Friday, March 06, 2009


Katyn.  The name is a testament to an evil visited on Poland, an evil denied, refuted for years by those who always knew and never once to this day acknowledged by its true name.

On September 1st 1939  Germany attacked Poland's Western Front. The invasion took the Polish army by surprise. Then, the French and British ignored a treaty to defend Poland from German Aggression. German tanks rolled into Polish sovereign land and the Franco Anglo alliance stood by idly.

To the East the Russian Red Army appeared as unlikely saviours. Under the pretext of protecting the large Ukrainian and Belarusian populations in Poland they moved into the Eastern half of the nation where they met no resistance from a Polish army ordered to stand down. The Poles were unaware the Russians had  signed an agreement with the Germans to divide Poland between themselves in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

The Russians captured  more than 250 000 Polish troops. The invaders immediately released as many as170, 000 men of Ukrainian and Belorussian descent. They sent about  43 000 soldiers from Western Poland to the Germans, now in possession of that territory.

 40, 000 troops were distributed amongst various camps in the Ukraine and Belarus. Held for questioning by the NKVD, the internal security services. The camps were at Jukhnovo ,Oranki , Kozelsk, Kozelshchyna, , Ostashkov , Tyotkino rail station , Starobielsk, Gryazovets, Yuzhe Vologda, and in the forest that has come to be eponymous with it all, Katyn.

What happened to 22, 000 of those men is the subject of Katyn. Famed director Andrzej Wajda revisits a story that has hung over his life like a shadow he is unable to escape. Wajda 's father was among those men taken to Katyn.

Katyn begins with turbulence of the Russian advance into Poland. Wajda captures the confusion and chaos of everyday citizens on the run, uncertain of what was unfolding and filled with a sense of foreboding.

Among these evacuees is a young woman accompanied by her child, a girl of no more than 8 years. She is the wife of Andrezj, a young officer in the Uhlan regiment, among the POWs held in a temporary internment camp near Poland's Eastern border. She has traveled half away across the country to find him. She finds him in a lightly guarded area and implores him to come away with her. Her language is of another time and place, with a gravity of its own. You made a oath before God that you would stay with me she tells him. Like hearing the letters of American civil war soldiers the effect is moving. People who believed in a higher power standing on the precipice of an historical event that would change their generations perspective forever. His reply is dutiful, his oath to his fellow officers ties him to his fate. This scene sets the stage for the tragedy that follows for it underlines the underlying civility of those men. Good men incapable of believing the cynicism of the plan laid in store for them by Stalin and Bierra.

The film leaves no stone unturned capturing the complicity of the Nazis who were blamed for the atrocity by the Russians. The finger pointing aimed to propagate a suppression of Stalin and Bierra's crime has always left the Third Reich in the ill fitted position as defenders of the truth. It is true they exhumed the bodies of those men and brought them to international attention. But they were also there at the time of those events taking over the higher institutes of learning rounding up the professional and academic class and sending many to the same fate that befell those officers.

The story is told closely through the context of Anna and her family and friends, drawing the larger events down to an intimate scope so as to serve as a microcosm of the great multitude of similar personal tragedies that would cascade from the terrible fate of each of those men.

Wajda's style is quiet, poetic leaving you with images shown in a casual way. The tendency to underline the event so evident in Hollywood productions is absent. The lightness of touch brings into dramatic relief the suffering of the nation.

There is an asphyxiating silence that shrouds the film and its characters, unable to express their anger, to pay witness to the killers. A survivor allowed to live out of mistaken identity later expresses this collective frustration, the desire to shout out the truth. It becomes his final act of defiance. Other characters express this anger. The Generals wife who is told to recant the truth is unable to do so even when it threatens to separate her from her daughter.

Beautiful, proud characters are shown brushed aside. A defiant young man who submits his application to art school with the bald fact that his father was murdered at Katyn by the Russians is told to censor the information, to follow the official line. He storms away and Kazjan shows what might have been his life and the waste it becomes, side by side in a heart rending series of scenes. A young woman who refuses to submit to the official line handed out to explain her husband's death is taken away to a subterranean chamber. She is shown making one final glance upward. It only strikes the viewer as an after thought, the finality of the moment, her courage as it is a last look at the light before imprisonment, before death?

Then there is the awful suspense created by the lie. Anna cannot accept her husband's death. She is shown slipping between states of denial. Only slowly does the truth dawn on her. This realization occurs as the film follows her husband along with the thousands of others shipped to their fate. Andrezj keeps a detailed diary which ends on a day in 1940. The director keeps us in the mind of those men, those good men unwilling to accept what awaited them even to the last moment when they were individually taken and butchered without remorse. Thousands of them denied the chance to fight, shrouded in darkness like hogs to the slaughter. Among the best of Poland's men wiped out to keep the country without leadership.

Though finally acknowledged by Gorbachev as the plan of Stalin and Bierra in 1990 it has not been still acknowledged by the Russians for what it was, premeditated mass murder.

Andrezj Wajda takes viewers into the dark night of his country's history and pays stirring tribute to the memory of his father.

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