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Film Review


The history: the twentieth century has been filled with the darkest crimes, especially those committed during the Second World War. One of them, not well known in the West, was the killing of 21 thousand Polish officers, many of them reservists with civilian careers, who had been recently enlisted to defend the country against an expected attack by the Germans. The killers, however, were not the Germans, but the Russians. Shortly after the Germans began WW II by invading Poland on September, 1, 1939, the Russians invaded the eastern half of Poland as a result of the nonaggression pact they had signed with Hitler a year before. The Polish army, acting on orders, mounted a very weak defense against the Russian invasion, and casualties were light on both sides. Poland was split in half, with the eastern half occupied by the Russians. A year after their capture, acting on Stalin's explicit orders to exterminate them, the Polish officers and many other officials were executed by the NKVD. Stalin felt this would eliminate the intellectual class, and help keep Poland weak. After the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, they discovered the massacre sites, one of which was near the village of Katyn. The Germans filmed the opening of the mass graves, and used this as propaganda against the Russians. A year later, after the Germans were pushed back, the Russians took control of the sites, filmed the reopening of the graves, and stated that Katyn was a Nazi crime. But diaries and other papers found with the dead proved that the killings were done in 1940, during the Russian occupation. After the war, when the Russians controlled Poland, it became a treasonous, with severe punishment, to even suggest that the Russians were to blame. And possession of anything that would suggest otherwise, like the diaries, became a crime. It was only with the fall of the Soviet empire, in 1990, that the Russians admitted that they had been responsible, but refused to consider it a war crime.

The film: Katyn opens with a view of dense clouds, which clear, revealing a crowd of refugees streaming down the road onto a railroad bridge. As they near the bridge, they see another crowd of refugees coming from the other direction. One side is fleeing the invading Germans, the other side fleeing the Russians. There is chaos and panic as each group of refugees collide, with particularly poignant shots of children separated from parents, a dog tied up waiting for its owner, and people struggling to carry huge bundles. There are a number of stories in the film, but the principal one is of Anna, her young daughter Nika, and her husband, Andrzej, an army reserve captain. Anna is with the refugees on the bridge, trying to find Andrzej, who is with a large group of POW's in a nearby church yard. She spots him, they are together briefly, and she insists he escape, which he could easily do in the confusion. He refuses, because his allegiance as an officer is more important to him than his family, not knowing of course, the consequences. He urges her to go back to his parents in Krakow, now German occupied. But his father, a university professor, has already been arrested in a chilling scene at the university. The general commanding Andrzej's unit has been captured also, and the film follows him and his family at home. His wife, although upper class, is made of strong stuff herself, as we see later. At this point the film goes back and forth between the two groups, the captured officers and the women waiting at home for their expected releases. The officers are housed in an abandoned church, converted to barracks with tall stacks of bunks along the walls. They try to fight boredom and despair, but some have a very bad feeling about their situation, and keep diaries, including Andrzej. After the mass graves are discovered, the names of the murdered officers gradually become known through documents and personal effects found on their bodies. Each time, as more names are announced, the women are riveted, relieved to hear that their husbands are not on the list, and continue to hope for their return. Some discover the truth only because sympathetic Poles give them items found on the bodies. Some are determined to memorialize them, with often terrible consequences. But acts of resistance continue. One student member of the underground berates the head of a college for not resisting the Russians. Her reply summarizes their dilemma: "Poland will never be free. We must keep on living." The director, Andrzej Wajda, claims that this, and all of the incidents in the film, were directly witnessed by survivors, including the bridge scene.

Andrzej Wajda, now 82, is easily the best known Polish filmmaker. He has made at least 37 full length films over 60 years. Except for Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds, Man of Iron, and Korczak, very few have ever screened in this country, but he is a master. His early films were often censored by the government, and many of his later films depict the struggles under the Communist government. His father, an Army officer who had served in the First World War, was killed in the massacres by the Russians, so this is obviously a deeply personal film. His interweaving of many stories, documentary footage of the opening of the Katyn graves, and the murders, is brilliant. The camera work is outstanding, often from unusual angles, as in the last scenes. The acting is simply breathtaking; restrained, understated, yet very very powerful. It's clear that they are being directed by a master. He uses music by Penderecki, a contemporary Polish composer, much of it choral hymns. Wajda's film has enormous power, with tremendous tension to the very end, which is devastating. Katyn is perhaps the most moving film that I have seen in many years, and clearly a tribute to his father. Wajda never blinks as he portrays a world of great darkness and heartbreak. It is the cinematic equivalent of Goya's The Third of May. Nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film, but a much lesser film won (Departures). No doubt because the subject was simply too dark for the Academy members. Just opened Friday at the San Francisco Film Society's theater in the Kabuki, but will probably not screen more than a week or so.

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