Monday, 10 May 2010


I finally got around to seeing "Katyn", Andrzej Wajda's film about the infamous massacre of Polish POWs by the Soviets in 1940 and the battle for truth that followed.
For those who know little about this subject, Katyn is perhaps the touchstone of modern Polish history. It is not so much the bare facts of the massacre of 22,000 of the nation's finest officers, intellectuals and aristocrats that serves to elevate the event to this status, rather the fact that the subject was strictly taboo under the Communist regime, and was only admitted by Moscow in 1990. Not only was a generation of Poles greivously wronged, therefore, they were also condemned to an embittered silence.
And, as if to add the most painful of ironies, it was whilst commemmorating the massacre that the Polish president and his entourage died in a plane crash in Belorussia last month. In remembering the massacre of the Polish elite, the Polish elite met its death. Therein, one is tempted to suggest, is Polish history in a nutshell.
Wajda's film is a complex affair. Beautifully shot, it follows the tribulations of a family directly affected by the massacre. Andrzej, an ambitious young Polish officer, is in a Soviet prison camp in 1939 waiting for transport to an unknown fate, when he is visited by his wife, who tries to persuade him to leave with her for Krakow. He refuses - citing the oath that he has made as an officer - and is duly deported to meet his destiny.
The film then jumps to 1943, when news of the massacre breaks with the Germans (who have discovered the mass graves) pinning the blame on the Soviets. Further jumps take us to 1945, when the incoming Soviet regime blames the massacre on the Germans and is brutal in maintaining their version of the truth.
In the middle of this battle for truth are the Polish families of the Katyn victims, whose reactions neatly encapsulate what one might call the Polish condition - on the one hand seeking pragmatically to swallow one's principles to work with the new regime, and on the other the romantic impulse to fight for what one knows to be right, even if it should mean hardship and death.
It is a complex film, full of nuance, oblique references and characters that seem to appear out of nowhere. To the non-Polish viewer, therefore, it might all seem rather bewildering - a reaction not helped by having to decypher subtitles. Yet, one must remember, perhaps, that Wajda is not making his film for the international audience, he is unashamedly directing it towards a domestic public, one for whom the references and asides are immediately recognisable and require no explanation. Even with my grounding in modern Polish history, occasionally I felt like I was eavesdropping on a private conversation, whose nuances and references I barely grasped.
For all that, however, this is well worth a watch. Visually, it is stunning, and the characters are (on the whole) well-developed and convincing. At the end - particularly after the final scenes in which the massacres are shown - one is rather emotionally drained. But it is worth it. Serious film-making should challenge and enlighten as much as it entertains, and "Katyn" does all of those things.

4 comments:

Best War Books said...

Good post, Roger. This is one of the few films I've seen recently where the history is not undermined by simplistic dramatic concerns.

FrederickBove98787 said...

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Victoria Sorzano said...

Hello Roger, I'm Adrian Gilbert's wife. I'd really like to post your Katyn review on a friend's Facebook, but can't find the link for that individual post.

hmar said...

Thanks for your review. I (a professor of German history) watched this film recently with a non-historian friend. I found it very good, as did my friend, but we had to pause it several times so I could explain what was going on.
Harold Marcuse