Director Andrzej Wajda is no stranger to making films about Poland’s fight to keep its identity in the face of oppression – having first made his name with his harrowing account of the 1944 Warsaw uprising in Kanal way back in 1957. With Katyn, he gives us another masterstroke.
The Katyn massacre was the mass murder more than 20,000 Polish military officers, intellectuals and civilian POWs by the Soviets in 1940. Nazi Germany used the discovery of the mass graves in 1943 for their own political objectives, which saw the end of diplomatic ties between Moscow and the Polish government (in exile in London). The Soviet Union continued to deny the massacres until only as recently as 1990.
Wajda’s beautifully shot film describes the horror of this massacre through the eyes of four Polish families who are forced to live under a Nazi flag when Poland is invaded in 1939, then Soviet rule following the 1944 uprising.
At the heart of the film is the story of Andrezj and his wife Anna. Andrezj, a young Polish captain, is so loyal to his military oath that he allows himself to be taken by the Soviets, but keeps a daily diary of life as a POW. When the discovery of the Katyn massacre is made, and Andrezj’s name is not on the list of officers killed, Anna refuses to give up hope that her missing husband is alive.
Elsewhere, two sisters deal with their brother’s death in their own way. One accepts life under Soviet rule, stating Poland will never be free (something the director himself always believed himself), while the other refuses to live under a murderous regime. Wajda makes big statements here about living under a dictatorship, and the difficult choices people have to make – some good, some bad – in a bid to survive. But is it better to grin and bear it, or die for what you know is right?
Katyn is a powerful, moving and unforgettable tale that, in the year of the 20th anniversary of the Berlin wall coming down, has more resonance than ever.
Released 5 October