It's safe to say that expectations ran high for Andrzej Wajda's Katyn. It's one of the most expensive Polish films ever made, directed by a man whose claim to be the greatest of all Polish filmmakers carries considerable heft, and is about a subject that Wajda describes as "an open, festering wound in the history of Poland". It concerns both the 1940 massacre of at least 12,000 (some say 20,000) members of Poland's military and intellectual elite in the Katyn forest, and the subsequent cover-up by which the occupying Soviet forces tried to convince the world that the Nazis were responsible - which made the film impossible to even contemplate making prior to Mikhail Gorbachev's belated admission of Soviet culpability in 1990, shortly before the terminal collapse of the USSR itself.
Added to that is its enormous box-office success in Poland (only beaten by Shrek the Third in the 2007 chart), its thankfully brief (and Wajda-condemned) use as a political football by the aggressively nationalist Kaczynski twins during their unsuccessful election campaign last October, the Polish Army arranging free screenings for all serving soldiers to show what happened to their ancestors, a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination (Wadja's fourth unsuccessful one, as it turned out) and a poll by Polish daily newspaper Polska in which it was voted the best Polish film of all time. Oh, and one of the Katyn victims was a cavalry officer by the name of Jakub Wajda, whose wife spent years hoping that the rumours weren't true - and whose son grew up to become one of Poland's creative giants. And there's another one listed in the credits in the form of composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose contribution to Polish music is as important as Wajda's to Polish cinema.
Given that pedigree, it's hard to separate the two hours of actual celluloid from the historical, political, cultural and emotional baggage that it's carrying - and there's a danger of assuming that unless Katyn is a masterpiece to end all masterpieces, it will somehow be damned as a failure. In fact, it's a pretty good film by any reasonable standard - it's intelligent, thoroughly engrossing, technically assured, makes its numerous points through well-staged drama instead of soapbox oratory, begins and ends with two brilliantly-conceived set-pieces, and I'd say it ranks very high indeed amongst Wajda's output over the last 25 years or so. But, sadly, it's not another Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds or Man of Marble, and I'm not sure that that was ever a realistic prospect.
Part of the problem is that Wajda's best films achieved their potency through suggestion and moral ambiguity (Ashes and Diamonds being a perfect example), whereas his priority with Katyn is to set the historical record straight. So despite often touching performances, none of the characters ever offers more than a particular archetype: the noble general, the selfless lieutenant, the guilt-ridden survivor, the wives and children left behind, and the evil Nazi (with his bald head and Nosferatu leer, Joachim-Paul Assböck matches the popular caricature even more than usual). The Poles aren't even given surnames - if they're not simply 'the General' or 'the Lieutenant-Pilot', they're Andrzej, Anna, Jan, Jerzy and Agnieszka, presumably chosen because they rank amongst the most common of all Polish names.
Surprisingly, given the subject and Wajda's stated desire to emphasise that Poland's tragedy was as much down to them as the Nazis (he deliberately premiered the film on 17 September, the date the USSR invaded Poland in 1939), the Soviets are barely characterised at all. They're mostly depicted as shadowy background figures or anonymous bureaucrats - the one Russian given any significant screen time being Major Popov (Sergei Garmash), a sympathetic mini-Schindler who prevents Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) and her daughter being deported, probably to Auschwitz. The word "probably" highlights another issue with the film: advance knowledge of World War II in general and the Polish experience in particular is not so much advisable as essential, as Wajda rarely offers more than an onscreen year and location to set the scene.
The beginning promises much. Dark storm clouds gather over the opening credits, accompanied by a mournful main theme characteristic of Penderecki's recent neo-Romantic compositions (I'm not sure how much, if any, of the score is original: I recognised extracts from the third symphony, the second cello concerto, the Polish Requiem and others). The opening scene, whereby crowds of Polish civilians cross a bridge in flight from the invading Nazis meet another crowd fleeing the Soviet Army, creating an incisive metaphor for how Poland was squeezed on both sides in the first three weeks of World War II (Wajda has confirmed that he devised this sequence years before a Katyn film even became thinkable).
The confusion that follows is studded with memorable images: a dog that's as bewildered as its human compatriots; a large crucifix from which Christ has been cut down, leaving merely a dangling severed arm; Polish flags being torn into red and white halves, the former repurposed as a makeshift Communist emblem, the latter being used to bind a wound. Soldiers and intellectuals alike are rounded up and shipped off to labour camps, and there is ample evidence of collusion between Nazis and Soviets in their carving-up of Polish assets under the terms of what was laughably dubbed the Non-Aggression Pact. On Christmas Eve 1939, a group of POWs in the Kozelsk detention camp is addressed by an army general (Jan Englert) and urged to endure whatever lies ahead, for the sake of their country.
But when it seems to be developing into a straightforward patriotic war epic, Wajda abruptly jumps forward several years, the rest of the film being largely concerned with the women left behind, not merely deprived of their husbands but also of any certainty about what happened to them. This is where the film is at its most nakedly autobiographical, since even after the Katyn massacre was exposed, Jakub Wajda's name never appeared on any official list of victims, and while his fate was never seriously in doubt, his wife and son spent decades nurturing a faint flame of hope that he might return.
This part of the film is the closest that Wajda has ever come to Kafka's universe, as we see the historical record cynically altered (I presume the two newsreels about Katyn, one made by the Nazis in 1943 and the other by the Soviets in 1945, are genuine) to the point where the official version of events is that the Nazis committed the crime, and no earlier than 1941. As a result, anyone who even attempts to record the date and place of death of a loved one as "Katyn, 1940", regardless of whether it's on a CV or engraved on a tombstone, is committing an act of treason - regardless of the depth of their grief or their belief in the rightness of their cause (two tragic subplots explore this theme in ways that respectively echo Wajda's own Ashes and Diamonds and Sophocles' Antigone). But Wajda also shows how tiny clues escape through the propaganda, culminating in the discovery of a diary by Anna's cavalry officer husband Andrzej, which stops abruptly in 1940 after describing the journey to the Katyn forest. And Anna's imagination does the rest...
It's normally considered not so much bad as unforgivable form to give away the ending of a film, and it's doubly worse to describe it in detail - and if you're absolutist about this, I advise you to jump to the technical section of this review. But in the case of Katyn, it's unlikely that a film on this subject by this director would end any other way, and inconceivable that he'd pull a contrived happy-ending surprise out of his box of rhetorical tricks. Not only would this not fit Wajda's temperament anyway, in this case there'd also be the not exactly trivial issue of betraying not only the memory of his parents but also his entire nation.
Accordingly, the last ten minutes of the film re-enact the Katyn massacre itself, to a level of pitiless detail that's only rivalled by Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing, and with as much moral justification. To the sound of a bulldozer clearing a gigantic pit, the generals are shot in a bare room, their blood sluiced away before the next victim is ushered in (though there's still more than enough evidence remaining of what fate awaits them). The lower ranking officers are simply placed at the mouth of the pit, shot in the back of the head, and pushed forwards. And then another. And another. If they panic, a sack is placed over their heads prior to the shooting. When the pistol clicks against an empty chamber, it's simply reloaded and fired, giving the victim five seconds' reprieve. In the distance, a Soviet soldier can be seen bayonetting the corpses. (What really horrifies about this scene, quite apart from the deliberate destruction of an entire country's highest achievers to ensure its subsequent subservience, is the lo-tech nature of the technology used to slaughter thousands - there are no purpose-built gas chambers here, just bullets, bulldozers and bayonets).
The accompanying music is Penderecki's 1974 masterpiece 'The Awakening of Jacob', a cacophony of rasping strings and brass suggesting something tumultuous and terrifying - and the fact that it's previously seen service in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and David Lynch's Inland Empire doesn't diminish its impact in any way whatsoever. Finally, the pit is full and a mound of earth is bulldozed over the corpses, one still clutching a rosary - just about the only concession to emotional button-pushing, and entirely forgivable under these circumstances. The screen then mercifully fades to black, and we get a full minute of stark, spare choral music (I'm guessing this is from Penderecki's Polish Requiem), after which the credits scroll in respectful silence. Reports of Polish audiences sitting quietly through the entire roll of names en masse, many openly weeping, are unlikely to have been exaggerated.
