In the spring of 1940, under orders from Lavrentiy Beria, roughly 22,000 Polish military officers, officials, POWs, and intellectuals were shot in the back of the head by the Soviet secret police and dumped in mass graves in the Katyn Forest. Liquidated for no clear purpose beyond a vague idea that “decapitation”, or the removal of the leaders of a society by an occupying force, would leave the rest of the population vulnerable and thus more docile, the victims at Katyn soon became pawns in an ugly propaganda battle as the Soviets tried to blame their deaths on the retreating Nazis.
Indeed, the Soviet line was that the murders represented the height of Nazi barbarism, and that the bullet holes in the thousands of skulls were consistent with well-known Gestapo techniques, among other specious “evidence”. In a further effort to hide their guilt in the atrocity, the Soviet official history of the murders in Katyn Forest claimed that the event had taken place in 1943, not 1940.
This yes-means-no approach to these ghastly murders caused Poles no end of confusion amid their grief – everyone knew the truth about what had happened to their countrymen, their fathers, brothers, sons, friends, but no one could admit it. The Soviets had taken a firm hold over Poland after the Nazis had fled, and (as is always the case) the victors were rewriting the history books. They continued to deny the truth, and to propagate their fabrication, until 1990.
The 2007 Oscar-nominated Katyn, masterfully directed by a now elderly Andrzej Wajda (whose own father was one of the murdered), seeks to breathe life into this awful story overwhelmed by death. Surely the rendering of such a tragedy onto film is an horrific task, and one fraught with pitfalls: there is the danger of over-sentimentalization, of under-sentimentalization, of a tone too red with anger, of a tone not red enough.
Many films have come before, aiming to build a worthy narrative around the agonies and inestimable evils that defined much of the past century for so many people, and many of these have fallen into those predictable holes. Hell isn’t entertaining, not much anyway, and certainly not for long; and the story Katyn seeks to tell is of a pure and stark pit of flames. So how does it become a worthy movie?
Wajda is the most significant Polish filmmaker (apart, perhaps, from Krzysztof Kieślowski) of the past 50 years. His masterpiece, 1958’s searing Ashes and Diamonds remains among the most fascinating studies of the bleak psychology of life under the enveloping darkness of war. The opening scene alone – in which a young hipster, with whom we are just beginning to identify in a lighthearted sort of way, shoots an unarmed civilian in the back with a machine gun, the bullets actually lighting the dying man on fire – is enough to secure it a place on the top shelf.
Wajda’s touch, then, can be simultaneously heavy and light, and more than once Katyn demonstrates this uncanny ability. There is a brief, stunning sequence which follows a pair of young innocents as they meet, make a date, share a first nervous kiss, and are suddenly ripped apart. The charming delight of their coming together is followed so suddenly by appalling disruption that the shock remains with you, troubling the mind long after the movie has ended.
Told mostly from the perspective of four women who have been left to wander through their lives carrying an invented history of their sorrow, of their awful loss, and narrated through flashbacks, there is a profound sense of confusion permeating the film. From the POWs to those waiting at home, no one knows what is going on – not ever – and we are swept along with them, perhaps deliberately asked to enter into their baffled state of mind.
Indeed, as the film moves back and forth from 1940 to 1943 to 1945 and back again, one does become a bit unglued. A disarmingly haunting score adds to the general restlessness of the sensation. As the film leads away from a knowable past into the adulterated, Soviet-owned version of history, we move inexorably toward the grotesque conclusion: Wajda’s unswerving re-enactment of the executions. This is five minutes of film no one ever wants to see. But, somehow, after two hours of watching as the truth of this event is bled out of it by killers who walk around all supercilious and free, you simply can’t look away. It’s like you are right there, bearing witness.
This DVD edition comes with copious extras including a lengthy interview with the director and a making-of film, both of which are worthy accompaniments to Wajda’s late masterpiece.