Katyn

The 2008 film is released in the U.S. February 2009

(Polish, Russian, German dialogue)

Berlin Film Fest 2008 (Out of Competition)–Poland's Oscar-nominated film “Katyn” may be Andrzei Wajda's most accessible political film, but it's certainly not his best. Though personal, this melodrama, recounting WWII massacre of the Polish officer class that the Russians blamed on the Nazis, in which the helmer's own father had died, suffers from a curiously cold and detached perspective.

The latest production of Wajda, a seminal filmmaker whose work spans more than half a century of Polish and Eastern Europe's history, “Katyn” screened Out of Competition at Berlin.

Poland's foreign-language Oscar entry for this year's Academy Awards, “Katyn” notched up 2.7 million admissions domestically, almost 10% of the country's annual total admissions figure, which amounts to $14 million gross. However, as of today, the film has not U.S. theatrical distribution, even though it deserves to be seen on the big screen, at least in limited urban centers.

Wajda, 81, has been in Berlin's Competition three times and received an Honorary Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement in 2006. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Honorary Oscar, in 2004 (handed to him by Jane Fonda).

Intensely personal, “Katyn” ignited long-repressed debate in Poland following its September release. Wajda lost his own father in the 1940 massacre, when he was 14.

“I lost my father when I most needed him,” Wajda said, adding that even when German forces found the mass graves in 1943 and announced that a “Karol” Wajda (his father's name was Jakub) was among the dead, “for me, it was easier to believe he was alive and would come back to us after the war.”

Wajda has said that he makes films for Polish audiences, and that international acclaim is incidental. But the importance, and resonance the film had in Berlin at its international premiere, is underlined by his comment: “I think that the story of Katyn is strongly rooted in the Polish conscience as a sin committed by Poland's Western allies during the Second World War. It's time that this conspiracy of silence was broken.”

Well-crafted, the film has a multi-layered narrative that encompasses personas of several generations, as they live through the experience and then relive with the traumatic event that has had impact on their personal lives as well as on Poland's collective conscience–and consciousness.

The saga's protagonist is Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), standing in for Wajda's mother, who in 1939 arrives at Poland's Eastern border, looking for her husband Andrzei (Artur Zmijewski), a Polish military officer, who in an earlier scene had resisted to run away with her–despite the signs and warnings. A proud man, with a strong sense of duty, he proclaims his loyalty to the cavalry regiment.

Nonetheless, the regiment is captured by the Soviet Army, threatening to send the men to internment camps in Russia. Less than a year later, most of the officers would be shot–in cold blood.

One of the massacre's survivors is Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra), a friend of Andrzej's, at a heavy price though, compromising his morals and the truth. After the War, Jerzy agrees to attribute the Katyn atrocities to the Nazis (easy target) rather than to the real criminals, the Soviets, who fear embarrassment and repercussions.

Wajda and his scenarists Wladyslaw Pasikowski and Przemyslaw Nowarkowski then introduce the story of Andrzej's two daughters, Agnieszka (Magdalena Cielecka) and Irena (Agniessszka Glinska), who differ in their politics toward the War and the new regime.

Interweaving of past and present is smooth, and the characters come across vividly as humans rather than ideological types or mouthpieces. Nonetheless, considering how powerful the story is, and that it's autobiographical, “Katyn” is curiously too restrained and too tactful. Here is a story of tumultuous political events with far-reaching consequences that should have been more stirring and more involving.

That said, Wajda, an extremely intelligent and rational filmmaker, should get credit for not resorting to the other extreme, namely, making a sentimental melodrama that points fingers at the culprits. I wish there were a middle-ground to convey the story, the way the far superior German melodrama “The Lives of Others” did, in a mode that's both intellectually and psychologically compelling.

Cast

Maja Ostaszewska Artur Zmijewski Andrzej Chyra Danuta Stenka Jan Englert Magdalena Cielecka Pawel Malaszynski Agnieszka Glinska Maja Komorowska Wladyslaw Kowalski Sergei Garmash Antoni Pawlicki Agnieszka Kawiorska.

Credits

An Akson Studio, Telewizja Polska, Telekomunikacja Polska presentation, with the support of the Polish Film Institute.

Produced by Michal Kwiecinsky.

Executive producer, Katarzyna Fukacz-Cebula.

Directed by Andrzej Wajda.

Screenplay, Wadja, Wladyslaw Pasikowski, Przemyslaw Nowarkowski.

Camera: Pawel Edelman.

Editor: Milenia Fielder.

Music: Krzysztof Penderecki.

Production designer: Kamil Przelecki.

Art director: Magdalena Dipont.

Costume designers: Magdalena Bierdrzycka, Andrzej Szenajh.

Sound: Jacek Hamela, Leszek Freund, Marek Wronko.

Running time: 122 Minutes.