Katyn is available on DVD in three versions, a single-disc one containing just the film and a handful of basic extras, a double-disc special edition with much more background, and an HD-DVD. I went for the single-disc edition on the grounds that it seemed to be the only one with English subtitles, though in the event these only accompanied the main feature: the extras are strictly Polish-only. Presented progressively in the European PAL video system and not region coded, the DVD has attractive menus, though it's somewhat irritating that every return to the main menu invariably involves several compulsory seconds of a diary being opened to Penderecki's score - a simple tweak at the final authoring stage would have made them more user-friendly.
The picture is mostly as state-of-the-art as one would expect a recent big-budget release to be: a razor-sharp anamorphic transfer from a print in perfect condition (aside from the stock footage of Katyn exhumations, which is hardly a problem). The smoky texture of the cinematography is well preserved, as is the deliberately desaturated colour scheme, whose suggestion of a fading photograph album is entirely appropriate to this subject. So far so excellent - but a major potential drawback arrives in the form of it not being in the original cinema aspect ratio, being presented in 16:9 instead of the theatrical 2.35:1 Scope. And worse, instead of being a Super 35 situation where the image has been opened up, it's been cropped at the sides.
This might well be an instinctive deal-breaker for many, but when watching the DVD version I couldn't actually detect any compositional problems. And a comparison between a screener of the original 2.35:1 version and this DVD reveals that it's actually the 2.35:1 version that looks "wrong" - in that every shot has unused space on both sides of the frame that doesn't appear to contribute anything important to either image or mise en scène. So I can't help wondering whether the film was primarily intended for screening in 16:9 in the first place, an impression reinforced by Telewisja Polska being one of the main backers.
Anyway, I present a selection of comparative frame grabs for you to make up your own mind - the theatrical compositions come first, then the DVD picture:
The sound, thankfully, is much less contentious, offering a straightforward Dolby Digital 5.1 track that's fully up to current standards. It's not an especially demonstrative soundtrack, and the subwoofer has little to do, but extensive use is made of the surrounds (especially in crowd scenes with soldiers marching past) and Krzysztof Penderecki's score, with its subtle blend of string textures, comes across particularly effectively. There's also a Dolby Digital 2.0 reduction, and, in what is apparently a first for a Polish DVD, an audio description track, though this will obviously only be of use to visually-impaired Polish speakers.
Two optional subtitle tracks are provided, one offering Polish hard-of-hearing transcription, the other an English translation. There were no real issues with the latter: they're white, optional and properly synchronised, nothing seemed to be missing, and they've been sensitively placed so that whenever the dialogue shifts into German or Russian they move to the top of the screen to avoid overlapping the burned-in Polish subtitles.
The extras on the single-disc edition are relatively basic, but they're still pretty thorough - provided your Polish is up to it, as there are no subtitles. There are short interviews with Wajda (4:29) and producer Michal Kwiecinski (1:34), a production featurette (27:02), and a small gallery of fifteen stills. Finally, there's the original theatrical trailer (1:45) - presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1. (There's also a collection of animated idents of the firms behind the film and DVD funding, but this seems more of a sop to them than anything especially useful to the viewer.)
The most avowedly Polish of filmmakers, Wajda has unapologetically targeted his film squarely at his fellow countrymen, and if international viewers are to appreciate it on the same level, it's up to them to do the necessary homework if they're not to feel like an outsider at a close family funeral. For all my reservations about Katyn's ultimate merits as a film, there's no questioning its historical importance as a work of national catharsis. It is, as Soviet specialist Anne Applebaum titled her lengthy piece in the New York Review of Books, undoubtedly A Movie That Matters - and the DVD is a welcome stopgap until it gets proper distribution in English-speaking countries.
(The DVD under review was ordered from Merlin, but it's also available from Empik, Traffic Club, Rockserwis and other Polish online retailers)