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Polish Master Seeks Truth and Reconciliation

Katyn (2007)

Koch Lorber Films

The great Polish director Andrzej Wajda has reportedly been waiting his entire life to tell the story of the Soviet massacre of Polish Army officers in the Katyn Forest during WWII. After experiencing “Katyn” – his studious, eloquent rendition of that terrible day and its aftermath – one understands exactly why. The film is not just about the buildup to the mass murder, its obfuscation by those responsible and the outpouring of national grief that followed it.

Instead, Mr. Wajda transforms the events into a metaphoric exploration of the whole, brutally subjugated history of modern Poland. Interwoven therein is a thoughtful consideration of the viability of an independent Polish nation and an impassioned cry for its much put upon citizenry to assert agency over their future. The filmmaker weaves a multi-character tapestry that presents a diversity of experiences and perspectives related to the massacre. He recreates the period with total authenticity.

The picture is shot with the visual scope demanded by a narrative that aims in some sense to define an entire nation. As a commanding officer begins to speak, the camera slowly pulls back to reveal hundreds of troops surrounding him, hanging on eagerly to his every word. Villagers flee the oncoming Soviet Army en masse, family members have hushed conversations in dimly-lit wood-paneled parlors and women travel through grim, rainy city squares desperate for some news. The screenplay’s penchant for jumping from one character to another as they share in the communal sense of uncertainty and bereavement aptly imparts the national epic focus to which Mr. Wajda aspires.

From a dramatic standpoint, the film could have benefited from a tighter look at one or two of those characters. To some degree, Mr. Wajda’s big-picture aspirations dilute the emotional impact of the individual story lines. The frequent cross-cutting leaves some of the more engaging narrative strands behind, while the film often feels as if it contains bits and pieces of several compelling movies. An entire feature could easily be constructed around the minor character of Agnieszka (Magdalena Cielecka), the sister of a murdered lieutenant pilot who defies the Soviet authorities by erecting a tombstone for her brother that decries their responsibility for the massacre. However, the story Mr. Wajda wants to tell in “Katyn” is that of the Polish nation as a whole coping with its tragic past and finding some way to face a no less troubled future, and he does so beautifully.


Opens on Feb. 18 in New York and on April 10 in Britain.

Directed by Andrzej Wajda; written by Mr. Wajda, Wladyslaw Pasikowski and Przemyslaw Nowakowski, based on the novel “Post Mortem” by Andrzej Mularczyk; director of photography, Pawel Edelman; edited by Milenia Fiedler and Rafal Listopad; music by Krzysztof Penderecki; produced by Michal Kwiecinski; released by Koch Lorber Films (United States) and Artificial Eye (Britain). In Polish, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. This film is not rated.

WITH: Maja Ostaszewska (Anna), Artur Zmijewski (Andrzej), Andrzej Chyra (Jerzy) and Jan Englert (General).


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