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At the start of “Katyn,” a Polish drama about the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest in 1940, a group of refugees fleeing the German invasion in September 1939 wait for a train to pass and then set off across a bridge to what they think is safety. Halfway across, they meet another group of Polish refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion. Each warns the other group that they’re going the wrong way. A succinct dramatization of the Polish dilemma.
Unfortunately, melodrama has become the lingua franca of foreign movies dealing with unspeakable, World War II-era horrors. So it was with the rape of Nanjing in both the Chinese film “City of Life and Death” and the German film “John Rabe.” So it was with the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up of Jews in Nazi-occupied France in “La rafle” and in “Oorlogswinter,” that bildungsroman of Nazi-occupied Holland. And so here.
“Katyn,” directed by Andrzej Wajda, was nominated best foreign language film at the 2007 Academy Awards, (it lost to “The Counterfeiters”) so I guess I expected a lot. Or more.
From the refugees on the bridge, two faces emerge: Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) and her daughter Nika (Wiktoria Gasiewska). They’re rushing toward the Soviet side to find Anna’s husband, Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), a Polish military officer; but the closer they get, the worse the news. The Uhlan, the Polish cavalry, is no more. The invasion is over. Poland is taken. Soldiers captured by the Soviets are let go but officers remain POWs. She arrives at a camp, looking no worse for wear, only to see doctors operating on the wounded, an INRI crucifix missing its Christ, and rows of dead. It’s Nika who spots daddy’s coat with the blue ribbon on it. It’s draped over a body, where a priest is administering last rites. With a trembling hand, Ann removes it and finds the missing statue of Christ. This prefigures future mix-ups involving corpses and clothes but one still wonders why the priest was administering last rites to a statue. A ruse? Was he hiding the Christ figure from the Soviets? I assumed they knocked the figure off its cross but maybe he did to save it.
At the POW camp, we finally meet Andrzej and his more cynical companion Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra). Andrzej is planning on writing down all that happens, recording it for posterity, while Jerzy feels things are more ominous than that:
Jerzy: The future is bleak.
Jerzy: The Soviets haven’t signed the Geneva Convention.
We get a few good, short conversations between the two. When Andrzej mentions that tanks can be rebuilt but trained officers are irreplaceable, Jerzy responds, “I hope the Soviets don’t realize that.” His best, truest line comes shortly thereafter: “Buttons. That’s what will be left of us.” But these conversations don’t build toward anything. Andrzej is honorable and attentive; Jerzy foresees doom. For good friends, they have little to talk about.
In the camp, which is not yet fenced in, Anna sees him, goes to him, cries. She begs him to flee with her in the confusion, but he refuses and winds up shipped to a Soviet camp. She and Nika, meanwhile, are trapped on the Soviet side. One wonders what she was doing in the first place. Who drags a six-year-old across half of Poland, in the middle of a war, to find a military officer?
The German side isn’t any better, of course. In November 1939, in Krakow, Andrzej’s mother (Maja Komorowska ) urges her husband, Jan (Wladyslaw Kowalski), a distinguished-looking university professor, mulling over clippings of his handsome son, to refrain from a university meeting with the S.S. But, as with the son, he does the honorable thing and stands by the chancellor during what he imagines will be a conversation with the Germans. But there is no conversation. The Poles are chastised for opening the university without permission and sent to the Sachsenhausen camp, where Prof. Jan dies of cardiac arrest.
So it goes. Characters are perfunctorily introduced only to die or disappear. Anna escapes from the Soviets with the help of a Russian captain (who has something of Tommy Lee Jones’ sad gaze about him), but then he’s off to the Finnish front. Dasvidania. Anna and Nika make it back to Krakow no worse for wear. There, the General’s wife, Roza (Danuta Stenka), gazes out windows, her stylish hat cocked at an angle.
Then suddenly it’s 1943 and Roza is ordered by the Germans, now at war with the USSR, to denounce the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest; but, even after seeing horrific footage, she refuses to be used for Nazi propaganda purposes.
Then suddenly it’s 1945, Poland belongs to the Soviet Union now, which claims that the Katyn massacre was a German operation in the spring of ’41, not a Soviet operation in the spring of ’40, and to say otherwise means death. Even so, Roza says it in the town square (“It’s a lie”), where names of the Katyn dead are read through a tinny loudspeaker. Jerzy, who has survived, pulls her away but she shows no gratitude and accuses him of being just like the Soviets. Off she goes into the fog. And in he goes to a bar, where he gets drunk and speaks the truth, then walks out into the night and shoots himself in the head. Do widzenia.
Other characters emerge. Tadeusz (Antoni Pawlicki) is an enthusiastic student whose father died at Katyn and he gets in trouble for tearing down a Soviet propaganda poster. Pursued through the streets of Krakow, he’s aided by Ewa, whom we saw earlier (on the bridge?), but who is now all grown up ((Agnieszka Kawiorska). The two talk movies, plan on meeting the next night at the local theater, share a kiss, but upon departing Tadeusz runs into the pursuing Soviet officers, who chase him into oncoming traffic. Do widzenia.
Meanwhile, Agnieszka (Magdalena Cielecka), of the long blonde hair and the hard, world-weary look, has her hair cut to pay for a tombstone for her brother, another Katyn victim, but includes the year, 1940, making it a Soviet massacre, and for that .... Do widzenia.
Finally, Ann receives Andrzej’s diary, and we get the massacre, which is horrific, in flashback.
These last scenes are powerful but by this point we’ve given up on the movie. I like some aspect of it in theory—characters introduced just to die, approximating the value of life in war and under totalitarianism—but the glue holding it together is still the stuff of soap opera: Anna crying across half of Poland, the cute kids kissing, Roza in her rakish hat gazing. The crime is a double crime: the massacre itself and then lying about it for decades; and the film is a reminder that, unlike western Europe, unlike the French or British or even the Germans, the Poles were not freed in 1945 but continued to live under an occupying force, an oppressive tyranny, for decades.
Even so, it’s a plain movie. Our unspeakable horrors—the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanjing, the Katyn massacre—deserve better.
December 3, 2011
© 2011 Erik Lundegaard