Andrezj Wajda, 2007, Poland, 118 mins
Cast: Artur Zmijewski, Maja Ostaszewska, Andrzej Chyra
In his youth way back in the 1950s, Andrezj Wajda was one of the breakout filmmakers of the new Eastern European cinema. Under the Communist regime, he managed to produce works of a robust and tentatively challenging humanism, examining the travails of the Second World War and the faltering steps of the latest generation. Intriguingly, now that regime has disappeared, the veteran director (83 this year) has returned to that period to excoriate the lies and half-truths he and his colleagues had to labour under at the time.
The most important of these – particularly for Wajda as his father was apparently one of the victims – relates to the Katyn massacre of March 5th 1940, in which nearly 15,000 Polish soldiers were executed and buried in mass graves. Nazi intelligence knew the Russians were responsible. The Soviet armies were even then pushing to occupy Poland to create a buffer between themselves and the Germans. After their own invasion, the latter quickly made propagandistic capital out of the event, uncovering forensic evidence and exhibiting it on film. In the most fascinating section of Katyn, Wajda shows how the Communists reedited this footage once it was under their control – filmmaking as a path to falsehood rather than truth.
Wajda reverses that; his film is a warts-and-all exposé of what really happened. Not “based on a true story” or “inspired by a true story” but the true story itself. That makes it a valuable document and, judging by its success in its native country, something of a communal healing process for the Polish people. But it therefore also falls into the same trap that all those movies do that are set up to act as cautionary history lessons – cf. Schindler's List, Gandhi – in that its worthiness of content overwhelms considerations of form.
Wajda concentrates on the aftermath of the event rather than the massacre itself, detailing how various fictional families try to find out the truth about their missing loved ones. It's an admirable decision, forcing the viewer to reflect on the difficulty of resisting official truth and indeed the dangers inherent in any act of resistance at all. And as a side note, it's fascinating to note how vitriolic Wajda is in his condemnation of collaboration – Katyn is fiercely pure and patriotic in its spirit of defiance. But the result is a film that feels like a discussion piece with some (extremely graphic) flashbacks to bolster the message. The whole endeavour seems designed to oppress the audience from its overpowering score to its solidly impressive, digitally-enhanced photography. There's no room for debate, subtlety or modern, retrospective comment. It's a deeply old-fashioned film, the work of a wounded war veteran still nursing bitter grievances. As such, it's a fascinating artifact to find turning up in the cinema of the 21st century, but its very naivete perhaps makes one reflect more on Poland's slow coming to terms with its past than it does on the art of its director.