Cambridge Film Festival review – Katyn

Katyn (2007)

Dir. Andrzej Wajda (Poland)

118 minutes

Screened: Monday 22nd September 2008

The opening scene of Katyn takes place on a bridge where two crowds of fleeing civilians meet. One group is running from the invading Germans, the other from the Red Army. It’s a bleak opening to a bleak film, and one that reduces the tragedy of Poland’s experience in the Second World War to a human scale, in order to tell the story of the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet forces in 1940.

The isolation of individual stories among the multitudes is skilfully done, as the camera moves past the crowds to seek out a few characters. And yet, in the shocking final scenes, we revert to an impersonal, far-off view, as the main characters become just a few faces among many. For most of its running time, Wajda focuses on the struggle of several families, as the men are held captive by the Soviets, and the women are left to hold their lives together. It is a film with a strong focus on the domestic, but we only ever see the full family unit in scenes of heartbreak and farewell.

The characters, who come from various segments of society, are connected to each other in ways that are sometimes implausible; I can’t have been the only audience member to find it unlikely that everyone in Krakow knows each other. Another distraction was the English subtitling, which frequently ended up mangling the dialogue (something that I assume will be cleared up if/when the film gets a wider British release).

Katyn has the look of a standard WWII prestige film, all immaculate interiors and well-fitting costumes. However, the overly comfortable mood of many British and American war films is absent here. There is no assurance of eventual triumph – the massacre is compunded by the Soviets’ repression of the truth after the war ends. The later sections of the film bring home the poisonous atmosphere of doublethink pervading the post-war Eastern Bloc, as Katyn becomes a propaganda tool for the Soviets, and writing the wrong date on a headstone can become an offence.

The denial of the right to remember compounds the tragedy, a message emphasised in the final shot, as a hand clutching a rosary is covered by earth, leaving no trace. The film’s natural style brings a deep horror to the scenes of the massacre, and the struggles of those left behind serve as a grim reminder of more recent attempts to pile atrocity upon atrocity by by wiping out the memory of murder.

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