The New York Times reports on a new movie about Russian atrocities in Katyn; if you are in New York City, go out and support this film, which calls for justice as a neo-Soviet regime rises in Moscow (if you’ve seen it already, we’d love to hear your reactions in a comment or e-mail):
The first scene in “Katyn,” Andrzej Wajda’s solemn and searing new film, takes place on a bridge somewhere in Poland in mid-September 1939. The bridge is aswarm with people fleeing in opposite directions. Panicked families trying to escape the Germans, who invaded on the first of the month, collide with equally terrified compatriots coming from the eastern part of the country, scene of a recent Soviet intervention.
The chaos and terror form a living tableau of Poland’s terrible predicament in the middle of the last century, when it was caught in the pincers of two toxic strains of European totalitarianism. In 1939 Hitler and Stalin pledged mutual nonaggression, a pact that lasted long enough for their armies to collude in the destruction of Polish sovereignty.
In the spring of 1940 the Soviets proceeded with the “liquidation” of the Polish officer corps, shooting nearly 15,000 men in Katyn Forest, including Mr. Wajda’s father, and burying them in mass graves. As Mr. Wajda makes clear, the intent was not simply to destroy Poland’s military command but also to purge its population of engineers, intellectuals and other citizens whose education and expertise might help the country to function independently.
The Nazis, meanwhile, contributed to this project by shutting down universities and rounding up professors. Just as one character, the army captain Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), awaits his fate at the hands of the Russians, his father, a professor in Krakow, falls into the hands of the SS.
Afterward, when the Nazis and the Soviets resumed their customary aggression, each used the other’s barbarity for propaganda. The Germans dug up the bodies in Katyn and promoted themselves as protectors of the Poles against Bolshevik terror. When the tide of war turned, the Red Army repeated the exercise, blaming Hitler and fudging the dates of the massacre so it could be added to the list of German atrocities.
After the war the falsified Russian version of history was enforced by the usual police-state means. Even as the truth about Katyn continued to haunt Poles’ memories, it became, for much of the rest of the world, a hazy footnote, a symbol of Poland’s enduring historical bad luck.
But Poland has at least been fortunate to have, in Mr. Wajda, a tireless, clear-sighted chronicler. At 82, he has produced, in movies like “Ashes and Diamonds” and “Man of Marble,” an unparalleled cinematic record of Polish history, and “Katyn,” nominated for an Academy Award last year, is a powerful corrective to decades of distortion and forgetting.
With elegant concision, the film explores both the events leading up to the massacre and its aftermath, following a group of officers and their families through the agonies of war and the miseries of peacetime under Communism, circling back to end with an unsparing reconstruction of some of the killings.
The deaths are terrible and painful to watch, but the film’s dramatic momentum is carried by the sisters, mothers and widows of the dead, whose attempts to hold on to the truth are almost unbearably poignant. Maja Ostaszewska is quietly magnificent as Andrzej’s wife, Anna, who clings to the hope that he has, somehow, survived. Others, like the sisters of a young lieutenant, try to figure out how to honor his memory and carry on with their lives. One of them risks arrest by commissioning a gravestone with the accurate date of his death, while the other resigns herself to an occasional gesture of subversion and the knowledge that “Poland will never be free.”
The existence of “Katyn” contradicts her certainty — Poland is now free to take stock of its own past — but Mr. Wajda is too honest and sensitive a filmmaker to foreshadow an eventual redemptive ending. Instead, he focuses on the grief and confusion of his characters, and on the ferocity with which they hold on to the dignity that history conspires to strip from them. The result is a film with a stately, deliberate quality that insulates it against sentimentality and makes it all the more devastating.
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.
Directed by Andrzej Wajda; written by Mr. Wajda, Wladyslaw Pasikowski and Przemyslaw Nowakowski, based on the novel “Post Mortem” by Andrzej Mularczyk; director of photography, Pawel Edelman; edited by Milenia Fiedler and Rafal Listopad; music by Krzysztof Penderecki; produced by Michal Kwiecinski; released by Koch Lorber Films. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, West Village. In Polish, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. This film is not rated.
WITH: Maja Ostaszewska (Anna), Artur Zmijewski (Andrzej), Andrzej Chyra (Jerzy) and Jan Englert (General).