I have to admit a certain degree of scepticism when it comes to watching new films made by aging auteurs. Though it is of course pleasing to see the septuagenarian, or older, likes of Godard, Rohmer, and Chabrol continuing to be able to find both the finances and audiences for their work, one cannot help questioning how vital or fresh their output can have remained, some half century after first coming to prominence.
Andrzej Wajda might appear at first to be another such case. First coming to prominence as part of the Polish Film School in the middle 1950s, he has spent the last 50 years largely documenting his country's tragic history, not just its plight during the twentieth century but also in centuries past. Though not entirely confined to political filmmaking, this part of his oeuvre is what he is most clearly identified with, in particular his 1950s 'War Trilogy' of A Generation (1954), Kanal (1956), and Ashes and Diamonds (1958).
What makes his career output persistently interesting is that considering his films allows us not only to trace his development as an artist, but also to examine how they reflect the political climate in which they were made. Man Of Iron (1981), for example, was an historical drama with clear parallels to the burgeoning Solidarity movement, made at a time when censorship had been relaxed to such an extent that a clearly propagandist work could pass through the authorities' gazes unchallenged. This, in a sense, is what has made his work of continuing relevance and freshness despite his advancing years.
His latest, Katyn, is no exception, focusing on the now infamous massacre of an estimated 22,000 Poles by the Russian secret police in 1940, and based on the bestselling book Post mortem by Andrzej Mularczyk. Poland's unique misfortune in World War Two is introduced to us in an opening scene: it is 1939, and refugees are fleeing the eastbound invading Nazi troops, crossing a bridge only to encounter men running towards them from the other side. The Russians have invaded from the opposite frontier, and the country is now squeezed between the far Right from the west and the far Left from the east. The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of non-aggression signed between the two invading powers appears to have consigned Poland to a dire fate.
Initially we view these events through the eyes of Polish Army captain Andrzej, whose wife and daughter Nika have crossed the country to find him and bring him back to safety. The Russians, whilst allowing rank and file soldiers to return home, have incarcerated members of the officer class as well as leading intellectuals as part of their purge of possible insurgents, and Andrzej, unwilling to renounce his vows of allegiance to the Army, is taken into Soviet captivity.