Katyn (Poland 2007)

The General attempts to lift the spirits of his Polish officers on Christmas Eve 1939.

The General attempts to lift the spirits of his Polish officers on Christmas Eve 1939.

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.


  1. Stephen Gott

    I find it incredible,that two of the best films I’ve seen this year,have been made by two veteran film directors.Firstly,we have Claude Chabrol(age 79)with “The Girl Cut In Two”(2007).A film full of Chabrol’s trademark perversity and criticism of the bourgeoisie,where he uses his Knowledge of “Cinema” and film language to tell a story.

    Similarly,in “Katyn”(2007),Andrzej Wajda(age 83)has made a very personal film(his own father died in the Katyn Massacre in 1940)and in doing so,continues his role of Polands memory and conscience.A role he began in films like “A Generation”(1954),”Kanal”(1957),”Ashes And Diamonds”(1958) and later with “Man Of Marble”(1976) and “Man Of Iron”(1980).As in the earlier films,he uses allegory and symbolism to reveal the truth.I think it is significant,that the Polish officer,who keeps a diary of the events he witnesses,is called Andrzej.I loved the way Wajda moved the camera,especially in the sequence of the imprisoned Polish officers,gathering together to hear the words of their Commander.The music,by Krzysztof Penderecki is outstanding,especially in the final scenes.

    What I don’t understand,is why we have to wait so long,to see Great Films by Great Directors”! Both Chabrol and Wajda,have recently completed new films(Chabrol with “Bellamy” and Wajda with “Sweet Rush”).With all the rubbish out there in the multplexes,surely the “arthouse” cinemas,should be given the opportunity to show “quality” films,when they become available.


  2. venicelion

    It’s an indictment of distributors and exhibitors in the UK, I’m afraid. Wajda and Chabrol are thought to be ‘out of fashion’ or making films that won’t attract a younger audience. Part of the problem is that films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage are now seen as ‘art films’. I would classify them as high quality mainstream genre films that just happen to be subtitled. But if they represent what is expected of a specialised film, the more subtle and subdued film like Katyn gets lost. I’d refer you back to the earlier posts about the French film, Un secret – another profound film given a derisory release.

    If it’s any consolation, Katyn has just done rather well at the UK box office managing No 14 in the chart on just 12 prints.


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