Katyn Movie Review
The image has been in Wajda's head for years but it only found its way onto the screen 50 years after A Generation, the director's debut. Nevertheless, the story of the Katyn Forest massacre is in the director's DNA: His father, Jakub, was a cavalry officer who met his end there at the age of 40. The atrocity of the act, carried out by the Russian secret police, doesn't come to bloom until the film's final moments, but Wajda's aim extends far beyond just the harrowing tragedy itself.
Of the many threads which Wajda weaves, the most prominent involves Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), the wife of an army captain among the first to board the trains and Black Marias towards Katyn. Resolute in her faithfulness, she refuses a marital proposal from a kind Russian officer and finds her way to Krakow to wait for word on her husband with her daughter and mother-in-law. In the opening scene, Anna is pulled aside by a friend, the wife of a general, in a chauffeured car, who pleads for her to run away from the Red Army. Later, they will be in the same straights, helplessly awaiting the news of the fate of their husbands.
Though certainly not Wajda's strongest film, Katyn is perhaps his most affecting since his 1970s to '80s heyday. Immediately after the discovery of the 20,000 bodies in Katyn, the slaughter was dressed as a crime of the Nazis. The Bolsheviks' implicit guilt wouldn't be revealed until 1990: Under Stalin's police state, even the slightest insinuation of the NKVD's hand in the massacre was cause for imprisonment or execution. Wajda evokes this through scenes of Polish youth still addled by their captive state: The searing, infuriating last quarter of the film involves Anna's doomed nephew and a pair of sisters unable to find the proper way to mourn their brother, leading to a broken tombstone of the fallen soldier, Wajda's most blatant metaphorical excursion.
Though he never gets personal enough to break the conventions of the war genre, Wajda breeds a profound and scolding pain in Katyn that stirs and throbs thunderously in one's chest. Unlike his fellow cinematic countrymen (Polanski, Kieslowski, Skolimowski), Wajda's filmmaking has found him less a poet and more a proficient, brilliant chronicler of the myths, mysteries, and milestones of a country that has only been allowed to come out of the shade in the last few decades. The stories being told in Katyn are both those of a culture not free of its own past and of a filmmaker still unable to grasp how deeply his history has affected him.