Watching Andrzej Wajda’s unnervingly even-tempered Katyn, you wonder why the Poles who managed to live through World War II and the dual occupation of the Germans and Soviets did not go mad: Survival and sanity appear to be mutually exclusive. The movie is named for the forest where, in 1940, the Soviets secretly executed 15,000 Polish officers, artists, educators, intellectuals—the best and brightest, among them the 14-year-old Wajda’s father. The overture is out of the Theatre of the Absurd. It’s 1939, and two waves of civilians, mostly women and children, surge onto opposite ends of a bridge and collide in the middle: One group screams that the Nazis are behind them, the other that the Bolshies are behind them. Do they go forward? Backward? They can’t stay put. In the pandemonium, people push past one another in both directions, while Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) grabs her little daughter and heads for the park where the Soviets have detained her husband, Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), and other officers. She begs him to flee; he says he must be true to his military pledge and remain with his soldiers. Andrzej, the obvious stand-in for Wajda’s father, can’t figure out why he’s a POW. Of his Soviet captors he says, “There was no war with them!”
In his early eighties, Wajda finally tells the story that has haunted much of his work, which began with the tumultuous war trilogy of A Generation (1954), Kanal (1957), and Ashes and Diamonds (1958). There are two likely reasons why he didn’t make Katyn after those films: (1) The Communists’ late-fifties tolerance for moral and artistic complexity was short-lived, and (2) the Soviets attributed the Katyn massacre to the Nazis and were touchy when corrected—i.e., they shot people. The vanquished Germans, having liquidated a significant number of Europeans, could hardly mount a credible defense.
Wajda does not tell this story from the perspective of the child he was, but there is something childlike about the movie’s lack of context. What I mean is: No one spells out why bad things are happening to bewildered people. We know, of course, why the Nazis haul people off: An SS man labels professors who naïvely gather to discuss academic freedom “hostile to Germany,” and that’s the last anyone sees of them. But why do the Soviets come for men, women, and children? Andrzej, his lieutenant Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra), and their general (Jan Englert) stand around a frigid barracks overseen by blank-faced Soviet guards; no one in power speaks to them. This is a vacuum—an indifferent universe, only fleetingly warmed by their prayers and songs. To make sense of what we see, we have to go outside the film to know that even as Stalin was gearing up to fight Hitler, he was thinking about the corrosive effect of independent thinkers on Poland, a country he planned to rule through Communist apparatchiks. It was less trouble to clean house before he fully moved in.
The arbitrary, brutal suppression of knowledge, of culture, of one’s system of values, of one’s very history: The theme—the vacuum—is central to so much of postwar Polish fiction and drama; it is central to even the Jewish perspective of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. (There are no Jews in Katyn, however.) In Wajda’s film, Anna and her daughter barely escape a Soviet roundup and flee to German-ruled Kraków, where they are safer. They scan the newspaper and listen to readings of the list of the Polish dead in the city square—praying fervently that Andrzej won’t be on it. What actually happened to her husband and others only sees the light for propaganda’s sake. The Nazis document the exhumation of the Katyn corpses on film as proof that the Soviets are worse than they are. They express their sincere condolences to the late general’s wife (Danuta Stenka), then ask her to read a denunciation of the USSR. When she demurs, they ask her again, more insistently, then raise the possibility of Auschwitz … What should she do? Determining the cost–benefit ratio—the Soviets would have killed her already and did kill her husband but the Nazis are killing Poles and the Polish resistance could kill her for collaborating and the Soviets might win the war and eliminate her but she could be put on a train to Auschwitz that day—requires the higher math.
The last section of Katyn—after the war—is less morally dizzying. The stakes are stark: Accept the Soviet version of Katyn and live, fatally compromised, or broadcast the truth and die. A couple of idealistic young people—a man and a woman—demonstrate their resolve to reject the counterfeit history: The film does not end with them hoisted aloft by cheering crowds. I confess that at times I agreed with the reluctant compromisers, the ones who said, “You can’t bring back the Katyn dead. Don’t get yourself killed. Live until Poland is free again.” Wajda at least gives those people dignity.