Polish history began a long descent into darkness in 1772. That year saw the First Partition of Poland at the hands of Prussia, Austria, and Russia; two more partitions came shortly afterwards in 1793 and 1795. Poland’s woe, unfortunately, did not end there. Over the next two centuries, Poland’s lands were repeatedly invaded, annexed, divided, or puppet-stated by its neighbors. The most recent, and consequently well-known, of Poland’s partitions came during World War II at the hands of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. After signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the two powers invaded Poland in September 1939 and occupied predesignated swaths of the country. The brutal years of occupation that came afterwards took a massive toll on Polish life and liberty.
Thanks in part to movies like Schindler’s List and The Pianist, Nazi atrocities on Polish territory during the war are quite well known to the general Western public; after all, the Nazis built some of their most infamous extermination camps (Auschwitz, Treblinka, etc.) on Polish territory. However, this isn’t to say that the Soviets were kind to the Poles, because they weren’t. In fact, they exacted their own flavor of brutality.
Katyń is a film that reminds us of just how cruel the Soviets were to Poland during World War II and its aftermath. History buffs will instantly be able to surmise the film’s topic with its name only. Katyń‘s namesake is the 1940 Katyń Massacre, a series of mass executions of Polish officers and intelligentsia carried out by the Soviet NKVD in Katyń Forest and several other sites within Soviet territory. Over 22,000 Poles died, and the incident is perhaps the most traumatic singular (emphasis on the singular) event in modern Polish history.
The film primarily focuses on those left in the massacre’s wake. It opens shortly after Poland’s defeat in September 1939, introducing us to Polish cavalry captain Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski) and his wife Anna (Maja Ostaszewska). Anna and her daughter Weronika (Wiktoria Gąsiewska) manage to find Andrzej in a lightly-guarded Soviet detention center, about to be shipped off further east. Despite his wife’s pleading, Andrzej remains loyal to his military oath and refuses to escape. From that point forwards, the couple will separately experience the horrors of war.
After various tribulations, and thanks to the assistance of a sympathetic Soviet officer, Anna and Weronika return to the family home in Krakow. There, they find Andrzej’s mother alone: the Germans deported her husband, a university professor, to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. At the same time, we get vignettes from the prison camp that Andrzej is now held in. Officers are being removed with each passing day, and Andrzej keeps a meticulous diary tracking those movements. Soon, it is Andrzej’s time to leave.
With the blaring of propaganda horns, the film then jumps to 1943. After advancing deep into Soviet territory, the Germans have uncovered the Katyń graves; to sway Polish sentiments away from the “evil Bolsheviks”, they broadcast this news, along with names of those presumed executed, around Krakow. Andrzej is not among those names, and Anna keeps hope alive for his return.
Shortly afterwards, the film jumps again to 1945. The Nazis are vanquished, and the Soviets have returned and set up a puppet government. The Nazi’s Katyń narrative becomes a problem, and the Soviets resolve it by blaming the massacres back on the Nazis. Anyone who questions this act of historical revisionism is liable for a friendly visit from the authorities. Anna, along with a host of other characters touched by Katyń, must now struggle to reconcile their anger with the new “official story”.
This segment is where the movie starts to shine. From Soviet “liberation” in 1945 until the fall of communism in 1989, Katyń was a forbidden topic that simmered beneath the Polish psyche. Its historiography mirrors modern Poland’s broader history: those in power control the narrative, and as power waxes and wanes, so does the “truth”. When the Nazis occupy, it’s the Soviet’s fault; when the Soviets liberate, it’s the Nazis fault; when the Poles come into their own again, it’s back to the Soviets.
As the movie depicts, grappling with the anger, frustration, and guilt that comes with those narrative changes can quite literally drive people mad. Therefore, the tragedy of Katyń is not isolated to the massacre; it stretches and expands, to friends, family, and country. Through the delicate construction of its own narrative, and its unvarnished depiction of silent brutality, the film conveys a poignant message: Katyń’s victims include not only 22,000 officers and intellectuals, but also the Polish nation itself.
Katyń does have a few faults though. While Anna and Andrzej form the film’s foundation, numerous subplots bounce in and out of their main story. While it’s clear this is done for a good purpose, tracking all those subplots can be somewhat confusing. The film’s scope is ambitious, and viewers who desire a slower treatment may be slightly disappointed.
However, Katyń is, on the whole, an excellent piece for those interested in the tragedy of Poland. True to the vagaries of Polish history, it is stark and cruel: there is no Saving Private Ryan-style gore or heroism, only single shots to the head that are shrouded in darkness. While there is no redemption for Poland in the movie, the fact that it was made is redemption in itself. Maybe more than anything, Katyń is a cinematic symbol of Poland’s recent resurgence: after centuries of humiliation and subjugation, the country can finally see its tragedies played out on screens and not streets.
Katyń (Polish: Katyń)—Poland. Directed by Andrzej Wajda. First released September 2007. Running time 1hr 55min. Starring Maja Ostaszewska, Danuta Stenka, Artur Żmijewski, and Paweł Małaszyński.