World War II movies rarely deal with the Catholic experience, but Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn uses this unique perspective to convey the psychic weight of an unsung disaster. When Polish soldiers confined in a Soviet barracks become demoralized, a captain advises, “Will you be soldiers or losers?”—a question already implicit in how the men argue, protect other from cold or sustain another’s faith. Katyn does not give clear narrative order to director Wajda’s feelings about their tragedy—the 1940 massacre of 15,000 Polish soldiers and intellectuals in the Katyn forest (a catastrophe Wajda lived through as a child). Yet without the perspective of a great movie, Wajda keeps trying for it. Tracking Polish Catholic identity for plot stability distinguishes this WWII drama from Holocaust Exploitation like The Reader, which inexcusably used the war as an excuse for soft-core titillation and sentimentalized guilt.
Blaming the obvious bad guys is all some critics require, and Wajda’s politics often disguised his banality. But in Katyn, Wajda’s mundane technique examines the unobvious of Catholic history suffering gives wartime suffering new weight. Depicting the moment Nazi troops from Germany and Occupational troops from the Soviet Union both invaded Poland in 1939, Wajda splinters Poland’s crisis into several tales—a military family, an intellectual family, a partisan family. Wajda views all from both civilian and service perspectives. Going from the invasion to the massacre and several aftermath points where citizens try suppressing or avenging the event, Wajda’s overlapping stories convey a culture as fractured as the broken crucifix and discreetly triaged Christ statue in an early scene.
This cultural, spiritual crisis is sharpened by the sudden introduction of documentary footage—of children looking for a Christmas tree during the Occupation then an open-air screening of propaganda films absolving Russia of the Katyn massacre. Wajda confronts historical evidence and personal recall. When a widow (Danuta Stenka) telling a collaborator, “You may think differently but you do the same. What difference does it make that you think differently?” there’s real-life complexity.
Katyn’s weirdly unfocused narrative goes from familiar war drama to a political horror film; its surviving veterans, wives and children are stalked by history and seeking justice. “I wouldn’t wish my lot on my worst enemy,” says a girl (Joanna I Agnieszka Kawiorskie), seeking to commemorate her martyred brother. That’s when Krzysztof Penderecki’s doomy music finally makes sense. Catholic resolve keeps surfacing, and its persistence inspires an audacious final scene and startling image.
No wonder Wajda’s most elegant film was Danton (on Criterion DVD next month), a distanced perspective on the French Revolution and a pageant of legendary figures embodying political complexities. That’s the essence of Katyn as well. It’s a story of personal legends—unknown soldiers and civilians. As Wajda deliberately unravels their various narrative strands, like a desperately ripped flag, a national tragedy doesn’t cease; it haunts.
Directed by Andrzej Wajda
At Film Forum
Running Time: 118 min.
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