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Movie Review: Katyn – In War, Truth is the First Casualty

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This is not a documentary. It's not even a docu-drama. Actually it's more of a study of cause and effect and an exploration of the different attitudes and moral points of view surrounding the situation in Poland during World War II. It focuses on the event that occurred in the Katyn forest in April-May of 1940 where the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, executed the Polish military officers from the Kozelsk prisoner-of-war camp.

This is a multi-strand chronicle and as such it doesn't really stay with one set of characters but rather shows several families and their experiences. There is random kindness and random violence, as with any account of war, but the one thing that will stay with the viewer is the very orderly and organized callous violence of the NKVD as they bring out the Polish officers, tie their hands behind their backs, and put a bullet to the back of each soldier's head. The very nature of that kind of violence is so calculated it is actually hard to relate to.

The movie starts with Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) and her daughter Nika trying to convince her husband Andrzej (Arthur Zmijewski), who is one of the Polish officers bring held by the Soviet army near the border of Poland, to flee from the Soviet troops. The Polish officers are bring held waiting for transport to an unknown destination. Andrzej refuses, stating that he has sworn an oath to the army and he is honour bound to stay. The notion of being honourable in a situation like that is all very archaic. He goes with the other troops and all the officers find themselves in the prison camp Kozelsk in Russia.

In the brief scenes that are shown from the prison camp the viewer gets the abbreviated version of every single attitude that a prisoner of war can experience. The General (Jan Englert) gives a rousing speech to the troops about keeping their faith, displaying a touching belief in the honour of the force keeping them captive. There is an aside about one of the officers who, according to one of the protagonists, "tried to hang himself again last night," showing how some succumb to desperation. There a stoic older man who offers a young pilot a crucifix and tells him to take it easy and put his faith in the Lord when the young aviator talks of fighting and escaping, giving an example of the attitude that it would be better to struggle. I mention this scene because it is a good example of the way this movie tries to show as much as possible in a short and economic way.

During the early stages of the invasion of Poland the Nazis and the Soviets worked together, but as we all know that fell apart spectacularly after a while. When the massacre at Katyn was discovered they blamed each other with the alarming swiftness of a gigantic propaganda machine. Caught in the middle were the relatives of the victims, women and children, who were at one point or another asked to corroborate whichever version of the truth the dominating force was trying to sell at the time. So, the age-old adage that the first victim of any war is the truth is certainly apt here.

As for the historical quality of the narrative itself there is always a valid point in telling these kinds of stories, no matter who the victim is and who is the victor. Mind you, the victor writes the history, so it's always good to hear what the price of that was.

One thing struck me as particularly interesting. Much of the story is told through the women, the mother, the wife, the sister and the daughter of the massacre victims. That's an interesting take on it. Mostly women are conspicuously absent from these kinds of tales. But they are the ones left behind, in every sense of the word, when the invading forces set up shop. They are the ones who have to live in this brave new world and reconcile with their grief and their pain. Again the viewer is given examples of each strategy for survival. The general's wife falls apart in a very decorous way, Anna flees to her mother-in-law (Maja Komorowska) and stubbornly refuses to believe that her husband might be among the dead until she has irrefutable proof. Anna and Andrzej's daughter grows up expecting her father every time there is a knock at the door.

This is an intensely personal film for director Andrzej Wajda, who lost his own father at Katyn, but despite that, or perhaps because of it, it isn't a sentimental film. It keeps a cautious distance and tries to do that most difficult of things, i.e. showing instead of telling. The movie is also based on the novel Post Mortem: The Story of Katyn by Andrzej Mularczyk.

There's also the incredibly disturbing feeling that Poland during this time was suffering the fate of being like a bloody rag caught between two large dogs, tugging and chewing and pulling it every which way. It doesn't really matter if it is the Nazis or the NKVD who are tearing into it at the moment. Both are equally bad, as is shown when Nazi officers close down the university and arrest the entire faculty, shoving the dignified elder intellectuals out the doors and down the stairs at gunpoint and loading them into trucks. We all know nothing good can possibly happen to these gentlemen after that point.

There are questions here of morality, survival, loyalty — but then again, aren't there always? Especially in war movies. It does not make them any less acute and universal. It took something like 60 years for the Soviets to acknowledge responsibility for the massacre (this was under Gorbachev). The point isn't that there was a massacre, or even that there was a cover-up. The point is that every act committed in a war has far-reaching ramifications that spread like rings on the water and touch many more lives than you might think at a cursory glance.

The multi-strand storytelling does present some inherent problems for the viewer, however. The very ambitious nature of this movie means that it tries to flesh out as many strands of the narrative as possible, showing several of the Polish officers' families and how they all deal with the uncertainty of the fates of the officers and, later, when the mass graves have been discovered, how they deal with their deaths and the political implications of what has happened.

Despite the confusion this can create for the viewer, the movie more than makes up for its few shortcomings by being of historical importance, which means you understand the necessity of telling all this from a Polish perspective. It has beautiful and poignant music, composed by Krzystof Penderecki, spectacular cinematography by Pawel Edelman, and a timeless quality that makes it all the more fascinating to watch.

As you might be able to tell from my review, it also spotlights some very interesting moral questions and makes sure that Katyn won’t be forgotten any time soon.

Katyn (2007), directed by Andrzej Wajda, stars Andrzej Chyra (Lt. Jerzy), Maja Ostaszewska (Anna), Arthur Zmijewski (Andrzej), Danuta Stanka (Róza), Jan Englert (General), Magdalena Cielecka (Agnieszka), Agnieszka Glinska (Irena), Pawel Malazynski (Lt. Piotr), Maja Komorowska (Andrzej's Mother), Wladyslaw Kowalski (Professor Jan), Antoni Pawlicki (Tadeusz), Agnieszka Kawiorska (Ewa) and Sergey Garmash (Maj. Popov).

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