Review: Katyn

A flawed story of Polish martyrs


Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn may well be the most accomplished and most important film released this summer. It is also disturbingly flawed, not as a work of art but as a representation of a country and a moment in history.

For decades this great Polish filmmaker (Man of Iron, Ashes and Diamonds) has wanted to make a film about the terrible crime committed in the Katyn forest in the spring of 1940. Wajda’s own father Jakub was among the 22,000 Polish army officers and other notables taken away and murdered by Soviet NKVD in the forest and elsewhere in Russia.

Because Jacub Wajda’s full name was not on what came to be known as the Katyn list, Andrzej Wajda’s mother believed for decades afterwards that her husband might return from some Soviet prison.

In 1943 the Nazis discovered the mass graves at Katyn (where some 4,500 were murdered; the rest were killed in other locations) and quickly exploited them for anti-Soviet propaganda. The Soviets blamed the massacres on the Nazis (fudging their date and faking autopsies) and continued to propagate this lie until 1990.

Wajda does far more than tell the story of the massacre; he gives a powerful sense of their human cost by focusing on the women left behind by the deported and murdered. Only at the very end is the massacre depicted, and in a matter-of-fact, understated way that is all the more heartrending.

Indeed as an illustration of the industrial barbarism practised by the totalitarian empires, Katyn can hardly be bettered. I was disappointed that it missed out on the 2008 best foreign film Oscar, losing to The Counterfeiters. Everything about Katyn is low-key and deliberate (apart from the occasionally overblown score). It begins on a bridge in eastern Poland where two crowds of refugees meet: one is fleeing the Germans, the other the Russians. Among them is Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), the wife of a Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), a cavalry captain who has been taken prisoner by the Soviets. She finds him in an internment camp run by Russians who are happily fraternising with the Nazis.

Though Andrzej could perhaps escape, he refuses to for reasons of military honour. The Polish army, though tough and brave, is part of an old-world military culture that can hardly conceive of the ruthlessness of the new totalitarian ones, and Andrzej is taken to the USSR on a train along with hundreds of other officers.

When Anna gets back to her family in Nazi-occupied Crakow, helped by a Russian officer, she finds that her father-in-law, a university professor, has been arrested by the SS and sent to a labour camp. All of this is presumably Wajda’s attempt to balance the traditional Polish nationalist narrative which tends to emphasise Soviet viciousness and underplay Nazi crimes.

As the war continues, Wajda intercuts scenes from Anna’s life, and those of three other women, with the final days of Andrzej and his comrades in Russia back in April 1940. At one point the widow of a Polish general murdered at Katyn is ordered by the Nazis to make a propaganda recording but she refuses even though they threaten to send her to Auschwitz. Once the Nazis are defeated, Poland’s new Soviet masters punish anyone who dares tell the truth about Katyn. Those who have survived the war have to decide whether to stand up for the truth and face terrible consequences, or collaborate in a lie.

Katyn may well be a welcome corrective to a Jewish narrative that has too little sympathy for the Polish experience in World War II, (and that tends to forget that Poland had more than its share of righteous gentiles). However, there are also Polish narratives that are even more exclusive in their sense of victimhood. Sadly, Wajda has brilliantly and perfectly expressed one of them.

In Katyn he has created a wartime Poland that is bizarrely and entirely Jew-free. Throughout all the scenes of invasions and occupation — most of the action takes place in Crakow — there is not a single flash of a yellow star. Yet, as he must surely know, at least 10 per cent of Poland’s population was Jewish and half of the six million Polish citizens who died in the war were Jews. The greatest part of the Holocaust took place — very publicly — in Poland. For that matter at least 450 of the Polish military officers murdered at Katyn were Jews, including Baruch Steinberg, the chief rabbi of the Polish Army.

Yet Wajda has written them all out of the story, just as Stalin erased his enemies from official photographs. This is not as awful as the right-wing Polish versions, all too common on the internet, that try to blame Katyn on the Bolshevik Jews (the infamous pogrom at Jedwabne in 1943 was carried out by Polish peasants convinced that Jews were somehow responsible for Katyn). Nevertheless, Wajda’s is a lie of omission that is almost as repulsive as the great lie the film is intended to attack.

Wajda was 13 when his country was invaded in 1939. He is clearly nostalgic for the relatively civilised and gentle bourgeois world destroyed in the war, and the social hierarchy overthrown by 1945. But the country that the Germans and then the Russians savaged was ruled by an authoritarian political party obsessed with “Poland for the Poles”, excluding the one third of the population that was ethnically Ukrainian, German, Georgian, Belorussian or Jewish.

It is beyond sad that a great artist like Wajda, who has said that he did not want Katyn “to be yet another piece of Polish martyrology”, and who has created such a powerful monument to the victims of mass murder, should apparently share the narrow prejudice of a Polish nationalism that had and has too little space for Jewish or other suffering in its story of martyrdom.

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