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Katyn (2007)
A courageous film
17 February 2008
Katyn by Andrzej Wajda

A courageous film by a director who makes no concessions. Austerity instead of high-tech. What cineast of hallucinatory action, of nude and crude sensuality, of sequences full of monumental catastrophes would make a film in which one had scenes in a slower rhythm, without sex, with shadowy photography, with quiet music and giving ethical principles priority over the characters and their lives.

One more reason, however, for us to thank Hollywood for nominating this film to run for the Oscar for the best foreign film.

The Katyn massacre, perpetrated on Stalin's orders to eliminate the fine flower of the Polish intelligentsia, was left out of official Soviet history until the glasnost of Gorbatchov. There, in the Katyn forest and in other places as well, thousands of Polish officers were massacred. The Soviets tried to attribute it to the Nazis, but the truth eventually came to light. There is still, however, in Russia today, an attempt to deny the historical truth.

I would like to make my own the reading of the film which focuses on this question of the distortion of historical fact by the apparatus of the state. The official lie imposed by the Soviet occupation of Poland brought torment to the lives of many of the families of the victims. Wajda's denunciation, along with the cry "Never kill again!" can also serve as an alert for our present world, in which so often a virtual reality becomes a substitute for the truth.

The first group of interpretations belong to the women (wives, mothers, daughters) of the dead officers: how they coped, first with the hope of their return, and then with the definitive notice of their loss. They are marvellous interpretations, revealing the director's mastery and the talent of the actors. The portrayals demonstrate how, even when nothing else is left, there is still dignity. The wife of the dead General in Katyn refuses to endorse a declaration, prepared by the Nazis, denouncing the Soviets. The truth was known – why, then, should she play Hitler's propaganda game? He was just as much the enemy as Stalin was. Another woman wants to honour the memory of her brother by putting on the family tomb a stone with his name on it. Courageously she challenges the regime, but in vain - the stone is destroyed because on it the date of the officer's death indicates clearly who is to blame.

Most of the male characters were simply victims of massacre; among those who had the opportunity of showing themselves authentically noble was a Russian officer who tried to save his Polish neighbour and her daughter. "I couldn't save my own family but I can help yours." And it is a Polish officer who has changed sides who represents, in the middle of so much heroism, the weakness of some. "It is necessary to survive," he declared.

An entire population was suffocated by the Nazi and Soviet occupation. It is a shock to be shown in the film the cordial relations between the officials of the occupying powers, which would have been inconceivable in earlier years. Poland is partitioned (yet again!) by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In the Poland occupied by the Nazis all the professors of a university are summoned and arrested there and then (as a means of impeding the formation of future opposition). In the Poland occupied by the Soviets, the Polish officers are made prisoners of war (an efficient means of stopping them fighting for the independence of their country).

Pawel Edelman's photography is simply a work of genius, a mixture of sombre realism and the surreal. The music of Krzystof Penderecki fits the narrative like a glove, producing just the right atmosphere at the right time. The dry narrative style has something in common with a documentary and calls to mind another of his films, Love in Germany. And there is no lack of the symbolism present in all his films, this time with a remarkably religious tone.

In the development of the story there are moments taken from the films of that period – as, for example, the powerful exhumation of the dead, scenes which served Soviets and Nazis alike in placing the blame on each other.

For me the strongest images are those of the young man who refused to declare that his father had not been killed in Katyn by the Soviets; of the two waves of fugitives running in opposite directions and meeting in the middle of a bridge – which way to run? of the general who tried to animate his men in the last Christmas of their lives and of the little girl awaiting the return of her father. This last touched me in a special way, because I too had waited for my father's return at the end of the war.

Katyn is, without doubt, one of Andrzej Wajda's greatest films.

Tomasz Lychowski Rio de Janeiro, Brazil February, 2008.

Translated into English by Graham Connell
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