There’s an old Polish proverb that roughly translates into “under capitalism, man exploits man; under communism, the reverse is true.” While the proverb reveals quite a bit about the somewhat insouciant national character of one of the most exploited and occupied nations still in existence, it also beautifully embodies the gist of Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń and the events it aims to depict.
In 1940, the Soviet NKVD executed over 20,000 Polish officers, intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, and clergy in a coordinated effort to destroy the political and intellectual base of Polish society. The majority were killed in the Katyń forest, just to the east of the current border between Russia and Belarus. (Dude, does this atrocity mean I can’t wear my bitchin’ vintage CCCP t-shirt to the next super-bloggable party I hit up?)
Director Andrzej Wajda — who was a whopping 80 years old when he shot this film in 2006 — is no stranger to the Katyń massacre. His father, a captain in the Polish army, was one of its victims. Wajda came of age during the Nazi occupation of Poland and studied fine arts in Krakow in the late 40s, focusing primarily on Impressionism and Post-impressionism. His background in visual arts is on proud display in Katyń, as each scene is lovingly composed with a naturalistic palette of grays, browns, and various other earth tones. Wajda's technique and staging feel much more authentic than the overdone brutalism of most WWII-film production design, and Katyń is definitely a welcome respite from the de-saturated look and feel that, sadly, we’ve come to associate with the war film.
Calling to mind the works of Robert Altman and Jean Renoir, Katyń is first and foremost an ensemble picture. The movie focuses on the lives of several families who were directly affected by the massacre, and in so doing attempts to highlight the humanity of those involved, rather than grandiose implications of such a monstrous event. It is clear from the beginning that Wajda is not attempting to make a war film. He is most keenly interested in the family dynamics of those whose loved ones were taken from them. The eerie calm they all exude, taking for granted that they will see their family members again at the end of the war, is unsettling and makes it that much more heartrending to watch when they find out the truth.
If anything, the ensemble cast serves to further illustrate Wajda’s apparent intention of drafting a universal statement on the incapacity of mankind to alter its fate. This is evinced succinctly by the incredibly blasé attitude toward the massacre exhibited by the Soviets in the film. For public relations purposes, it was the party line that the Nazis were the real perpetrators of the horror at Katyń, and it wasn’t until 1990 when the U.S.S.R. publicly acknowledged the truth of the matter. To say otherwise was treason, punishable by death. This glaring public lie accounts for at least half of the drama of Katyń, as the younger generation in the ensemble cast tries without much success to bring Soviet hypocrisy to light for years after the massacre.
A war-crimes movie that steers clear of sensationalism and moralizing, Katyń stands out in a frankly overcrowded genre. If there’s a real bad guy in Katyń, we certainly never see him — even Nazi officers are painted with a compassionate brush by the deft hand of its director. Wajda could have decided to focus on the diabolism of Beria and the Politburo, of the Soviet leadership’s insistence on eradicating the educated people of Poland, and of the deaf ear the Western world turned on the whole affair until pretty recently. Instead, this time-worn veteran of the film trade mines the events for all of their emotional resonance, in the process taking a story seemingly far removed from current experience and making us realize just how real it truly was.