For a drama that immediately drops us into the deep end of Polish history at the outbreak of World War II, “Katyn” is strikingly … now.
Yes, this film directed by one of Poland’s greatest filmmakers, Andrzej Wajda, is a dramatic recreation of events that led to the massacre of more than 20,000 of Poland’s top leaders by Soviet forces in 1940. But, the film takes us beyond the war and into a very modern era, when propaganda and iron-willed political movements conspire to tell big lies.
In a lengthy interview with Wajda, also included on the DVD, he explains that “Katyn is two things: the crime and the lie.” The biggest lie about Katyn was the large-scale Soviet propaganda campaign immediately after the war that blamed the massacre on the Nazis. That’s the big lie that a plane full of Polish officials were trying to help lay to rest this month (April, 2010), when their plane crashed in fog on their way to a memorial service. Once again, a tragedy wiped out a group of top Polish officials. This time, the top officials were on their way to gather with Russian leaders to work on the healing process over Katyn. Once again, the trauma in Poland in April 2010 is as visceral as the outpouring of grief, flowers and candles in the country’s streets.
That’s the dual legacy of this crime—and the dual impact of this film. In the interview on the DVD, Wajda describes this as telling both his father’s story (his father was murdered at Katyn) and his mother’s story (she “wasted away” after the crime and the subsequent lies).
Here’s the kind of urgent, thought-provoking scene you’ll see in this two-hour film: Some years after the war, a bright, young, Polish university student is hoping to graduate. However, his father was among the thousands killed at Katyn. The student fearlessly notes in a biographical form that his father was massacred by Soviets. Of course, the student is writing the truth. But, this piece of paper threatens the student’s future and an administrator tells the boy he must change his declaration to conform with the lie that Germans committed the Katyn crime.
“I only care for you to get your diploma,” the administrator says. She goes on: “This country must be raised from ruin. Who’ll do it if you all let yourselves get killed? You’ll make corrections … Yes?” In fact, we are watching autobiographical scenes from Wajda’s own younger life. Soon, we see so many Poles forced to share the big lie—even some Catholic church officials agree to sweep Katyn under their parish tombstones.
This pressure to agree with a current political line of thinking—even if that line is cynically based on big lies—is all too current in American culture, of course. Even if you’re not that interested in Polish or WWII history, those themes are chillingly thought provoking.
On the DVD, Wajda says that, considering his worldwide reputation as a director, he could have gone abroad and made the film, “Katyn,” before 1989 when Poles finally overthrew Soviet control. He didn’t risk that, Wajda says, because, “The world knew about it, but didn’t care.”
That’s true, sadly enough. What drove Wajda finally to produce this difficult film? He simply could not deny the ghosts from his own past. “I couldn’t escape the subject,” he said. “I knew I had to face this.”
The world does, too. You’re not likely to find this film without our recommendation and link today. Click here to order a copy of the “Katyn” DVD from Amazon.
ALSO: Check out our “Holocaust Educational Resources Page” within ReadTheSpirit, for reviews and news about other recent films that help us to keep alive memories of these crimes against humanity—and the need to prevent them in the future.
(Originally published at readthespirit.com)