KATYN

Directed by Andrzej Wajda. Poland. 2007.


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In the last 10 years the legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda has had two huge successes in his native land, the number of cinema attendances for each, after allowing for population, being way above anything screened in the UK. Yet neither has had a UK release, whether theatrically or on DVD.

In the case of the earlier one, Pan Tadeusz (1999), this is unsurprising, being a tale of warring families based on a 200-year-old verse-drama little known outside Poland (see my article entitled Two Polish Epics). But the later one, Katyn (2007), a WWII movie about the notorious massacre of Polish officers by the Soviets in 1940, would surely have had a wide appeal, as I can confirm having acquired the DVD from Poland (with English subtitles). A film both exhilarating and deeply moving, it ranks in my view with the very best of Wajda, such as Ashes and Diamonds and Man of Marble.

Based on a novel called Post Mortem, the film is structured around the massacre in a Ukraine forest of thousands of officers, one of whom was Wajda’s father, which for many years was blamed on the Nazis. The gruesome portrayal of these killings is reserved for the film’s final scene, with the previous 100-odd minutes switching back and forward in time to take in the stories of a handful of fictional characters with husbands/sons/brothers among the victims. As in Man of Marble, Wajda is concerned with the attempted rewriting of history, but he is not making political points. Instead he is showing how men are capable of unspeakable acts, and also of brave, unselfish, and forgiving ones. It is clearly a very personal film, and in this respect is reminiscent of both Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Polanski’s The Pianist. As befits a director who has been steadily making feature films since 1954, the screenplay, acting, and cinematography are faultless, while the music is by the modern Polish composer Penderecki, whose work is more likely to be heard at the Proms than in a film score.

Katyn is not a conventional war movie, in that we do not see any fighting. Much of it is filmed in Krakow, where the women characters await any news of their menfolk. It is only years later, when the belongings of the victims are discovered and returned where possible to their homes, that the waiting wife Anna reads the diary which her husband had been keeping during his captivity, and which abruptly ends on that fateful day in April 1940. It is then that we see what happened; the credits then roll in silence.

While no UK distributor was willing to give Katyn a theatrical release, I believe it may come out on DVD. The Polish version includes some fascinating-looking “extras”, including a lengthy “making of” documentary, but unfortunately they lack subtitles. Perhaps a UK release will include them.

Alan Pavelin
 
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