Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn takes its title from a forest in Russia where in 1940 the Soviet army massacred thousands of Polish officers and simultaneously killed thousands of leading citizens in nearby detention facilities. Poland and the Soviet Union weren’t officially at war at the time, but the Soviets still bore a grudge from being trounced in a prolonged conflict with the newly independent Poland nearly 20 years earlier, so when the Nazis invaded Poland from the west in 1939, the Soviets came in from the east, exploiting the Poles’ divided forces. And when reports of the Katyn massacre started spreading, the Russians blamed the Germans. Until Mikhail Gorbachev officially apologized in 1990, it was forbidden for Poles to discuss openly what happened to a whole generation of their leaders.
Wajda lost his father in the Katyn incident, but he doesn’t approach the story from an obliquely personal perspective, nor does he make Katyn into some dry history play or austere art film. Katyn—which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Oscars—is instead a gritty political thriller, with a laser-like focus on those moments when Poland was undone by mounting circumstance. To some extent, Wajda can’t shake the Eastern European World War II movie formula; Katyn plays at times like a Holocaust movie with the Soviets in place of the Nazis, and Catholic intellectuals in place of the Jews. And Wajda indulges in some moments of excessive irony, as when a rueful citizen moans, “There will never be a free Poland. Mark my words.” But Wajda also understands how effective the old formula can be at dramatizing the grueling, embarrassing process of capitulation.
Katyn depicts the buildup to the massacre, then abruptly jumps ahead a few years, as wives and mothers begin to suspect their loved ones won’t ever be coming home. The second half of the movie is mostly about how the Soviets launched their propaganda campaign, and how the Polish citizenry buckled. Wajda saves his dramatization of the massacre itself to the very end, where it serves as a contradiction to the official story. Wajda makes the murders look horrific and jangled, like something out of Hostel, then ends Katyn with extended darkness and silence, allowing the audience to mourn for the death of a nation.