by Carl Whinder
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Of all the atrocities committed against Poland during the Second World War Katyn stands out, not purely because of the horrific nature of the event but because it was not inflicted by the Nazis but the Soviets. While the murder of 6 million of its population by the Nazis has been scribed into history the effect of the Soviet invasion in the west seemingly goes unaccounted. The events at Katyn act as a microcosm of this, an event erased from time through denial and subterfuge, an event blamed on a more obvious evil, the Nazis. Like many of his characters in the film, director Andrze Wajda knows only too well the effects of this murder of 20,000 Poles, predominately officers or the Polish army, as his father was one of those killed. Wajda tackles the story in two sections, pre-Katyn and post-Katyn, the juxtaposition of these 2 epochs acting as an excellent device for emphasising the devastation the event has had on the lives of those touched by it.
The pre-Katyn is a world of slow burn intensity as a country being squeezed from both sides begins to burst at the seams, the overriding sense of impending doom permeates through the torn wreckage of a family and the lonely moments of reflection on the fate of a loved one. Poland of the Second World War is a place in which the presence of god is slowly evaporating. A soldier stares ominously at the rosary beads a priest has virtually discarded in his hand, an uncovered corpse is revealed to be a statue of Jesus hastily re-covered by a priest and a church becomes a place for confinement where men huddle between racks in a vain attempt to say prayers that will never be answered. The camera moves slowly and deliberately, as even scenes of a missing child and a last minute soviet house raid start with a palpable tension before descending into a resigned acknowledgment of another far too common tragedy about to take place. Sometimes the tragedy never materialises but its very presence leaves a scar on the screen and the lives of those caught up in these horrific events.
The second section focuses on the ruined lives of those who cannot leave the past behind and those who wish just to forget. Attempting to forget leads to death, investigating the past leads to incarceration and being unable to forget leads to stagnation. Piotr (Paweł Małaszyński) has two sisters, one who believes that the Poland they knew has gone and they should try to move on, the other plots to erect a gravestone bearing the true date of her brothers death, a date that would place the atrocity squarely at the hands of the Soviets. The hole caused by the not knowing, the ambiguity over events and the lies told makes it harder to locate as characters are unable to move forward, their narratives fixated and stilted by this one event. This is shown most keenly in Anna’s (Maja Ostaszewska) daughter (Wiktoria Gąsiewska) who pines for her father every time a visitor comes to the door. Anna is left in a conflicted limbo as she finds relief in the knowledge that Andrzej’s (Artur Zmijewski) name has not been announced as one of the dead, yet at the same time giving her no closure regarding his fate.
The film works well to place us in this sphere of uncertainty as the split narrative displaces us in the same way the characters are displaced. Our story is broken and we can do nothing except wait, hope and look for clues as to how it can be resumed. At points the film does feel a little confused, maybe this is intended as we jump from character to character with no clear pattern, we too become mired in an entanglement of events we find difficult to decipher. The acting is uniformly excellent, the gravity of the event weighing on the characters as much as the responsibility in retelling it adds to the intensity of the performances. At times the remorseless misery becomes hard to take and occasionally scenes teeter on the edge of melodrama. However when we finally see the fate of those lost it brings the film together, the pace of the film quickens to match the intensity of the mass executions. Playing out like a horror film, the evil is all the more chilling for it’s ruthless efficiency. Finally that which has been hidden becomes exposed and at the same time almost unbearable to watch.
Carl Whinder is a reviewer and filmmaker based in Brighton, UK.
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