Koch Lorber // 2008 // 121 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // August 17th, 2009
The crime that Stalin couldn't hide.
In 1940, following the German invasion of Poland, the Soviet secret police massacred thousands of Polish prisoners of war in Katyn Forest. Among those killed was Polish army officer Jakub Wajda, whose son, Andrzej, would go on to become the renowned director of works such as Kanal, Man of Marble, and Danton. Throughout Wajda's career, the plight of his country, be it the ravages of war or the oppression of communist rule, has never been far from his mind. It should come as no surprise, then, that Wajda chose to film a dramatization of such an important event in his nation's history.
Katyn (adapted by Wajda, Wladyslaw Pasikowski, and Przemyslaw Nowakowski from Andrzej Mularczyk's novel Post Mortem) opens very effectively, with streams of Polish citizens fleeing the invading German army, only to run into other citizens heading in the opposite direction in order to evade Soviet forces who have entered the country from the east. Eventually, in the jumble of the crowd, Wajda settles his focus on Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), who is traveling with her young daughter Nika (Wiktoria Gasiewska). Anna's husband Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski) is one of the many Polish officers who have been taken prisoner by the Soviets.
Anna is the closest Katyn has to a protagonist, although her role diminishes greatly in the film's second half. We also meet Andrzej's mother (Maja Komorowska) and father (Wladyslaw Kowalski). The latter is a university professor who is rounded up by the Nazis and sent to a labor camp. Other characters in this portion of the film include several POWs: Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra), a friend of Andrzej, a general (Jan Englert), and Piotr (Pawel Malaszynski), an engineer. The general's wife (Danuta Stenka) and daughter Ewa (Agnieszka Kawiorska) are also depicted in several scenes.
For this half of Katyn, Wajda alternates between scenes of the prisoners in their confinement and their loved ones anxiously awaiting news of their fate. Like many of his other history-minded films, Wajda immerses the viewer into the world of the film without providing a whole lot of context, which can make his films somewhat inaccessible to those who don't know much about the subject matter going in. With Katyn, this isn't as much of a problem (at least not initially). By using a group of characters, Wajda gives the viewer a better perspective on the far-reaching impact of Katyn, although this comes at the expense of characterization.
The crime committed in 1940 did not end with the victims' deaths, however. In 1943, German forces excavated the Katyn graves and publicized the massacre. Following the war, the triumphant Soviets re-wrote history, affixing 1941 as the date the massacre occurred and placing the blame squarely on the Nazis. The subject became taboo in communist Poland, and it was only in 1990 that the Soviet Union at last admitted its culpability in the massacre.
It is this postwar period that the second half of Katyn deals with, and the film falters during this portion, as several new characters are abruptly introduced into the narrative. The story moves between these characters haphazardly, and the effect is very jarring, especially compared to the film's more straightforward first half. I had to rewind the DVD a few times just to orient myself as to who was who. Insufficient time is given to develop these characters, giving Katyn the feel of a history lesson, rather than a potent, engaging drama.
The second half of Katyn has some memorable moments; one is [SPOILER] Jerzy's suicide [END SPOILER], another is the struggle of Piotr's sister Agniezka to install a gravestone for her brother that reflects the correct year of his death. This is neatly contrasted with Piotr's other sister (Agnieszka Glinska), who advises Anna's nephew (Antoni Pawlicki) to leave out mention of Katyn on his CV, resignedly believing that "Poland will never be free." The film closes with scenes of the massacre itself, which are unsurprisingly disturbing and sad.
I singled out Ostaszewska, but the acting in Katyn is uniformly strong, making it all the more unfortunate that character development in the film is almost nonexistent. Wajda's approach mostly eschews the excessive sentimentality and corniness that frequently appear in war dramas in favor of unfussy and largely unshowy (aside from a crane shot or two) filmmaking. Pawel Edelman's cinematography is appropriately dark and grimy, and the handheld camerawork is never a distraction.
Katyn is presented with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio which, according to DVD Beaver's review of the disc, is not correct. Beyond that, the overall appearance of the film just isn't as sharp as it could or should be. For audio, 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby tracks are provided, both of which are more than up to the task, although I'd give the edge to the 5.1 track for the best experience.
Besides the film's trailer, there are two extras. The first is a video interview with Wajda that runs nearly 50 minutes. The discussion incorporates Wajda's preparation for the film, his reasons for making it and other, more philosophical tangents. It's a thoughtful, engaging discussion and certainly worth watching. The second extra is a making-of featurette that runs about 26 minutes and contains interviews with cast and crew along with behind the scenes footage. There's way too much back-patting going on here for this doc to be of much value, although it's interesting to watch Wajda give direction to one of the child actors.
Due to the unique nature of its subject matter, Katyn is really a film that deserves to be seen by a wide audience. The Katyn lie was perpetuated for far too long by far too many, and it's about time everyone learned the truth. The film itself is not perfect, especially when compared with Wajda's earlier war films. (See his 1950s trilogy before watching this.) Koch Lorber's DVD is similarly flawed, but Katyn still merits a rental at the very least.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Polish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Polish)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated