Katyn | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


The fate of Polish WWII military officers is at the heart of this drama

No good news: Maja Ostaszewska

In September 1939, Poland found itself between a Reich and a hard place. From one side the Germans closed in, and from the other came the Russians, Germany's ally du jour. Which way should people run? Who could they better trust with their lives?

Andrzej Wajda begins his story in Katyn with exactly this dilemma: On a bridge, a petrified mass of people flee, with advice coming from every direction, just as their captors are. Soon they have no choice: The Russians take 20,000 Polish army officers to a concentration camp, and the Germans occupy the country at large.

"Hitler declared a 1,000-year Reich and communism is forever," says Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), who once held the honor of being the youngest officer ever in the Polish army. His friend believes that in a year, when the alliance falls, "they'll need us very badly." And Andrzej, who has a sense of irony, asks: "Who?" In the end it wouldn't matter, for within months of the occupation, the Russians slaughtered their soldier captives in the Katyn forest and buried them in mass graves.

The first half of Wajda's drama recalls the year 1940, when the officers held in the camps speculated on their fate as their families waited back home back for any word of their survival or escape. The news came day by day, over a loudspeaker: the names of the dead, and the few possessions left behind that their families could collect.

In part two, Wajda shows us the immediate post-war aftermath of cover-ups and lies. During the war, the Germans blamed the Russians for the massacre of the Polish officers. After the war, the occupying Russians blamed the Germans. Andrzej's wife, Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), along with her nephew, Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra), who survived the Katyn forest, seek the "historical truth" about what happened to the officers. It doesn't take long for the Russians to find out what Jerzy's up to.

Wajda is the surviving lion of Polish cinema, and his career is distinguished enough to allow a handsome, sincere and highly conventional film like Katyn. From 1958's Ashes and Diamonds -- the third and best of his World War II trilogy -- though the magnificent Man of Marble during the rise of Solidarity in the late 1970s, his work has always had a thrilling immediacy. But Katyn is a historical drama with a straightforward agenda at its core, and it's almost too beautiful for its subject matter: the cinematography, while dark, has crisp edges and painterly shadows.

Wajda and his co-scenarists write some nuanced dialogue early on before settling into dramatic exposition. His footage of the dead bodies, and the narration that accompanies them, recalls Alain Renais' landmark Holocaust film, Night and Fog, and the quest for justice evokes every other story like it. But compare this drama of genocide and denial to Atom Egoyan's Ararat, a provocative and intellectual film that still had the dramatic power to move us.

The climax of Katyn returns to 1940, where Andrzej's diary walks us through the massacre, which is as stark as it could be. Wajda follows it with a full minute of a black screen and the sound of a dirge, and then, the closing credits and silence. His message in Katyn is clear: Fascism and communism are the same thing, and Poland needs to write its own history. If he's a little redundant in telling us this, it can't hurt to hear it again, especially from the great filmmaker who said it first. In Polish, German and Russian, with subtitles.


Starts Fri., April 24. Regent Square