Poland's historical epic in the limelight
Jan 24th 2008
A CRIME and a lie are the twin strands in the shameful tragedy of
Katyn: the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret
police, and the cover-up that followed. Now Andrzej Wajda, Poland's
leading film maker, has made his last film (he is 81) about what he
calls the "unhealed wound" in his country's history.
Mr Wajda's own father, Jakub, was murdered at Katyn, as were family
members of many of the production team. Those killings come in a
gruelling, 15-minute final sequence. First, the film shows in sombre
and claustrophobic detail the Polish POWs' travels to Golgotha; the
occupation authorities' vengeance on their families, and flashes
forward to the attempts by the country's post-war rulers to disguise
and deface the historical record.
The film has been nominated for best foreign-language film at this
year's Oscars. Those watching it should not expect to come away
happily humming the dramatic theme music by Krzysztof
Penderecki. "Katyn" is based on the letters and diaries of real-life
victims-unearthed when the Nazis first came across the mass graves in
1943. The last entry records the Polish officers' arrival at the
killing fields. "A thorough search. They didn't find my wedding ring.
They took my belt, my penknife and my watch. It showed 0630 Polish
time. What will happen to us?"
Expert cinematography, compelling acting, and a story that leaves the
viewer both sorrowful and angry, are a strong combination. But they
may not be quite enough to convince the judges. "Katyn" is filmed
from an uncompromisingly Polish point of view. Some outsiders may
find it confusing. One of the most powerful scenes, for example, is
the mass arrest of the professors of Cracow University by the
Germans. Those who already know about the upheaval that followed the
German invasion of 1939 will see the point: the Soviets and the Nazis
were accomplices. Others may puzzle.
The moral dilemmas of post-war Polish collaborators are better
portrayed than those of the wartime occupiers. If honouring the dead
means doom for your family-or for you-is it better to keep silent?
Poles faced that choice again and again after 1945, as their new
rulers used Katyn as a litmus test of loyalty. But barring one Red
Army officer, impeccably played by a Ukrainian actor, Sergei Garmash,
who saves his neighbours (an officer's widow and child) from
deportation, the foreigners are so villainous as to be little more
than sinister mannequins.
Melodrama is perhaps one fault of the film; an oddly sanitised
picture of daily life is another. Teeth, complexions and clothes all
evoke the prosperous Poland of today more than the squalor and hunger
of 1945. Material deprivation brings out the worst and the best in
people. But it needs to be shown to make the measure convincing.
Astonishingly, some in Russia are now reviving the lie that the
murderers at Katyn were not by the NKVD, but the Nazis. That was
maintained during the communist era, but only by punishing savagely
those who tried to tell the truth. Last year, as Mr Wajda's film
opened in Poland, a commentary in a Russian government newspaper,
Rossiiskaya Gazeta, dismissed the evidence of Soviet involvement in
Katyn as "unreliable". An Oscar would be a good answer to that.