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Saturday, September 05, 2009

Katyń


After almost a year and a half, I have finally finished seeing all five of the films nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2007. To sum up, they are The Counterfeiters, which was the winner, Mongol, Beaufort, 12, and finally Katyń. It's a tough call, given that all the films have their faults, but I'm going with Katyń as my choice for the win.

Directed by legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda, Katyń is loaded with political ramifications. At the heart of it is a massacre of Polish army officers and intellectuals committed by the Soviets shortly after the outbreak of World War II. Once the Soviets seized control of Poland, they blamed it on the Germans. As Wajda explains in an interview, the story was twofold: the crime, and the lie.

At first I found the film to be buckling under the weight of its own earnestness. Wajda, whose father died at Katyń, had wanted to make the film all of his career, but it was impossible to make until after 1989, when the Soviet system fell. Before that, anyone publicly denying the lie risked ending up in a gulag. Then it took him twelve years to come up with the perfect script.

The film begins with an intriguing scene that cleverly explicates the Polish predicament. Some people are crossing a bridge, fleeing from the Germans. At the other end of the bridge, people are rushing in the opposite direction, fleeing the Soviets. Truly these poor people were caught between a rock and a hard place, and amazingly for a film about World War II, it's the Russians who are depicted as the bad guys (although there's a scene in which the Nazis round up university professors and ship them off to a prison camp).

The script focuses largely on the women left behind, wondering if their husbands, sons or brothers are dead or alive. The main character, Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), perilously ventures to find her husband before he is shipped off to a prison camp. She then has to escape back to Krakow. A general's wife, Danuta Stenka, stoically tries to hold up, and after she learns her husband is dead struggles to keep from fighting against the Soviet authorities who insist that the Germans committed the crime. Another woman, Magdalena Cielecka, whose brother died there, stubbornly insists on having his tombstone engraved with the actual date of the massacre, rather than the Soviet fiction of a later date. It's telling that she is seen in a theater that is mounting a production of Antigone, the play by Sophocles which deals with a young woman who would rather be put to death than see her dead brother lie unburied on a battlefield.

There are some flaws to the film, though. I found Wajda's way of introducing characters abruptly a bit off-putting--one young man is introduced about half way through the film, focused on as a major character, and then killed off just as abruptly. I never was quite sure who Cielecka's character was supposed to be, and how she related to the others. Still, though, the film builds to a powerful climax. Wajda does not show us the massacre until the close of the film, cutting to it from the image of Ostaszewka's husband's blood-stained diary. It is here we learn, shockingly, that the prisoners were murdered methodically, one by one, as if they were cattle led through a slaughterhouse.

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