I was just on the cusp of realizing that “foreign” films existed and were a real alternative to what 1950s Hollywood was serving up when Andrzej Wajda‘s first films began appearing.   Art houses were far and few between in Falls Church, Virginia. DVDs and streaming video weren’t yet conceptualized.  Tape was something we used for music, if at all.  For movies we went to theaters and we watched what the theater was showing.  War movies ran to The Sands of Iwo Jima [that would be John Wayne], or Run Silent, Run Deep [Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster] .  The heroes were inevitably templates for what was held to be the way American men comported themselves as soldiers –stoic, silent and brave, true to their loved ones and noble to those they rescued –in battles which, despite losses and setback, Americans always won.  If there were deaths the bodies twisted and fell in the middle distances allowing us to stay wrapped in the same safety we were in our own backyard games.  Not known, much less seen, were “A Generation,” [1955] “Kanal,” [1957] or “Ashes and Diamonds,” [1958]  Wajda’s famous war trilogy that announced him to Polish and serious European audiences, war films that had a different take on heroism and the glories of war.

Even as I began to appreciate the Italian neo-realists, French noir and then New Wave, Wajda’s name only floated in that distant sphere of film auteurs with unpronounceable names we must one day see — Russians, Japanese, Poles.  Somehow I never sat in the dark and absorbed his immense, dark vision. Too bad for me.  I’ve been able to begin making up the absence now that technology lets us locate and see films we have long wondered about, have heard or read mentioned of. We can see a short series by a particular director, or follow a theme that interests us, or watch an actor in various roles at various ages. Sitting in a dark room with a big screen in the company of others is still the best way to see a movie, but putting yourself to school in your living room is not a bad second choice.

Katyn is the 85 year old director’s latest film, released in Poland in 2007 and in the U.S in early 2009.  It’s available on DVD already.

katyn_swit_na_stacji_400Katyn for the Poles is a one-word tolling-bell of meaning, as 9/11 is for Americans.  Katyn is a place. It’s a town and a forest near Smolensk in Russia.  It is a massacre of Polish officers, intellectuals, priests and students by the Soviet NKVD.  It is a German propaganda campaign carried out against the Soviets.  It is a Soviet propaganda campaign carried out against the Nazis.  It is the exhumation of bodies, forensic analysis of bullet holes, pieces of cloth, hidden journals. It is the insistence of the truth of the massacre against denial, punishment, imprisonment and torture. It is, the revelation in secret papers between Stalin and Beria, of what was planned, when and who was to carry it out. And it is, finally, Poland the nation becoming Poland a country and able to stand for its own people and the truths they have had torn from their history. All these things are Katyn.

Wajda has said he had wanted to make a film about these things since be first began making films.  His own father had been one of those murdered in Katyn.

The film opens with a harrowing  1939 bridge scene, some Poles fleeing the Russians advancing on Poland from the east, and others fleeing the Germans advancing from the west.  As they meet, fear and panic take over, everyone making their own decision as best they can.  The camera follows one young mother in particular, Anna, with her daughter, who decides to find her husband, Cavalry Captain Andrzej, an officer in the Polish Army.  By the time they find him the advancing Soviets have rounded up the remnants of the army and officers are being sent off to POW camps, with promise of fair treatment.

Anna goes to live with her mother in law in Krakow where her husband, a professor at the university is rounded up by the Nazis, along with most of the faculty and similarly, sent off to camps, German instead of Russian.

Though the horrific core of the film is the massacre of thousands of men, Wajda shows the immensity of the event through the eyes of the women –wives, mothers, daughters– held in the suspense of hope, crushed with arriving news, in the form of propaganda, and living with the claims and counter claims of those who ruled the country, first Germans and the Soviets.

When elements of the German Wehrmacht discover the bodies in April, 1943, Goebbels immediately understood what a propaganda bonanza he had. The German war machine was in a good deal of trouble. The Russians were pushing it back across territory it had captured in 1941. The war in the Atlantic had been very costly to the German submarine fleet. The allies had taken North Africa. So, the Russian massacre of the officer corps of their ostensible Polish allies against the Nazis was played for all it was worth.

“We are now using the discovery of 12,000 Polish officers, murdered by the GPU, for anti-Bolshevik propaganda on a grand style. We sent neutral journalists and Polish intellectuals to the spot where they were found. Their reports now reaching us from ahead are gruesome. The Fuehrer has also given permission for us to hand out a drastic news item to the German press. I gave instructions to make the widest possible use of the propaganda material. We shall be able to live on it for a couple weeks.” [Wiki]

The film shows actual news reels of the bodies being unearthed. It takes us to Krakow were lists of the dead were published in newspapers and announced by loudspeaker. Families of the deceased were brought in for reactions, and were recorded, published and played, all aimed at demonstrating the perfidy of this ally of the democracies, and enemy of the benevolent Third Reich. If the bereaved did not wish to be a public griever she was offered Auschwitz as an alternative.

Anna is overjoyed, though still sick with doubt, when her husband’s name does not appear on the lists. It will take until the end of the war, and into the Russian occupation of Poland to learn why.

The story is not only of the murders, and the grieving, but of Poland’s own suppressed growth as a nation, as citizen fights citizen over treason and loyalty. Some join the Communist government; others hate it and continue the resistance begun against the Germans. Some despair of Poland ever being independent and sovereign, hostage forever to the great neighboring bullies. And, as the Nazis did, the Soviets began to propagandize the Katyn deaths, claiming they occurred in 1941, after the Nazis had occupied Poland not in 1940 when Russia did. Some of the same news footage was used –in the film at least– to show the dis-internments, the “proof,” and build the horror against the enemy.

The performances of both Anna, the wife, and Maria, the mother of Cavalry Captain Andrzej are quite remarkable, particularly in the scenes together when their own hopes and fears battle each other, the mother visibly loosing her ability to cope, due to age, war and loss.

Another family of women is also portrayed reacting to each other and their brother’s/son’s death. One sister, Agnieszka, insists on the right to remember him as a victim of the Russians. She has a gravestone made with the 1940 date of the massacre as his date of death. She is taken in for questioning for her anti-Soviet behavior and we see her go to an unknown end. Her sister, Irena, suppresses her feelings of loss and anger to continue to work as director of a school and to bring along the next generation of Poles, Russian killers in charge or not.

The score, taken from longer pieces by Krzysztof Penderecki, of “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” fame, was incredible throughout, haunting and ominous but restrained, part of the cinematography, the story and the acting, not dominating it, or thrown into the gap to create emotions that are not there.

The actual killings, those that begin and anchor the story, are not seen until the final minutes, as Anna finally knows that her husband died along with his comrades, and gets his journal hidden in the great coat he wore in his death. The shooting is methodical, and was in reality: one soldier at a time, bound, shoved towards a common grave, shot once in the back of the head, pitched on top of the others and eventually buried with bulldozers. It is reported that one executioner killed 6,000 in one week.

These are scenes you will long remember and will keep Katyn alive in your mind, even though you may never have heard of it before. Wajda intends to be true to his countrymen and he is, but in not giving the characters surnames he also allows them to stand for those who died and those who suffered in wait in any of the great massacres the last bloody century fed on.