Katyn (2007) or The Crime and the Lie about a Gruesome Massacre on Polish Officers

This is an outstanding movie. Truly outstanding from every possible point of view. Narrative style, cinematography, actors, story, technical aspects. Absolutely great.

The Polish movie Katyn is about the massacre of some 22000 Polish officers by the Russian army and the subsequent  disposal of their bodies in the Katyn forest in 1940. Once the mass grave is found in 1943 the so-called Katyn list is established.  After having waited anxiously for the return of their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers the families are now informed if or if not their loved ones have been among the victims. However not all the victims are on the list. Many more a still missing and may or may not have been murdered. Many wives still wait for their husbands in 1945.

The movie focuses on two families. One is the family of a Polish General, the other the family of a Polish officer. The story is told in two sequences. The first half tells the story until the massacre, the second tells the story of the lie and ends again with the massacre but this time shown much more explicitly (The way these murders were executed…How can people do this to people?). After the first half we think the story should be over but in reality it only just begins. Seeing it first from the point of view of the victims, we are then guided towards the point of view of the families who wait for them. Their ordeal is a different but very cruel one. Even though everybody knows who killed those officers, officially it is said to have been a massacre committed by the Germans. To say otherwise would be very dangerous. The political climate of the time that made it impossible to even mention a critical view of this incident until 1989 is palpable in all its atrocity.

On my DVD of this movie is an interview with the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. He tells the interviewer how difficult it was to make this movie. He didn´t know how to tell the story. Should he tell his father´s story, who had been among those officers, or his mother´s who was one of those who did not give up hope until 1945. He decided eventually to tell both stories, juxtapose them, have one mirror the other. This is very skillfully done. Wajda belongs to the so-called Polish Film School and has made many movies, two of his better known earlier ones also deal with WWII:  A Generation aka Pokolenie (1955) and Kanal (1957) about the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

This film is truly the work of a master, of someone who does not just deliver a story but who weaves it carefully, adding symbolism and criticism alike. And  still it is highly watchable.

3 thoughts on “Katyn (2007) or The Crime and the Lie about a Gruesome Massacre on Polish Officers

  1. nem baj says:

    This is the work of a great director. When dealing with such traumatic collective events, so many productions resort to sensationalism and emotional manipulation. Too often, the violence is handled as a plot device simply designed to trigger instinctive rejection and empathy, while inducing among viewers a sense of righteousness and self-superiority (we ‘have seen’ exactly what happened / we feel horrified, angry and… safe).

    The brilliant construction of Katyn is miles away: we won’t see the execution until the very end, when the truth, through the obstination of a handful of relatives, has succeeded to survive both the nazi and soviet propaganda machines – only then can we be presented with the horror, only then can we watch it, knowing that the fate of these men will be properly remembered.

    Katyn is an exercise in Memory more than it is an exercise in History. In that respect, I think that the critics disputing its lack of historical perspective (there have been a few) miss the point — surely, those who look for a historical approach of Poland in those years do know that there are books available.

    For a Wajda movie, the characters may seem surprisingly simple (except perhaps for’Jerzy’, the Polish Lieutenant who becomes a NKVD major). However, complexity can certainly be found in many post-war scenes, where the ambiguities and dangers of the times are masterfully hinted at. Moreover, I’ll argue that the choice of a choral form, which prevents from going deeper in the characters’ individual depths, is justified by the director’s aim: there are no superheroes here, only humans at grips with loss and their desire for dignity in grief.

    Which is why, although Katyn is also an exercise in national mythology, about the resilience of the Polish spirit, I think it rises above that. As an homage to those who were murdered and to those who fought for the simple survival of the truth, it is a tribute to the courage of war crimes victims’ relatives anywhere.

    The only weakness of the film, in my eyes, lies in its formal classicism: although flawless, the cinematography certainly lacks the creative brilliance of, for instance, Ashes and Diamonds. But this is certainly a minor flaw, a reproach that can only be made to the best.

    • Very well said.
      I think this was one of the first movies I reviewed, it’s been a while since I watched it but I remember I thought it was amazing.
      I meant to watch and review his other movies as well but got distracted. The interview on the DVD was very interesting. Maybe the charcaters are less complex, exactly because it’s an exercise in Memory, as you say. It may be an attempt at mirroring how he learned about the events.
      I had a very emotional reaction to this movie because precisely it didn’t use easy manipulation to tigger empathy.
      Thanks for reminding me, I need to watch Ashes and Diamonds.

  2. […] you’re interested in the Katyn massacre, here’s a review of Katyn, an excellent movie on the […]

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