KATYŃ (Andrzej Wajda, 2007)

In August 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed their mutual non-aggression pact. A week later, beginning September 1, both German and Soviet armies separately invaded Poland; on Poland’s border the Soviets imprisoned more than 10,000 Polish officers and soldiers, all of whom they executed in April 1940. Following Germany’s invasion of Russia, canceling their pact, in June 1941, the Soviets blamed Germans for the massacre, whose date they advanced as part of the cover-up. After the war, with Poland under Soviet control, the Polish people, who knew the truth, were required to support the Soviet version of the massacre; otherwise, they might be killed or imprisoned. Andrzej Wajda has long wanted to make a film about the event. His father, Jakub, was among those whom the Soviets mass-murdered (a shot to the head by a shot to the head) in Katyń Forest.
     This film is not one of Wajda’s artistic successes. Its partial focus on Ana, who waits with her in-laws and young daughter for word about the fate of her spouse, Andrzej, a Polish army captain, is serviceable; but the back-and-forth between this aspect and the incarceration and murders themselves is unwieldy. Worse, the killings seem to be the result of Stalin’s (as Coleridge might say) “motiveless malignity.” On the contrary, the Soviets may have had reasons for their vicious act. (Historian Gerhard Weinberg’s theory of motive, for instance, is cogent and compelling.) Indeed, a major weakness of Wajda’s film is its paucity of any kind of context. While the film steadily improves, it does so only as an efficient thriller; it never deepens into any kind of contemplation of the tragic event and its aftermath. And it includes two howlers: remarks—both “prophetic,” but only one that is accurately so—that toys with our enlightened vantage. The Germany-U.S.S.R. pact won’t last, someone wisely notes; Poland will never be free, someone else predicts. All this is terribly clever—and debilitating for the film.
     Nearly seventy years after the massacre is far too late for what I am sorry to say is largely sentimental anti-Stalinist, anti-Soviet propaganda.
     Certainly, all the talk about “truth” sounds hollow and rhetorical.
     Maja Komorowska, though, is wonderful as Andrzej’s old mother.

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