Katyn – movie review
2007, Akson Studio
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Starring: Maja Ostaszewska, Andrzej Chyra
It remained a taboo subject until after the Communist regime collapsed in 1989.
Katyn is an unflinching account of the Polish officers who were killed in the Katyn Forest Massacre in 1940 and how the aftermath affected their families and Polish society as a whole.
The film is based on the novel Post Mortem by Andrzej Mularczyk and was nominated as the best foreign language film at the Oscars. It lost out to the powerful film Die Falscher (The Counterfeiters).
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The film was a very personal project for director Andrzej Wajda, whose father was murdered by the NKVD. He told the BBC he never thought he would be able to make the film because Communist officials would censor him. In fact, it remained a taboo subject until after the Communist regime collapsed in 1989. The Russians only admitted responsibility for the atrocity in 1990.
The film does an excellent job of portraying the deep physical, mental and psychological wounds left by the Katyn Massacre. An estimated 22,000 Polish officers and NCOs were taken prisoner in the wake of the Soviet invasion in 1939 and later executed. An entire generation of leaders in a potentially free and democratic society was wiped out, including thousands of lawyers, engineers, professors and artists.
As shown in the film, the event was a national trauma that affected families all across the country waiting to learn who had died. Several scenes show Polish crowds gathering in the streets to listen as the names of the victims are read out over the airwaves.
However, the universal nature of the massacre is both a strength and a weakness in the film. Wajda focuses mainly on a few officers from the 8 Uhlans Regiment and develops the characters of Lt. Jerzy (played by Andrzej Chyra) and an officer’s wife Anna (played by Maja Ostaszewska) well. However, in an effort to show the depth of the Katyn Massacre, the story is frequently interrupted by some detours that introduce interesting but short-lived characters and tangents.
Cinematographer Pawel Edelman uses several good techniques to improve the story-telling quality of the film. Point-of-view shots make the images more intimate and unique transitions bring scenes to life by reaching across time and space to make a connection.
Archival footage form German and Soviet propaganda films are also employed to bring home the immensity and brutality of the massacre. The lens pans over rows upon rows of corpses that stretch across the landscape. Forensic investigators examine the desiccated bodies of soldiers still clutching rosaries or wearing homespun sweaters when they died.
Acclaimed Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki contributes a dark and foreboding classical soundtrack to the film, but silence proves equally effective when the viewer is left in total quiet to read the credits as they scroll by like a grim tableau.
Although Wajda told the BBC he hoped his film would soothe and atone for the wounds of Katyn, the film provoked a short clash in the media between Polish and Russian newspapers. Thousands of graves of Polish victims are still undisclosed or in a state of disrepair.