I was lucky enough (thank you, Bob) to see Andrzei Wajda's Katyn at this showing of the film here in the United States. I say this because (1) the movie is heart-rending, and (2) no one has picked it up for American distribution.
If you don’t know, it’s about the Soviet (from the east) and German (from the west) invasions of Poland in September 1939, the Red Army's subsequent capture, imprisonment, and murder of some 20,000 Polish officers [mostly] in the Katyn forests in Russia, and the aftermath through just past the end of World War II.
The officers, who were Poland’s intelligentsia – doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, merchants –were interrogated and the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) decided that they were “hardened and uncompromising enemies of the Soviet authority” as it says in the order from Stalin to have them shot.
When the mass graves were discovered, the Nazis tried to use it as propaganda against Russia. In many cases the only identifiable evidence on the bodies were the brass buttons of the officers’ coats. When Russia retook Poland towards the end of the war, the Soviets fabricated evidence (including moving the date from 1940 to 1941) to have the massacre blamed on Germany. The movie is always about these twinned events: the Katyn Massacre and the Katyn Lie. The former lasted through the spring of 1940. The latter, the lie, lasted from 1943 through 1990.
These are the bare historical events surrounding the film. But the film concentrates, as Wajda says, on “a family separated forever, about great illusions and the brutal truth about the Katyn crime. In a word, a film about individual suffering, which evokes images of much greater emotional content than naked historical facts. A film that shows the terrible truth that hurts, whose characters are not the murdered officers, but women who await their return every day, every hour, suffering inhuman uncertainty. Loyal and unshaken, convinced that it was only enough to open the door to see the long awaited man at it as the tragedy of Katyn concerns those who live and lived then.”
Katyn has tremendous force, and I can’t imagine the impact it has made on Polish audiences, though this article discusses its effect in Poland. At the film I sat next to a Polish graduate student. She crossed herself several times during the slaughter, and was somber and silent afterwards, as was most everyone.
Wadja does not engage in any innovative storytelling, but the stories are woven together masterfully. There is a very moving moment at the end that would never be allowed in an American film. The music was written for the film by Krzysztof Penderecki and I think adds to without replacing (as in many of our movies) the thrust of what Wadja is doing. At the end, after the last scene -- bulldozers pushing dirt in and over the bodies in a mass grave -- the screen goes black for 2 or 3 minutes while a choral piece (a requiem?) played. And then we left the theater.
One thing that shapes most works of art is tradition – all the poems that came before the poem being written. I don’t think there’s necessarily any anxiety involved – think of the tradition as loam where the poem roots itself, or a stream that runs over the poem affecting its shape the way water can shape stones.
One thing major artists can earn is the ability to reflect back on their previous work in their current work. Yeats does this, as does Pound. Wajda refers back in several places in Katyn, particularly to his earlier peak movie, Ashes and Diamonds. Here are two examples:
Towards the beginning of Katyn, where the POWs are gathered outside a church, the camera pass by a crucifix with just one arm hanging, and in the same scene the rest of the Christ figure is shown being hidden under officer’s coats. This rhymes with probably the most famous shot in Ashes And Diamonds – an abandoned church with a dislodged crucifix dangling upside down.
In a more complicated way, there’s a vignette (there are several woven into the film) that refers back to Ashes And Diamonds as a whole.
In Katyn, a young resistance fighter is applying to go back to school. But his curriculum vitae contains a reference to the 1940 massacre. He’s asked to change it, he refuses, and, leaving the school, rips down a pro-soviet poster. He’s chased by the police who see this, and dies when accidentally hit by a car.
In Ashes And Diamonds, Zbigniew Cybulski (who has charisma to spare) is a young member of the resistance assigned to assassinate a fatherly Polish communist official just at the end of WWII. He’s deeply conflicted, torn between the brutality he has learned and is ordered to use, and the normal life that seems to be re-asserting itself. In the end he kills the communist official and then has an accidental, unrelated run in with two soldiers who wound him. He dies curled in a fetal position in a field of refuse.
The arc of both the incident in Katyn, and in Ashes & Diamonds are almost identical: a resistance fighter whose youth is stolen by the war, the possibility of a normal, peaceful life, a romance that holds out that same hope, then an act that erases that possibility and accelerates the hero to his death.
But the difference between the two is crucial. Katyn opens up what the true cause of the tragedy is: the political oppression that permeates society everywhere, but also enters each individual, twisting in each heart relentlessly.
Unfortunately this all sounds didactic – which the movie is not in the slightest.
Wajda says in an interview: “"The best medicine, the best remedy for political and social problems is to show them and to speak truly about them. So, I hope that it's going to soothe people because we have finally shown the truth." Wounds heal only when they are allowed to be shown.
By the way, at the time there was evidence and reports in both the U.S. and Britain that the Soviet Union was responsible for the Katyn massacre. These were suppressed so as not to damage our and Britain’s relationship with the USSR as an ally against the Axis. Hm, ignoring evidence and reports, huh? Perhaps every country needs a little truth and reconciliation.
When asked whether he would prefer the freedom of Western film-making to the artistic constraints of the Eastern bloc, Wajda replied that in the Eastern bloc film-making is “dangerous, but there are ways to get around political censorship. There are no ways to get around the censorship of money that you have in the west, which is much stronger.”
You must see this movie after it wins the Oscar (sorry, Persepolis, you weren’t even nominated and you deserve one, too), and opens in the theaters of free America.
And here’s a poem:
Only the pertinacious buttons
have endured death, witnesses of crime
surfaced from the depths
as the only monument on their grave
they are to witness God will count
and take pity on them
yet how can they resurrect body
being a sticky element of the soil
a bird flew by a cloud is sailing
a leaf is falling mallow sprouting
and there’s silence on high
and the Smolensk forest is steaming fog
only the pertinacious buttons
a powerful voice of silenced choirs
only the pertinacious buttons
of coats and uniforms.
In memory of Captain Edward Herbert