Monday, February 16, 2009

Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn

Propaganda can kill the spirit just as surely as bullets kill the body. So the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda argues in his latest film. On September 17, 1940, the Soviet military massacred 15,000 Polish prisoners of war and local civic leaders, dumping their bodies in mass graves in the Katyń Forest. For their families, subsequent Soviet lies and denials would be nearly as painful as their grief at losing loved ones. Arguably the most personal work of the director’s accomplished career, Katyń (trailer here), one of last year’s Oscar nominees for best foreign language film, finally opens in New York this Wednesday.

Katyń is not just another example of Poland’s tragic for Wadja. His own father was among the Polish POWs murdered that fateful day, on Stalin’s direct orders (rubber-stamped by the Politburo). The date is important. For years, the Soviets claimed the Germans committed the atrocity in 1941, until Gorbachev and Yeltsin finally confirmed Soviet culpability (which the Russian state media now again denies).

In his opening sequence, Wajda gives the audience a probably much needed visual primer on the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and Soviet-National Socialist cooperation in the early stages of World War II. It harrowingly depicts Poles from the east fleeing the Russians, only to 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 will challenge the official story, but pay dearly for their dissent. A 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.

Discussions of the massacre are not academic or theoretical in Katyń. They are established historical fact, which Wajda forces the audience to confront directly. He dramatically concludes the film by returning to the actual incident, showing it in unflinchingly detail, down to the Soviets’ drainage system for the resulting blood. The effect is simply devastating (probably the most chilling scene I have ever seen on film). Katyń makes it inescapably clear evil does exist in the world.

Katyń is a great film—perhaps not Wajda’s masterpiece, but certainly a masterwork. Granted, it is not perfect. Characters are introduced and then suddenly dispensed with, having only been partially developed. However, Katyń is such powerful film, its passion overwhelms such shortcomings. Wajda’s scenes are brilliantly composed and the cast is first-rate. Andrzej Chyra is particularly effective as a cavalry lieutenant, who personifies guilt as the lieutenant who survives in place of his captain.

To call Wajda a great director is no exaggeration. In 2000, he was awarded an honorary Academy Award. Eight years later, Katyń became his fourth film nominated for the best foreign language award (and at eighty-one, he is reportedly at work on his next film). It will be impossible to discuss his oeuvre without addressing Katyń. If not his greatest film, it is certainly his most visceral. It is a withering examination of the Soviets’ cold-blooded machinery of death, the corrosive effect of their campaign of lies, and the moral cost of willfully accepting injustice, proving Wajda’s powers remain undiminished with age. It is a powerful film that should be seen by anyone who takes film seriously as an art-form. It opens Wednesday in New York at the Film Forum.