I’ve waited a long time to see this film and I wasn’t disappointed. It may be the best film released in the UK this year – not in terms of technical accomplishment or artistic endeavour (whatever that means), but simply as a personal statement and a representation of enormous emotional feeling. Director Andrzej Wajda was 13 when the war began and his father, a cavalry officer, went off never to return. In the 1950s Wajda became one of the leading figures in the humanist art cinema celebrated across the world. For fifty years he has waited for the opportunity to make this film in which inevitably he would have to explore not just what happened in 1940, but also what it meant for the Wajda family and for Polish society.
If the name ‘Katyn’ doesn’t mean much to you, you should know that in 1940 Stalin authorised the murder of 20,000 and more Polish military officers and intelligentsia who were being held by the Red Army. The subsequent massacre in the Katyn forest outside Smolensk in Western Russia was uncovered by the Nazis in 1943 when they invaded Russia and used to make anti-Russian propaganda. It was then claimed as a German atrocity by the Russians in 1945 when they liberated Poland. The British fare badly as well since they refused to confirm the Russian responsibility for the massacre in 1943 for fear of offending Stalin as an essential ally.
What I found surprising (because I didn’t read about the film beforehand) was how Wajda tackled something so close and painful. Like many recent films about the ‘Eastern European War’, the outcome of the events is well-known so the script can’t really aim for surprising twists or narrative suspense. Wajda makes important structural decisions such as focusing primarily on the women at home rather than the men captured in 1939 when the Red Army invaded Poland soon after the Nazi attack. He selects characters who are archetypal Polish officers and their families – the General, the captain, the lieutenant, the engineer/pilot. He moves the story on quickly to show us the methodical actions of the Nazi and Soviet administrations and their attempts to remove all the potential leaders of Polish resistance. He shows us the immediate aftermath of the Russian occupation of all Poland in 1945 and compares the Nazi and Russian attempts to use Polish deaths for propaganda purposes. He hones in on the terrible decision for the survivors – to knuckle down and build the new Poland under Russian hegemony or to remain true to history – and perish nobly. When he does eventually show us the executions, we are aware of the true horror of what these events mean, not just in 1945 when the reality of the deaths is confirmed, but over the next 45 years of a Polish state established on lies.
I got home from the screening and read long screeds of complaints about the film on IMDB from people who found it ‘boring’ or ‘amateurish’. I’m always a little wary of such comments, especially when they come from Poles who recognise soap stars in the cast etc. and of course I can’t comment on the Polish dialogue, only on what the subtitler has offered. (I did recognise one of the players from We Are All Christs and from my perspective the casting was very good.) On the whole though I think these comments come from younger viewers whose sense of film language has been dulled by American action movies and holocaust melodramas. They seem incapable of following the plot and easily lost if the film moves slowly. On the other hand, I have to admit that Wajda himself takes no prisoners. If you don’t know the history it is easy to get lost. Next to me in the cinema were a young couple who talked through the opening credits and I had to bite my lip to stop myself telling them to shut up. Possibly they were young Poles not used to an art cinema ambience? Anyway, they soon quietened and watched the film in silence.
For me though this was a beautifully made film with a strong sense that every image was considered and every moment filled with subtle gestures and symbols – or perhaps they were heavy-handed for some taste? Inevitably there have been comparisons with Wajda’s 1950s trilogy of films about the Warsaw risings and their aftermath. I was prompted to think about these in the sequences in which young resistance fighters return to Kracow and attempt to avoid the soldiers of the new regime in 1945 as they refuse to accept the Russian view. I’m an old romantic, but for me the women were all believable and very beautiful, which made the pain of the narrative even sharper. The young women made me think of the German film about Sophie Scholl and I hope that this will be a film that young people will watch and will be moved by.
For a long time, I thought that Katyn would not be released in the UK. There are strong Polish communities in the UK dating from the arrival of Polish forces who escaped in 1939. They supported the Allied war effort and became part of British as well as Polish history. Wajda points to the difficult relationship between Britain and Poland in the dialogue amongst the Polish prisoners held by the Russians. There is another story to be told about Britain and Poland. I’m pleased that the UK Film Council supported Katyn‘s release. I hope as many people as possible get to see it.