There are directors like John Ford and Alexander Dovzhenko, national bards singing the tales of the tribe, and others like Charles Chaplin and Frank Capra, people’s artists talkin’ straight to the folks. Senegal’s late Ousmane Sembene was both—so is Andrzej Wajda. With his new film Katyn, Poland’s greatest filmmaker caps his career with the story he waited most of his life to tell.
Wajda pointedly titled his first, quasi-autobiographical feature A Generation (1954) and has consistently dramatized critical junctures in 20th-century Polish history, turning them into movies that have aspired to be or—like his masterpieces Kanal (1957), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), and Man of Marble (1977)—actually have been political events. Katyn, which sold millions of tickets and provoked a national debate in Poland, addresses a once-taboo, still-traumatic subject: the 1940 liquidation of some 15,000 Polish military officers, carried out on Stalin’s orders and consequently blamed on the Nazis.
The Katyn massacre was grisly; the cover-up, enforced throughout the Cold War and the life of the Soviet Union, was additionally atrocious in that it founded the new Polish state on an obvious lie. For the 82-year-old director, the bloodbath has an added significance—his father was among the victims. This intense personal investment may account for the movie’s uneven quality: While never less than fascinating, Katyn alternates between scenes of tremendous power and sequences most kindly described as dutiful. It’s as if the artist is never certain whether he is making this movie for himself, his father, or the entire nation.
Based on a novel by Andrzej Mularczyk, a veteran screenwriter of Wajda’s generation, Katyn has an anthology quality. The opening scene, set on a Kraków bridge over the Vistula, tops a similar one in Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa (and another in Schindler’s List), with a panicky civilian mob in flight from the German advance running headlong into another crowd fleeing the Russians. As the action moves from bloody field hospital to fetid POW camp to Kraków’s Jagiellonian University (where, in another set piece, the Nazis arrest the entire faculty), the filmmaking is robust. Wajda conducts the masses, orchestrates crane shots, and scatters the landscape with highly charged symbols. No movie has ever made the analogy between Hitlerism and Stalinism so visceral.
Katyn is directed for maximum gravitas, but often trips over the script’s clumsy transitions. Turning from wide-screen spectacle to close-up characterization, the direction falters, despite the facility of the actors. Initially, it seems as if the film’s protagonist will be Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), the willowy, sorrowful wife of a captured Polish officer. Wajda, however, has something more epic in mind. The narrative is complicated and elliptical. Jumping from one historical juncture to the next—the German discovery of the Katyn killing field, the Red Army liberation of Poland, the coalescing of a new Polish state around the insistence that Katyn was a Nazi crime—the movie staggers under its shifting cast of characters, stiffly deployed at key moments. A flurry of reaction shots serves to squander the can’t-miss moment when a young child mistakes a uniformed Katyn survivor for her father.
History is the subject. As in Man of Marble, Wajda is particularly adroit at integrating archival footage. The victorious Soviets produce a propaganda film about Katyn that, complete with exhumed bodies and presiding priests, is virtually identical to the Nazi film made two years before. (Shocking as this is, one has to wonder if Wajda didn’t tweak the newsreels to make them so absolutely alike.) Wajda’s most provocative notion is that Katyn was a process that bore its poison fruit in war’s aftermath—families divided and individuals broken by the new regime’s institutionalized doublethink. In a bit of prophetic direct address early in the movie, a Polish general tells his fellow captives (and the camera) that they must survive: “Without you, there will be no free Poland.”
They didn’t, and there wasn’t. Driven mad by the boisterous Soviet propaganda blasting out of the public address system, a Polish officer who miraculously eluded the massacre walks drunkenly out into the snowy street and shoots himself; a beautiful young partisan turns Antigone, sacrificing her future in a hopeless attempt to have her brother’s tombstone dated “1940” (instead of the Soviet-sanctioned “1941”). Earlier, she had argued with her sister, a newly minted Party member who maintains that resistance is futile and, in another pointed bit of direct address, wrongly informs the world that “there will never be a free Poland.”
Late in Katyn, Anna receives her husband’s diary—a device allowing Wajda to restage the procedure of mass murder in harrowing detail. Although the entire movie is a build-up to this grisly 10-minute sequence, it’s a factor of Wajda’s mastery that nothing really prepares us for its single-minded intensity. It seems remarkably self-reflexive that the filmmaker understands that his oeuvre may culminate in this Guernica set-piece; the movie’s final image is that of a truck not quite pushing the earth over a dead hand entwined in a rosary. Katyn, however, is not a confession.
A teenager in People’s Poland and then the most public of public artists, Wajda had to live with Katyn every day. Albeit indifferently staged and poorly written, the movie’s key postwar scene has a boy, applying for art school, refusing to alter his application so as not to conceal his father’s death at Katyn; the twist is that the stern young administrator urging his accommodation to the new reality herself lost a brother at Katyn. Wajda is both characters. Making Katyn allowed him to imagine his father’s murder without telling us what it was like for him to live with it.