A World War II massacre is brought to light
'Katyn" is a history lesson for a country and a people forced to forget at gunpoint. A quietly epic, very precise re-creation of events leading up to and following the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish Army officers and POWs by Soviet troops in the Katyn forest and elsewhere, the film is a national reckoning brought to the screen by possibly the only man up to the job: legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda, 83 at this writing and with a body of uncompromising, politically charged cinema stretching back to the 1950s.
With this film, Wajda, whose father was a Polish military man murdered at Katyn, helps sweep away decades of official lies. The massacre was carried out at the behest of Stalin and his henchman Lavrenty Beria, but as the USSR took control of Poland after the war, the party line was that the Nazis did it. To protest otherwise was to disappear forever into the Soviet security apparatus; to even say the word "Katyn" became taboo. Only in 1990, a year before the USSR's fall, did Mikhail Gorbachev admit his country's guilt in both massacre and cover-up; Russia still refuses to label the deaths a "genocide."
Wajda chooses to dramatize rather than melodramatize. "Katyn" spans from 1939 to 1945 and features a dozen or so major characters, but it consciously avoids passion in order to pin down exactly what happened. This adds to the film's cumulative power while robbing individual scenes and performances of a certain urgency; the trade-off seems fair.
The central figure, based closely on Wajda's father, is Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), a captain in the 8th Uhlan Regiment who has been taken prisoner with his fellow officers as the film begins. While his distraught wife, Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), and daughter tearfully see him off, he vows to keep a journal of his experiences. "Katyn" continually returns to that journal, and to the lives of Andrzej, officers Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra) and Piotr (Pawel Malaszynski), their general (Jan Englert), and all their families spread across Poland.
The film continually widens and contracts, pursuing one story line only to pick up another, leaping past the massacre to the lowering of the Soviet boot, and gradually circling back to a devastating confrontation with Katyn itself. The music, taken from the works of Krzysztof Penderecki, mourns rather than prods; colors are muted; the overt gesture is averted. This is a cinema of witness.
We're intended to consider the cast as an ensemble - Poland in miniature - but certain performances stand out. Chyra is riveting as an intelligent man forced to choose between survival and conscience, while the general's daughter (Agnieszka Kawiorska) and the captain's nephew (Antoni Pawlicki) have a brief encounter that tears at your heart. In a different world, the resistance fighter (Magdalena Cielecka) intent on telling the truth about her brother's death would get her own movie.
Wajda doesn't want to make that movie. The great filmmaker's urge to show generations of his countrymen what they were told not to think about is what moves him, and while "Katyn" rises above didacticism, you can feel the director keeping his emotions in check throughout. The truth is enough here; that, and the cold fury with which it's laid out like a body in a field.