Revisiting the Katyn Cover-up, Poland's Andrzej Wajda Gets Personal, But Not Enough

True Lies
Revisiting the Katyn cover-up, PolandNs great chronicler gets personal, but not personal enough

There are directors like John Ford and Alexander Dovzhenko, national bards singing the tales of the tribe, and others like Charles Chaplin and Frank Capra, peopleNs artists talkinN straight to the folks. SenegalNs late Ousmane Sembene was botH N Mdash;so is Andrzej Wajda. With his new film, Katyn, PolandNs greatest filmmaker caps his career with the story he waited most of his life to tell.

Wajda pointedly titled his first, quasi-autobiographical feature A Generation (1954) and has consistently dramatized critical junctures in 20th-century Polish history, turning them into movies that have aspired to be political events or—like his masterpieces Kanal (1957), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), and Man of Marble (1977)—actually have been. Katyn, which sold millions of tickets and provoked a national debate in Poland, addresses a once-taboo, still-traumatic subject: The 1940 liquidation of some 15,000 Polish military officers, carried out on StalinNs orders and consequently blamed on the Nazis.

The Katyn massacre was grisly; the cover-up, enforced throughout the Cold War and the life of the Soviet Union, was additionally atrocious in that it founded the new Polish state on an obvious lie. For the 82-year-old director, the bloodbath has an added significance—his father was among the victims. This intense personal investment may account for the movieNs uneven quality: While never less than fascinating, Katyn alternates between scenes of tremendous power and sequences most kindly described as dutiful. ItNs as if the artist is never certain whether he is making this movie for himself, his father, or the entire nation.

Based on a novel by Andrzej Mularczyk, a veteran screenwriter of WajdaNs generation, Katyn has an anthology quality. The opening scene, set on a Kraków bridge over the Vistula, tops a similar one in Agnieszka HollandNs Europa Europa (and another in SchindlerNs List), with a panicky civilian mob in flight from the German advance running headlong into another crowd fleeing the Russians. As the action moves from bloody field hospital to fetid POW camp to KrakówNs Jagiellonian University (where, in another set piece, the Nazis arrest the entire faculty), the filmmaking is robust. Wajda conducts the masses, orchestrates crane shots and scatters the landscape with highly charged symbols. No movie has ever made the analogy between Hitlerism and Stalinism so visceral.

Katyn is directed for maximum gravitas, but it often trips over the scriptNs clumsy transitions. Turning from wide-screen spectacle to close-up characterization, the direction falters, despite the facility of the actors. Initially, it seems as if the filmNs protagonist will be Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), the willowy, sorrowful wife of a captured Polish officer. Wajda, however, has something more epic in mind. The narrative is complicated and elliptical. Jumping from one historical juncture to the next—the German discovery of the Katyn killing field, the Red Army liberation of Poland, the coalescing of a new Polish state around the insistence that Katyn was a Nazi crime—the movie staggers under its shifting cast of characters, stiffly deployed at key moments. A flurry of reaction shots serves to squander the canNt-miss moment when a young child mistakes a uniformed Katyn survivor for her father.

History is the subject. As in Man of Marble, Wajda is particularly adroit at integrating archival footage. The victorious Soviets produce a propaganda film about Katyn that, complete with exhumed bodies and presiding priests, is virtually identical to the Nazi film made two years before. (Shocking as this is, one has to wonder if Wajda didnNt tweak the newsreels to make them so absolutely alike.) WajdaNs most provocative notion is that Katyn was a process that bore its poison fruit in warNs aftermatH N Mdash;families divided and individuals broken by the new regimeNs institutionalized double-think. In a bit of prophetic direct address early in the movie, a Polish general tells his fellow captives (and the camera) that they must survive: “Without you, there will be no free Poland.”

They didnNt, and there wasnNt. Driven mad by the boisterous Soviet propaganda blasting out of the public-address system, a Polish officer who miraculously eluded the massacre walks drunkenly out into the snowy street and shoots himself; a beautiful young partisan turns Antigone, sacrificing her future in a hopeless attempt to have her brotherNs tombstone dated “1940” (instead of the Soviet-sanctioned “1941”). Earlier, she had argued with her sister, a newly minted Party member who maintains that resistance is futile and, in another pointed bit of direct address, wrongly informs the world that “there will never be a free Poland.”

Late in Katyn, Anna receives her husbandNs diary—a device allowing Wajda to restage the procedure of mass murder in harrowing detail. Although the entire movie is a build-up to this grisly 10-minute sequence, itNs a factor of WajdaNs mastery that nothing really prepares us for its single-minded intensity. It seems remarkably self-reflexive that the filmmaker understands that his oeuvre may culminate in this Guernica set piece; the movieNs final image is that of a truck not quite pushing the earth over a dead hand entwined in a rosary. Katyn, however, is not a confession.

A teenager in PeopleNs Poland and then the most public of public artists, Wajda had to live with Katyn every day. Albeit indifferently staged and poorly written, the movieNs key postwar scene has a boy, applying for art school, refusing to alter his application so as not to conceal his fatherNs death at Katyn; the twist is that the stern young administrator urging his accommodation to the new reality herself lost a brother at Katyn. Wajda is both characters. Making Katyn allowed him to imagine his fatherNs murder without telling us what it was like for him to live with it.

Katyn was directed by Andrzej Wajda; written by Wajda, Wladyslaw Pasikowski, Przemyslaw Nowakowski and Andrzej Mularczyk, based on a novel by Mularczyk. Available on DVD.

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