Andrzej Wajda's newest film is worth a mention, even if it is only a mention. Wajda just turned 82 and needless to say he has made a few films in his lifetime. He has won his fair share of awards in his 50 year career, capped off with an honorary Oscar in 2000 for his contribution to cinema and also an honorary Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006. Given his body of work, I looked forward to Katyn with anticipation, but knowing that his best films are probably behind him, I had few expectations.
The title refers to the Katyn Forest where over 15,000 Polish troops were executed by the Soviet Army in 1940. Few countries felt the effect of World War II worse than Poland with the Soviets to the east and the Nazis to the west. After the Russians marched into Poland and took control of the bordering regions, all Army personal were captured and took prisoner. After the mass graves were discovered in the Katyn Forest, the Russians blamed the Nazis for the killing. (It was only in 1990 when Mikhail Gorbachev admitted this was a lie.) So started the game, even though everyone knew the truth, in Soviet controlled Poland you were not permitted to even elude to the guilt of the Russian Army, and in Nazi controlled Poland, you dare not blame the Nazis for the Katyn massacre. Wajda's own father was a captain in the Polish Army and was killed in Katyn. More to the point, Wajda states, "I never thought I would live to see the fall of the USSR, or that free Poland would provide me with the opportunity to portray on the screen the crime and lies of Katyn."
The film takes place in 1939 and follows several storylines of women connected to the men captured by the Soviets. They each have their own way of processing the fates of their loved ones while also dealing with the repression of the War. Katyn is international cinema at its best, but it is also international cinema at its most mundane. This is your stock in trade nostalgic war film where men are heroes and women are martyrs. Make no mistake, this film is categorically beautiful with it's sepia toned antiquity and admirable camera work, but that is to be expected. As if admitting to this facade, the swoony two hours resigns itself to a finale that empowers the film with its brutality. It is certainly one thing to say that 15,000 people were executed, but it is a whole other thing to imagine an execution happening 15,000 times.