In the opening scene of Katyn, Poles on a bridge are flanked by two approaching forces: Russians on one side, Germans on the other. The latter invaded their country on September 1, 1939. The former followed sixteen days later. If you’re on that bridge, do you go left, right, or take a plunge into the freezing water?
In 1937, about 20,000 polish Officers and intellectuals were executed in the Katyn forest in Russia, then buried not only by mounds of dirt, but political propaganda. German Nazis accused Russians of the genocide. Russians blamed the Germans.
Today there is one version that the world agrees on (if the world didn’t include Russia and parts of France). Since then relations between Russia and Poland have been lukewarm at best. I only need to ask my parents what they think of Russia to get an idea of how deep the seed of animosity was planted. Katyn is a subject still heavy in the minds and hearts of Poles, passed down from one angry generation to the next.
As a starting point to learn about Katyn, I don’t think this film is where to go. My own personal knowledge came from my parents, and I was still a bit confused.
The director, Andresz Wajda, had personal experience with Katyn when his father was killed in the massacre. For so many years, he never made a movie about it. Wajda became Poland’s most popular filmmaker, like the Spielberg of Poland. That makes it an intensely personal subject and for a filmmaker of his reputation, it’s his Schindler’s List. It was even nominated for an Oscar.
It pains me to say this, but Katyn isn’t a classic. It is however one of the only fictional accounts ever made about the massacre so for the time being it’s all we have.
The story follows a Polish officer who is taken by the Russians. The bulk of the story focuses on his wife and daughter, and how the massacre affected families and what they had to do to protect themselves, risking the same fate as their husbands if they spoke out against the Russians.
For the majority of the story, characters aren’t well developed. If there’s any character who can ground us in the story, it’s the wife of the missing polish officer. Digging for the truth is an impossible task. She gets word of his passing by another officer who escaped alive, and for a long stretch of the story we don’t understand how it was that he lived, and others did not.
We discover he was tasked with spreading propaganda about how the Russians were innocent of the crime. The guilt becomes too much of a burden for him, and eventually he kills himself on an empty street at night.
For the few people who still doubt it was the Russians that committed this atrocity, this isn’t your movie. It doesn’t follow a neutral path. It fully condemns the Russians, and in the final harrowing scene where we see them execute the Officers and Intellectuals, it is a visual sequence that says more than any piece of propaganda ever could.
Unfortunately, I also believe that there is more instruction for viewers during this sequence than there is throughout the rest of the film. If you want to know what happened in Katyn, you’ll do well by finding this sequence on Youtube, or just skipping to the end of the DVD and watching it that way.