuses the officer's offer. Nevertheless, when the soldiers come for her he hides her and Nika and bullies his own men away. He then advises her to escape into the German sector.

Maja Ostaszewska as Anna

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.

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.

Once we get to the postwar period, the focus moves away from Andrzej's family for a while as we follow characters who refuse to accept the new party line on Katyn. Agnieszka, the sister of an air force pilot who died there, is determined to erect a headstone in her local church in his memory. The stone gives his date of death as Spring 1940. The authorities, including a complacent Catholic Church, refuse permission. The 1940 date is a provocation and a slander on Poland's Soviet allies and protectors. She erects the headstone in a cemetery instead; it is almost immediately smashed by the occupiers, and Agnieszka is brought in for questioning. She refuses to play ball, preferring, as she tells her collaborationist sister, to take the side of the murdered against the murderers. For her trouble, she's taken into a basement and never seen again. For Wajda Agnieszka is a modern Antigone, and he makes the archetype obvious to everyone when she gets her hair cut to donate it as a wig for a performance of the Greek play starring a concentration-camp survivor.

Above, Magdalena Cielecka as Agnieszka. Below, the broken headstone.

Meanwhile, Andrzej's old friend Jerzy, a fellow imprisoned officer, returns to Krakow as part of the Soviet occupying force. People are surprised to see him because his name was on the original Katyn list. But as he explains to Anna, that's because he had a name tag attached to a sweater that we saw him lend to Andrzej. It's almost certain, then, that Andrzej died in Jerzy's place, while Jerzy managed never to be transported to the execution ground. He knows quite well what happened to Andrzej, but his job is to uphold the party line for the good of fraternal Polish-Soviet relations. He can't take it. After making arrangements to have Andrzej's remaining personal effects delivered to Anna, he gets roaring drunk, staggers out onto the street, and blows his brains out.

Finally, Anna receives the material Jerzy requested for her. The most important possession is Andrzej's diary, which records his movements up to his final transport to Katyn. Obviously he can't tell what happened there, but Wajda can. He has saved the crucial event for the end, and the effect is more terrible than anyone could anticipate. One by one, starting with the General, the officers are taken from their prison trucks and taken into a nondescript building where Soviet officers standing in front of a red flag and a portrait of Stalin matter-of-factly sentence each one to death by checking off their names. It takes place with primitive efficiency. A man whose face we never see gets up from a stool and shoots each Pole in the back of the head. As the body is dumped through a chute out a window and into a dump truck, and the pooling blood is washed away with pails of water, the executioner hands his pistol to a second for reloading and receives a loaded weapon for the next job.

Other officers, including Andrzej, are taken to an outdoor killing ground where each has his hands tied behind him before the bullet in the head. The scene is repeated oppressively, and Wajda goes a little overboard with sentimentality as each officer recites a snippet of the Lord's Prayer before going down, the next man picking up where the last was cut off before all are dumped into mass graves and covered with bulldozed earth. This is not a "Eureka" in which a character in the story has discovered the truth and can tell the world about it. All Anna has to work with is a battered journal that conveys the horror of what happened through its numerous empty pages, and once we see the earth cover the victims, the film is over.

Wajda has covered some of this territory before in disguised form in his French Revolution movie, 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


DAMIN said...

World War II stories seem to never end, but "Katyn" is a new and extremely important part of world history.It takes a brave film-maker to direct such a controversial topic. At last, one would hope, this heinous massacre has been laid bare. Movies don't get any better than this!

Dave said...

Samuel - This one is available to watch instantly on Netflix, so I plan to get to it at the latest by next weekend. I will definitely check back in with thoughts then. This is one that has had me interested for a while, but it's nice to read your assessment of it (even if I did skim somewhat just for purposes of keeping everything fresh when I go in!).