Historic horror story: Andrzej Wajda's Katyn finds the director's powers not at all diminished at age 82.

Iron Curtain Call in the Poland of 'Katyn'

Dennis Harvey June 19, 2009

There’s only one answer possible to the question "Who is the leading Polish filmmaker, past and present?" And it’s not "Roman Polanski." (He’s certainly from Poland, but not having directed a movie there since 1963 is a bit of a disqualifier.)

Andrzej Wajda stayed in his homeland through thick and frequent thin. (At one point the then-Communist government, infuriated by his films’ dissenting nature, simply forced his production company out of existence.) Further, he has few rivals anywhere in using the medium almost exclusively to explore his country’s history and character. With very few digressions over what’s been almost a 60-year career span to date, Poland has been his canvas, subject and muse.

His latest, Katyn, which opens on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Friday, finds the director not at all diminished in ambition or energy despite having reached age 82. It’s a sizable period saga about a tragic, still-controversial chapter in Poland’s 20th-century history, one with particular resonance for Wadja: When he was still a teenager, his father was among those killed in the subsequently covered-up mass murder at Katyn’s core.

The film, however, is not a documentary but a drama about that incident, based on Adrzej Mularczyk’s fact-based novel Post Mortem as well as research and interviews done for the movie itself.

The Katyn Forest Massacre took place in March 1940 at various locations. (The term is now viewed as encompassing simultaneous executions at prisons, POW camps and elsewhere beyond the actual forest.) Russia had invaded Poland to counter Nazi Germany’s own invasion the prior September. Having won, USSR authorities including Stalin ordered executed all captured officers of the Polish military, though others (academics, intellectuals, cops, bureaucrats, misc. civilian POWs) were indiscriminately shot point-blank as well.

Nearly 22,000 are estimated as having been killed, their bodies (most shot point-blank in the head) deposited in mass graves that the Nazis discovered in 1943. (This discovery briefly severed diplomatic relations between Russia and the exiled Polish government.)

You might well ask: Just why did Moscow engineer this atrocity? Well, with their eyes already on a post-war prize, Stalin & Co. wanted to eliminate Polish society’s autonomous power base—i.e., anyone with education, clout, position and connections— to create a new leadership malleable by Communist oversight.

Given charge of Poland and other Eastern European nations after WW2, the USSR created an alternate explanation for Katyn that fingered the Nazis as guilty. Dissent from this "party line" version was harshly suppressed, despite all contradicting evidence and rumors. It wasn’t until 1990, when the Iron Curtain finally dissolved, that Russia at last admitted the truth—while refusing to prosecute surviving perps. That Katyn remains an historical sore point was underlined when the enormously successful home-turf release of Wajda’s film in late 2007 stirred some fresh political saber-rattling both in Poland and Russia.

The story centers on one family haunted for decades by Katyn’s legacy. Honor-bound cavalry leader Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski) refuses to leave his troops after the Soviet invasion, though wife Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) and their young daughter beg him to go AWOL. He ends up under Nazi arrest, is separated from his men alongside other Polish officers, and disappears into the realm of the missing/possibly dead, imprisoned, who-knows-what.

High-strung Anna hangs on to the remote chance that Andrzej survived, somehow. But even once this hope is definitively dashed, their now-grown child and other later characters insist on exposing Katyn’s official lie—a pursuit that can have very dire consequences.

Katyn would be a fitting last film for Wajda, given its gravity and summation of familiar themes, plus the fact that he’s already gotten his Lifetime Achievement Oscar (that questionably welcome prize which always seems to suggest "OK you can die now!"). But he’s already premiered a well-received subsequent feature (the smaller-scaled Tatara a.k.a. Sweet Rush) at this year’s Berlinale, and is well into production on another.

Having directed acclaimed films since 1951—the most famous including Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Man of Marble (1976), Man of Iron (1981), rare foreign-language sojourn Danton (1983), and Pan Tadeusz (1999)—Andrzej Wajda may well be the longest-active major director in the world, with his seventh career decade dawning in just two more years.

One key to that creative longevity may be the use of equally talented collaborators, and Katyn features an exceptional one in Krzysztof Penderecki, Poland’s greatest living classical composer. (Though he’s an infrequent soundtrack contributor, you’d certainly recognize the unsettling works excerpted in The Shining and The Exorcist.) The 75-year-old’s original score, often ominous and poignant at once, has a tragic grandeur truly worthy of its subject matter.