Katyn, Andrzej Wajda, 118 mins, (15)


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
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015