July 04, 2009


On 3 April 1940 around 22,000 Polish officers, intellectuals and professionals were taken to a forest near Smolensk. They were all shot by NKVD agents for the Russian state and their bodies left in a mass grave. The incident at Katyn Forest has become one of the iconographic moments of the second world war, defining the pure evil of the Stalinist Russian state and for many in Poland providing yet another reason, even to this day, to fear Russian intervention in their country. Katyn was denied for years by the Russian state who only admitted what they had done in 1990- even today it is not classified in Russia as an act of genocide nor have the victims been officially rehabilitated within Russia. Katyn in a sense is a symbol, both of the crimes of the Stalinist state during the second world war to other peoples- particularly Eastern Europeans, and of the violence and aggression that Russia participated in as an equal partner with Germany from the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty until the outbreak of war in 1941. Making a film about this moment in history is a brave enterprise- the problem is that the atrocity overshadows almost everything else that you could surround it with.

So how do Andrzej Wajda and his cast do? The answer is mixed. There were times in this film when I thought I was watching a television piece rather than a film- there is something uncinematic about the way that the film is shot which did not convince me. The film mostly concerns itself with the women who were left behind when their menfolk were shot at Katyn- their stories are interesting but are obscured by the central fact of the massacre. In a sense the horror of the massacre drives the story forwrads but also inhibits it. Furthermore with many of the women short scenes with few lines of dialogue mean that they merge into one greiving whole rather than becoming real individuals. The director could have focussed on one character's response and grief but instead chose to encapsulate all types of grief- the defiant, mournful and forgetful and the responses of the next generation- his frequent change of focus leaves you wondering where some characters have gone and makes it hard to relate to others. For example at one point we see a woman berate a Pole who has joined the Russian army after the war- this is when discussion of Katyn is forbidden- for betraying his comrades- we know what happens to him, but we never find out what happens to her. We also see her earlier being intimidated by the Nazi state but we never find out whether she gave in- something that is important to the later scene (how complicit is she in giving in to the temptations of accord with totalitarian powers). Stories are left hanging and one never really identifies with the characters- they appear and disappear- often going through great terrors (how did a Polish woman cross the frontier between Germany and Russia in late 1940 early 1941 without coming to any harm for example) without any explanation.

I sense and this is another major flaw of the film, that this is because Wajda has deliberately set out to make a nationalistic Polish film. He dedicated the film to the Polish Prime Minister for example and the film is filled with discussions of what it is to be Polish and what isn't Polish behaviour. Of course this misses out the fact that Poles were complicit in the oppression of the Nazi and Soviet period- the Polish treatment of Jews during the Holocaust is not a happy episode in that nation's history. Nor was the officer corps entirely beneficent itself- whilst nothing on the scale of its neighbours to the West and East, the Polish government was unpleasant, for instance in the 1930s Jews in Poland were forbidden from receiving welfare benefits and had to sit on special ghetto benches at universities. Russian and German crimes- at Katyn and elsewhere- cannot allow anyone to whitewash the Polish prewar regime. A nationalistic Polish film creates a simple opposition between resistance and compliance- between principle and opportunism- whereas actually Polish attitudes to the Nazis and Soviets were more complex. The Katyn Forest incident was a shocking demonstration of the Soviet disregard for human rights and disarms a certain simplistic understanding of Russian history (promoted by President Putin amongst others) but it must not be fitted into a simplistic portrait of Polish history either.

There are things I liked about this film though- and perhaps it is only because it takes on such an important subject that I hold it to these high standards. I think that the decision to concentrate on the women waiting at home and the people after the war is a very interesting one- perhaps it would have been better to focus either on the women in 1941-5 or the people afterwards but not on both. Its interesting because it shows you how much it is the reverberations of something like Katyn that matter and not simply the incident itself. The Holocaust still affects the grandchildren of those who were killed, the First World War's shadow hangs over 21st Century Britain and the shadow of Katyn hangs over post war Poland, particularly over the Poland that emerged into the Cold War. I liked all of that- but I still felt it was disjointed, still felt getting more intimately engaged with the characters and being less self consciously national about the portrait might have presented a more compelling argument and more interesting film. I should note that others do disagree with me- this for example is a very good and positive review- but I ultimately found something missing in this movie for me.

I would still recomend seeing it for the closing scenes and for a sense of Polish history (an important history that is not as known in the West as it should be)- this may not be the perfect film but it is about a subject that everyone should know about.


James Higham said...

Ah, I wondered if you'd ever cover this or the Armenian pogroms by the Turks. Even today in Russia, they have trouble coming to terms with this.

Anonymous said...

Some of your comments seem to conflict with the fact that among the Israeli "Righteous Among the Nations" there are far more Poles listed than any other nation. And that Poland's resistance and formal underground state was unrivaled in WWII. You've just touched upon Polish suffering during WWII when you walk through the door of the Katyn massacre. Here in the states we have two major memorials to the Katyn victims...in Jersey City and in Baltimore done by an amazing sculptor named Pitynski.