Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Wajda: Katyn

The Lincoln Center Film Society titled their Andrzej Wajda retrospective Truth or Dare, and it is an apt moniker indeed. In his most recent film, Katyń, Soviet lies and propaganda are nearly as painful for the loved ones grieving those killed by Stalin’s forces in 1940. It opens at the Film Forum in February, but given how susceptible a large portion of the American electorate has been to propaganda this year, one wishes it had opened before the election. Look for a proper review when Katyń opens in February, but be assured it is worth the wait. The most personal work of the master director’s accomplished career, Katyń (trailer here) is a withering examination of Soviet brutality, the corrosive effect of an orchestrated campaign of lies, and the moral cost of willfully accepting injustice.

Wadja’s own father was among the Polish POWs and other prominent citizens rounded-up and executed by the Red Army on the orders of Stalin (rubber-stamped by the Politburo) in 1940. That date is important. For years, the Soviets claimed the Germans committed the atrocity in 1941, until Gorbachev and Yeltsin finally confirmed Soviet culpability.

In his introduction at the Walter Reade Theater, Wajda gave the audience a probably much needed primer on the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and Soviet-National Socialist cooperation in the early stages of the war. His opening scene harrowingly illustrates the point, as Poles from the east fleeing the Russians collide on a bridge with Poles from the west fleeing the Germans.

Katyń moves back and forth in time, jumping to and from the events surrounding the massacre in the Russian woods, and the post-war aftermath. Many challenge the official story, but pay dearly for their dissent. The principal of the Fine Arts Academy seems more realistic when she flatly argues: “Poland will never be free again,” so it is best to scrape out what little consolation is available.

It will be impossible to discuss Wajda’s oeuvre without addressing Katyń. If not his greatest film, it is certainly his most visceral. Watching it on the Upper Westside of Manhattan was an unforgettable experience. Waiting in line for the film to start, I heard all the tired Palin bashing from those blind to their own presidential candidate’s far greater inexperience and naiveté. At one point a gentlemen in-line ahead of me sneered his disapproval for interview in which Gov. Palin gauchely expressed support for “killing the bad guys.” Once inside, Wajda received a well deserved standing ovation, before and after his remarks. However, as the final credits rolled, the theater was absolutely silent. Those in the audience were either in a state of awed reverence for what they had just seen or stunned into slack-jawed silence for the rebuke they had received. I have never loved the movies as much as I did in that moment, thanks to Andrzej Wajda.

Katyń makes it inescapably clear evil does exist in the world. There are in fact “bad guys” who are highly organized and determined to commit heinous crimes against us and free people everywhere. Denying their intent or attempting to appease them will only end in compounded tragedy. Today, before you vote, consider which candidate recognizes the gravity of the threats facing America and which would simply “hope” them away. Disregard the media propaganda and make an informed choice.

Then in February, look for Katyń at the Film Forum. Though it dramatizes events of some sixty years ago, it is disconcertingly timely today. Katyń is a great film, perhaps not Wajda’s masterpiece, but certainly a masterwork.