Katyn

March, 2009, Drama

Directed by:Andrzej Wajda

Starring:Maja Ostaszewska, Artur Żmijewski, and Paweł Małaszyński

In the fall of 1939, Poland was pulverized by the nearly simultaneous invasions of Germany and Russia, then allies in the early years of WW II. Over 15,000 Polish military officers, intellectuals and other non-combatant civilians were taken prisoner during the first weeks of combat and herded into prisoner of war camps. When Germany invaded its former ally three years later, it uncovered mass graves located in and around the dense Katyn forest in Western Russia. Hitler used the information of this discovery to deflect opposition to Germany’s occupation of Poland until 1945. Then, as Poles struggled under Soviet rule in the post-war years, Stalin adamantly insisted that the slaughter of these prisoners was carried out by the Germans and not by Russians. He made it a crime for Poles to disagree. It would take more than 40 years for the truth to finally emerge.

Legendary director Andrzej Wajda (Canal, Ashes & Diamonds) made his first film at age 24 in 1950, a handful of years after his native Poland had been absorbed into the Soviet Union. His father was among the Katyn victims and Wajda has long wished to tell not only the story of their brutal massacre but also the extent to which Stalin’s repression of the truth impacted the lives of the victims’ relatives and friends. This elegantly mounted film, nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Category last year, vividly recreates this staggering atrocity and its aftermath. No one who sees Katyn will ever forget it.

Working with a large Polish cast, actual locations, handsomely constructed sets, authentic costuming and the kind of meticulous attention to period detail that could only be achieved by an artist who actually lived during the years in which these events took place, Wajda’s Katyn becomes both an elegy to those, like his father, who were dumped wholesale into unmarked graves as well as to those required to live under a regime intent on forcing an entire nation to live a nightmare of “doublespeak”  reminiscent of the world created by George Orwell’s novel 1984

Wajda works from a script by 39 year-old screenwriter Przemyslaw Nowakowski that begins by briefly describing the film’s storyline in two paragraphs of prose over the opening credits. This decision to jump to the end of the storyline in the movie’s first frames may strike audiences as an example of a director getting ahead of himself, but Wajda wades quickly into the swirling chaos of his story by focusing on a bridge choked with refugees streaming towards each other, some heading west to avoid the advancing Russians while others flee east, hoping somehow to escape the Germans. Out of this panicked human scramble for survival, the screenwriter introduces a half dozen Polish officers and their families, then traces their anguished suffering over the years which followed in such intimate terms that the devastating reenactment of the actual executions themselves at the film’s climax becomes almost unbearable to watch. Wajda doesn’t sensationalize the slaughter; his genius lies in his ability to personalize it, heightening the horror by showing the mind-numbing indifference with which the executioners dealt with their victims. The results put an indelible human face on the meaning of evil. 

Now in his eighties, the director has created a haunting tribute to one of the darkest chapters in recent Polish history…and a cautionary tale about the dangers of totalitarianism, under whatever name or creed it operates. 

The verdict? Cinematic history at its very best. Don’t miss it. 

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