Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Katyn

Reviews - Katyn


Reviewed By John Stakes

Andrzej Wajda now 83 years old is rightly described as the father of Polish cinema but is little known outside his native Poland as most of his 40 or more films have never received an international release. Why this should be so is inexplicable as he is beyond doubt one of the world’s best film makers. For this reviewer his “Kanal” (sewer), the centrepiece of his trilogy on the German occupation of Poland in WW2 remains one of cinema’s finest films. In his latest film we were no longer in the claustrophobic sewers of Warsaw but out into the Polish countryside.

Germany was not alone of course in its occupation of Poland. Hitler and Stalin forged a short-lived pact to invade and divide Poland into two occupied territories. Following Stalin’s invasion the Soviets rounded up 18,000 officers, many of whom were reservists, prominent civilians drawn from professional backgrounds and considered essential to the reshaping of Poland after the war. They were therefore seen as a threat to Stalin’s totalitarian schemes, so, in 1940, some 15,000 of them were slaughtered and buried in mass graves in Katyn forest.

This massacre, the central theme of Wajda’s intensely personal film (his father Jacob was one of the victims) lay physically and metaphorically buried for over 40 years because the Soviets both initially denied this genocide but after the war blamed it on the Germans. They in turn accused the Russians. As the Soviets remained the occupying force any attempt by the Poles to expose this atrocity was treated as an act of treason. It was not until 1990 that Gorbachev finally acknowledged Russian responsibility.

Wajda’s harrowing but magnificent film focused first on the initial panic when the fleeing Poles were caught between the occupying forces and the reservists were led away. We then followed the lives of a small group of women as they tried to learn of the whereabouts of their menfolk….and their own fate when they tried to expose the truth. It was not until the final minutes of Wajda’s two hour film that we were shown the massacre itself, perhaps deliberately so as to echo the late emergence of the truth of the atrocity.

For any film maker to be still working at the age of 83 is remarkable enough: to craft such a powerful and moving drama was nothing short of exceptional. At the 2008 Oscars “Katyn” was nominated for best film in a foreign language. The film’s searing impact lay in its matter-of-fact approach and attention to detail. His handling of crowd scenes was exemplary. It was as if we were witnessing these shocking events as they unfolded before us. Wajda could have been forgiven had he overplayed the drama in his condemnation of Russian mass brutality, hypocrisy and propaganda, but he was admirably restrained and let the facts speak for themselves. The graphic closing scenes proved to be as harrowing as anything previously depicted on film. The silent, blacked-out screen which brought the film to its end before the credits rolled was a masterstroke and so apt.

A large part of Wajda’s life has been spent reconstructing the plight of his people during WW2. The authenticity, humanity, honesty and power of his films, coupled with his directorial skills will ensure that the body of his work will remain a testimony to the resilience and fortitude of arguably the most beleaguered nation in Western Europe.

It will also stand as a permanent reminder of man’s capacity for inhumanity, and a definitive reference point lest we ever forget or seek to reinterpret this slice of twentieth century history. Perhaps Wajda can derive some comfort that he has been able to make this film in his own country, and the cry of one disillusioned woman in the film that Poland would never become free has been proved wrong.

Another large Keswick audience was clearly moved and again voted the film amongst the best of the season.

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