Sunday, April 7, 2013

Katyń (2007)

I see my film about Katyn as a story of a family separated forever, about great illusions and the brutal truth about the Katyn crime. In a word, a film about individual suffering, which evokes images of much greater emotional content than naked historical facts. A film that shows the terrible truth that hurts, whose characters are not the murdered officers, but women who await their return every day, every hour, suffering inhuman uncertainty. ~ Director Andrej Wajda on Katyń (2007)
 In the spring of 1940 in the Katyń forest in Russia more than 20,000 Polish officers and other dignitaries were systematically murdered by the Soviet secret police at the direct orders of Stalin. To ask why this massive atrocity occurred is about as productive as wondering why Stalin killed anyone, because other than the desire for brute power there was no reason to assassinate so many prisoners of a country with whom the Soviets were not even at war. Poland at the time was divided between the Nazis and the Soviets, who had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was like two devils in hell making a deal, and only spelled disaster for the people of Poland. The opening scene of Katyń shows crowds of refugees running on to a bridge. Some are running from the Germans and others are fleeing the Soviets. They meet in the middle of the bridge, trapped between the two invaders. The scene symbolizes the plight of the Polish nation.

According to The Guardian:
Katyn begins with the dual invasion of Poland in 1939, sandwiched by the twin tyrant cynics of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact: from the west, the Nazis, and from the east, the Soviets, who take prisoner virtually the entire Polish officer class. Anna, played by Maja Ostaszewska, is desperately looking for her husband Andrzej, played by Artur Zmijewski, a Krakow cavalry officer who has been captured - and whose father, a university professor, is sent away by the Nazis to be murdered in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Danuta Stenka plays the wife of a slaughtered Polish general; she declines to cooperate with the Nazi propaganda effort after the Germans discover the forest grave in 1943. Andrzej Chyra is Jerzy, a Polish army lieutenant and survivor of the war, who knows the awful truth about Anna's husband and cannot bear the burden of guilt at the knowledge he has helped to suppress. Finally, there is Agnieszka, played by Magdalena Cielecka, whose brother was killed at Katyn: she is obsessed with the only way to bear witness to the truth. She wants to erect a marble headstone to her brother, simply bearing the true date of his death as 1940, the date at which only the Soviets could have carried out the killings.

Wajda's story begins with the confusion and agony of war's outbreak, then moves on to the confusion and agony of occupation and then the confusion and agony of the postwar settlement. It is a story of embattled civilian life, of people not knowing what is going on or what to think, and realising that the majority of what they are being told by the authorities is untrue. The actual, moment-by-moment horror of the Katyn slaughter itself is saved for the final sequence. It is a narrative ordering that is intended to mimic the way in which the crime was buried in the collective memory and only disinterred long afterwards.
 This is a film made with great moral seriousness, and with a clear-eyed deliberation: it is sombre and measured as it treads carefully around this most contentious mass grave in Polish history. Yet there are flashes of poetry and tragedy. When Anna is desperately looking for her husband in the chaos and confusion ushered in by the Nazi invasion, she arrives at a churchyard, at which we have time to register a bizarre and painful touch: a statue of the crucified Christ has evidently been knocked down - only a nailed hand is visible on the cross. Moments later, Anna sees a body under a blanket, and fears it might be her husband's corpse. But wrenching away the blanket, she finds that it is ... the figure of Jesus. From some scruple of Catholic decency, someone has draped this icon like an injured combatant: Jesus has been paradoxically transformed into a casualty of war. It is a brilliant yet low-key surreal moment, and a hint of what is to come: crushed innocence and cover-ups. (Read entire review.)
 I must say that as a film Katyń is difficult to follow unless one is familiar with the history of that tumultuous period. Even with some basic historical background, it is easy to lose track of the various characters and becomes confusing when new characters are suddenly introduced. The various plot lines seem tenuous and unpredictable until the final scene of power and horror which pulls everything together.

In the words of Tadeusz Sobolewski in his article "The Gesture of Antigone":
This films wants nothing from us nor tries to convert us to anything. The coloring of Paweł Edelman's cinematography, the music of Krzysztof Penderecki (perfectly selected fragments of finished pieces), and the low-profile acting, try to make an impression as if the film were covered in ashes. Its key is mournful and penitential. This protects the film from firebrands, whose weapon is aggression. You have this irresistible felling that this film is doing good for Poland, clears the air of hatred.

The last scene shows the shooting of officers, culminating the whole film. Nobody has shown it yet, so we see it for the first time. As once, in Wanda Jakubowska's Ostatni etap of 1948, the Poles saw a picture of crematoria for the first time. Katyń is half a century overdue. From my childhood, I remember that word, mysterious and unspeakable, as if its use threatened you with something. In Polish its morphological structure reminds you of torture; (Katyń, ageographicalname, katować – to torture).

The cinematic image of Katyń will enter collective memory as a presentation of innocent Polish death and the covered-up truth, which will be shown in its brutal dimensions. This alone must have been argument enough to make this film, to become a new Matejko, Grottger, or a Polish Goya, painting the shooting of patriots. In his film the Katyń scene has its strength and also a certain aesthetic modesty. There is no imposed symbolism in it, no additional effects except the Lord's Prayer repeated by the officers, which seems quite natural. The music dies down, only to build up again. The last words heard in the film, right after the scene of quick, as if accelerated shooting, come from Penderecki's oratorio: “Requiem aeternam dona eis eternal peace." (Read more.)
While I was aware on an intellectual level of the Katyń massacre the hideousness of the event and the endless dread which came in its wake are such that only a powerful work of art can begin to convey them. As the Soviets tried to rewrite history, they forced the Poles to blame the horrors of Katyń upon the Nazis. Once again the Polish people were trapped between two enemies on a bridge to nowhere. It was a predicament for which there was no easy solution. Share

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