Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Screenplay by Andrzej Wajda, Wladyslaw Pasikowksi, Przemyslaw Nowarkowski
Starring Maja Ostaszewska, Andrzej Chyra, Danuta Stenka, Magdalena Cielecka
There's no real suspense in Katyn, Andrzej Wajda's fictional take on the circumstances and aftermath of the real-life Second World War massacre that gives the film its name. Nominated for an Oscar last year for best foreign-language film, it's a story of implacable fate, remorseless history, of families and individuals caught between truths that can't be spoken and falsehoods they're forced to believe. No one here gets out alive - even when he or she appears to have done so.
In fact, you know a lot of bad things are going to happen to a lot of good people right from the movie's start. An eight-line billboard sketches the Katyn story, about how, in the wake of Poland's partition by the Nazis and Soviets, 22,000 Polish officers, doctors, engineers and lawyers were taken by train in the spring of 1940 to the Katyn forest, among other locales in the former USSR, for liquidation and burial in secret mass graves. Then as the credits roll, dark clouds scud across the screen accompanied by the string-drenched strains of Krzysztof Penderecki's melancholy score.
Seconds later we see panicked people trying to cross a narrow bridge somewhere in Poland in September, 1939. Some are heading east, fleeing the advancing Germans, others west, fearful of what Stalin's army has in store. Communism? Fascism? Does it matter? They've seen the future, man, and it's murder.
Wajda knows this first-hand: He was 14 in March, 1940, when his father, a Polish cavalry officer captured by the Russians, was dispatched with a bullet to his head in Katyn forest.
For another filmmaker, such a personal connection could have resulted in one long cinematic howl. But this has never been Wajda's way in a directing career stretching back to the mid-1950s. Katyn is decidedly measured and solemn, its visuals a mix of muted hues and omnipresent shadows, the emotional tone as restrained as the cast of characters who, caught between two totalitarianisms, recognize the futility of grandiloquence and the fragility of hope.
Wajda deftly deploys two large narratives to tell a story that's both epic and domestic. One depicts the Russian internment of the Polish soldiers, most prominently a married cavalry officer (and compulsive diarist), Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), his bachelor friend Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra), their commanding officer (Jan Englert), and Piotr, a young lieutenant/engineer (Pawel Malaszynski). The scenes in this strand weave into and out of scenes of the home front - the fretful lives of women and children, among them Andrzej's wife Ann (Maja Ostaszewska), Roza, the aristocratic spouse of the commander (Danuta Stenka), and Piotr's two sisters (Magdalena Cielecka and Agnieszka Glinska).
Yet as large as his cast is, Wajda doesn't rely much on exposition. Indeed, for a movie of two hours duration, moving from location to location, from the onset of the Second World War through to Poland's postwar Soviet occupation, Katyn is remarkably concise and (if one may say this about a cinematic commemoration of mass murder) elegant. This demands a heightened degree of attention from the audience; what in another movie might seem a passing gesture or casual remark is here fraught with significance.
Katyn's longest and most gut-wrenching scene occurs at its end, with the recreation of the massacre. The viewer has had a "taste" of this horrific event earlier in the film, when Wajda shows two sets of archival footage of the massacre site, the first shot by the Germans (who correctly identified Katyn as a Soviet atrocity), the second by the Soviets (who, until they finally fessed up in 1990, tried to pass it off as Nazi nastiness and enforced that lie behind the Iron Curtain).
Neither, however, is adequate preparation for the reconstruction. It's not the brutality of the re-enactment that ultimately disturbs, nor its inevitability. It's the industrialization of the slaughter -the relentless, machine-like repetition of one group of human beings eliminating other human beings in a forest turned charnel house - and Wajda's unforgiving, matter-of-fact breakdown of how the Soviets went about it. There's no redemption here. Indeed, if anything is redemptive about Katyn , it's the fact of the film itself.