Arbitrary Brutality

Photo: Courtesy of Kock Lorber Films and Film Forum

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.

The end is a flashback to 1940, to the murders in Katyn. The sequence is almost unbearably graphic, though not punishing or exploitive. It is filmed with simplicity, a purity of intent, and I wanted to watch the faces of these men in their last seconds of life—not for the sake of history, but because of Wajda’s imperative to put his father’s death onscreen. He needed to do this. And somehow, sanity is restored.

The Guggenheim’s white interiors and open, circular ramps make a great setting for the long, bloody shoot-out at the center of the paranoid conspiracy thriller The International. As he proved in Run Lola Run, German director Tom Tykwer has a knack for whizzing in sync with his characters, and there are one or two shots where the Interpol hero (Clive Owen and his stubble) hurtles along the curving, descending ramp while firing across the museum at assassins, who in turn are moving on the same trajectory firing at him. It’s good enough that you forget how much better Brian De Palma could do it. The rest is a slow road to nowhere, less clunky than The Interpreter but bogged down by its own cynicism. This is another movie that says you can’t defeat a nefarious multitentacled multinational colossus if you stay within the system: The only hope is vigilante justice. At one point, the hero is thisclose to getting the goods on the big bad banker without having to shoot him when a swarm of bats suddenly gives him away. An intentional metaphor? As in The Dark Knight, the message seems to be saying you’d have to be bats to think you can make a difference.

I don’t know why I lined up with the other dweebs to see the new Friday the 13th remake. Maybe because the original was a nail in the coffin of the horror genre, and after decades of copycat hack-’em-ups, ironic-postmodern hack-’em-ups (Scream), parody ironic-postmodern hack-’em-ups (Scary Movie), and even a hip mumblecore postmodern hack-’em-up manqué (Baghead), I was curious to know how it would feel to watch a movie in which a procession of attractive semi-clad young dudes and dudettes get royally wasted and that’s all. Well, the killings are loud but artless (the Final Destination series set the bar very high on Rube Goldberg splatter), and even the most sadistic scenes lack conviction. You really have to screw it up to dishonor the memory of a movie as shitty as the original Friday the 13th. Heads should roll.

Directed by Andrzej Wajda.
Koch Lorber Films. NR.

The International
Directed by Tom Tykwer.
Columbia Pictures. R.

Friday the 13th
Directed by Marcus Nispel.
Warner Brothers Pictures. R.


Arbitrary Brutality