Fifty years after creating the first cinematic account of the Warsaw uprising with Kanal — a classic that put Polish cinema on the international map — octogenarian master Andrzej Wajda offers Katyn, the first film about another WWII tragedy. Named for the wooded Soviet region where 15,000 Polish officers were executed by Stalin’s Red Army, Katyn strives to bring clarity to an event long (and deliberately) cloaked in mystery. During a half-century of Soviet occupation and influence, official accounts of Katyn put the blame on Nazi Germany (after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, but before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Nazis and Soviets basically divvied up and imprisoned the Polish military). By the time Mikhail Gorbachev and later Boris Yeltsin admitted Soviet culpability, the truth of Katyn was an open secret. Wajda’s film ambitiously covers the events both preceding and surrounding the massacre, as well as the spiritual costs of forsaken truths on postwar Poland.
From an opening scene of itinerant citizens stranded and bewildered on a bridge, Katyn privileges representational over individuated drama. Though a woman and her daughter quickly emerge as focal points in the crowd and ensuing narrative, every moment they are on screen reinforces their narrative function: they are the loving family of a captured Army captain. Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) journeys from Krakow to Warsaw in hopes of persuading her husband, Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), to abandon his post and escape captivity, but he declines out of a sense of honor and duty. Transported to Russian soil, Andrzej nobly awaits his fate alongside his fellow officers, keeping detailed notes addressed to Anna while Anna waits futilely for his return to Poland. Andrzej scans as virtuous and resilient while Anna is anxious and incomplete without Andrzej. He is the best and brightest, the martyred; she is Poland’s broken heart. Click here to read the rest of Eric Hynes’s review of Katyn.