Katyn, Andrzej Wajda, 118 mins, (15)

5.00

Soldiers who won’t fade away. Starring Andrzej Chyra, Maya Ostaszewska, Danuta Stenka

It is arguable that no European country in the 20th century had more injury and infamy heaped upon it than Poland. Andrzej Wajda’s magnificent and harrowing Katyn makes the point in its very first minutes. The time is September 1939, the scene a bridge somewhere in the Polish countryside: two lines of straggling refugees meet in the middle, one convoy fleeing the Nazis who invaded on the first day of the month, the other hurrying from the East, where the Soviets are also making inroads. This is the result of Hitler and Stalin having forged their short-lived pact and divided Poland into two occupied territories. The look on those civilian faces is one of terror mixed with confusion: caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of violent expansionist powers, where can they run to?

Wajda’s film, based on Andrsej Mularczyk’s novel Post Mortem, focuses upon an historical episode that has come to symbolise, for so many, the agony of Poland. The Soviets, after their invasion, took prisoner nearly 18,000 Polish officers, many of them reservists who had been prominent in civilian and intellectual life, doctors, engineers and the like. As such, they represented the possibility of a nation that could shape its own destiny – and therefore were a threat to Stalin’s totalitarian scheme. In the spring of 1940, the Soviet secret police, on his orders, murdered almost 15,000 officer PoWs kept in various NKVD camps. Their bodies were dumped in mass graves, a large number of them in Katyn forest.

This massacre haunts Wajda’s Katyn, as the title indicates, yet it is not seen in dramatic terms until the very end of the film. Instead, Wajda concentrates upon a handful of women – two wives, a mother, a pair of sisters – who suffer through the war wondering what happened to their loved ones, prey to different rumours that have accrued around the disappearance of so many thousands of officers. Bertrand Tavernier investigated a similar theme in his great 1989 film LaVie et Rien d’Autre,about the widows of French soldiers frustrated in mourning men who have literally been “lost”. Wajda, however, is addressing not just the pity of war but an actual war crime, and one whose afterlife became a waking nightmare of recrimination and falsehood. Both Nazis and Soviets used Katyn as a tool of propaganda. First, the Germans dug up the corpses in the forest and condemned the Bolshevik terror; later, when the war turned, the liberating Red Army laid blame for the atrocity on the Nazis – who had, after all, quite a record for this sort of thing by now.

Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), of the small group of characters, comes through the strongest in the first half. She has watched her captain husband, Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), deported by train to god-knows-where, and her enquiries as to his whereabouts are charmlessly batted away. Andrzej, meanwhile, languishes in a detention camp, keeping a diary that forms part of the film's narration. His lieutenant and friend, Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra), wears the sort of unillusioned expression that sees right through the Soviets' purposes: "Buttons... that's all that will be left of us." The second half, set in the war's aftermath when Poland is under Soviet rule, examines the way history is falsified to such an extent that dissent from the official line can be a punishable offence. Agnieszka (Magdalena Cielecka) is so determined to memorialise her vanished brother – another victim at Katyn – that she sells her hair to a wigmaker in order to pay for a headstone. But the memorial, with its accurate date, is a denial of the Soviet-written history, and Agnieszka's refusal to compromise leads to her arrest by the secret police. What horrible farce is this, Wajda seems to ask, where you cannot mourn your own brother without being made an enemy of the state?

Katyn feels like a film that Wajda had to make. Having turned 83 in March, the director (Ashes and Diamonds is his best-known work here) has lived with his own anguish about the event for almost 70 years. He has said that Katyn, the history, is about two things, the crime and the lie: his dilemma was deciding which one the film should address. If the crime, it was about his father, one of the officers murdered in the forest; if the lie, it was about his mother, whom he watched wither and fade once she realised her husband was not coming home. In the end, of course, it is about both. The poignancy of it is the lie, which the Poles had to live with until as late as 1990, when the USSR finally admitted that the massacre was ordered by Stalin and carried out by the NKVD. In this regard Wajda's film might come to represent for Poland the national poem of loss that The Lives of Others represents for the former GDR. The crime, on the other hand, is poignant and gruelling, the more so for the matter-of-fact way in which it is filmed, a cattle line of slaughter (a bullet to the back of the head) inflicted upon men whose only "offence" was to be Polish. And, as long as the Soviets ruled, the truth of it would never come out. One bitterly disillusioned woman here says, "Poland will never be free". The existence of this film counteracts that pessimism, though it would be hard to call it life-affirming. It is too riven with grief and horror for that, too aware of what Poland has suffered for it to be anything but a deeply sombre memorial.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future