On March 5, 1940, in the forest of Katyn near Smolensk in western Russia, nearly 22,000 Polish lawyers, engineers, factory owners and military officers were shot in cold blood by the Soviet secret police. The massacre, ordered by Stalin, was designed to purge Poland not only of its military commanders, but also of its intellectual forces that could form a base of resistance.
For 47 years, the Soviets denied the massacre, declaring that the Nazis were the ones who carried out the mass murder during the German occupation of Poland. For 47 years, the Polish people were fed this lie against their will. The subject remained a major taboo, even after the Kremlin admitted the Russian responsibility in 1990.
In 2007, Poland’s greatest living filmmaker Andrzej Wajda finally decided to break the silence, producing a stark, hard-boiled film account of one of the darkest days in Polish history.
His Academy Award nominated film, simply titled “Katyn, is the highlight of the Euro Film Club; a month-long film festival showing 23 distinguished European productions, the bulk of which will be screened in Egypt for the first time in four cultural centers across Cairo.
The scope of this film festival is astonishing, ranging from Jan Sverák’s bittersweet comedy “Empties and György Pálfi’s beautiful and disturbing murder drama “Hukkle, to Joram Lürsen’s warm and joyful romance “Love is All and Ain Mäeots’s musical biopic “Taarka.
Along with “Katyn, the festival’s other high-profiled pictures are John Carney’s splendid cult musical “Once – winner of the 2008 Oscar for best song – Costa-Gavras’s comedy noir “Le couperet and “Somers Town, Shane Meadows’s anticipated follow-up to the highly acclaimed “This is England.
“Katyn though seems to be on a league of its own, primarily because it contains no entertainment values found in similar real-life stories. Wajda’s film has none of “Schindler’s List and “The Pianist sentimentality, nor does it offer a redemptive conclusion à la “Hotel Rwanda or a philosophical discourse like the one at the heart of “Ararat.
Instead of fully engaging the viewer in both the actual massacre and its aftermath, Wajda keeps his viewers at bay, forcing them to assume the distressing role of passive spectators.
The opening scene of the film instantly sketches out the quandary the Poles were facing at the outbreak of World War II. It is mid-September 1939; a bridge is inundated with entire families running in opposite directions. On one side, families are fleeing the Germans who invaded the Western part of the country, on the other, their compatriots are attempting to escape the Russians who have taken over the Eastern part. The two quickly crash into each other, as the foreboding sense of terror, chaos and helplessness is rapidly amplified.
Wajda doesn’t rely on a central character to lead the audience through the events of the massacre. Instead, he watchfully examines the repercussions of the incident through the eyes of four families, each shedding a different light on the anguish brought by the men they lost and the brutality of both the German and Soviet occupations.
The closest thing the film has to a central character is Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) the wife of an army officer who refuses her pleas to abandon his duty before he’s deported to the Soviet Union. For five years, Anna and her little daughter wait every day for her husband to return, refusing to believe the indefinite reports of his death.
The Nazis aren’t absent from the big picture. Earlier in the war, they close down Krakow University, accusing it of being “the center of anti-German propaganda, arrest all professors and banish them to a labor camp. One of the arrested professors is Anna’s father-in-law. Months later, a letter is sent to the professor’s wife, informing her that her aging husband has passed away after being afflicted with an untreatable disease.
The pain of this loss, the aggravation of the impossibility of seeking justice, haunts most of the film. The sister of a lieutenant attempts to have a gravestone built for him with the actual date of his death, only to be arrested by the Soviet police. Her more cynical and realistic sister dismisses her move, suppressing her fearfulness and inability to honor her brother under the rationale that “Poland will never be free.
In war, Wajda suggests, heroism is a senseless notion. Acts of intrepidness always end in death, such as the university student who is shot by Soviet police after tearing down a propaganda poster. Survival, in the face of these lies, is unbearable, even for the weak. One officer, who witnessed the murder of his comrades, is pressed by the Soviet forces to sign a statement maintaining that Nazis were the ones who carried out the massacre in exchange for his life. Incapable of confronting himself and consumed by his act of betrayal upon returning home, the officer decided to takes his own life.
Although classical in design with clear-cut villains and victims, the structure of “Katyn is non-novelistic. Wajda continuously shifts focus from one character to the next, jumping abruptly from one time frame to another with little exposition. The effect can be jarring, impersonal in parts even. But Wajda didn’t intend to craft a psychological study. His film is a panoramic view of a war-ravaged nation, executed from a basic level; a sad, nightmarish story requiring no Hollywoodification to convey the big picture.
For more than half a century, Wajda has been documenting the social, political and historical reality of his home country; a feat few other filmmakers in the world have managed. Best known for his war trilogy – “A Generation (1955), “Kanal (1957) and “Ashes and Diamonds (1958) – Wajda is one of those filmmakers everyone seems to know, but few have actually watched his films, primarily due to the specificity of his subjects. Perhaps that’s why Polish films have been chiefly associated in the last 20 years with Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose themes are somewhat more universal.
Topics aside, Wajda’s recurrent themes of political repression and undeniable artistry remains his most enduring hallmark, a quality that made him an art-house sensation in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
At the age of 83, he remains the imaginative virtuoso he always has been, infusing his visually unfussy narrative with images of blistering power.
All storylines ultimately lead to the utterly horrifying 20-minute conclusion where Wajda discloses in detail, the mechanical procedures of the massacre. Although not graphic, this long, final sequence is not for the faint-hearted, partially because of the executioners’ chilling indifference. Wajda’s father, a cavalry officer, was one of Katyn’s victims, murdered when his son was only 14 years old. Shooting this sequence, in many ways, was essentially a reenactment of his father’s death.
“Katyn offers no catharsis, and the distance Wajda maintains from his viewers will leave you feeling powerless, unable to make clear sense of what had happened that day, wondering what other crimes other the nations have hidden, and what other truths distorted.
“Katyn will be screened on Wednesday, May 6 at 7 pm, at the Embassy of the Czech Republic. The Euro Film Club program is stellar, and trust me, you’re not going to be able to watch most of these films anywhere else.
Forget about this month’s summer releases. By far, this is the most exciting film event of the year.