Thursday, August 27, 2015
"It's not over till it's over" is a famous saying, but a movie like Katyn shows that it's not even over at that point. During WWII, the Soviets massacred thousands of Polish citizens, both soldiers and civilians, in the Katyn forest in April and May of 1940. The estimates on how many were murdered is between 12,000 and 22,000 people. The Nazis, as the relationship with the Soviets turned south, exposed the genocide and used it as propaganda against them. When the Soviets took control of Poland after the war, however, they turned and claimed the Nazis were the culprits, committing the crimes in 1941. In post-war Poland, to even suggest that your brother died in Katyn in 1940 was considered treason, as the Soviet backed government propagated the lie covering up their actions in Katyn.
Among those murdered was Jakub Wajda, the father of 14-year-old Andrzej, who would go on to be the most important filmmaker in Polish history. Andrzej has said he knew he needed to make a movie about the Katyn massacre, but he wasn't able to tackle it until 2007, at the age of 81. What he gave us is one of the most powerful war movies I've ever seen because, although the movie takes fictionalized characters to tell the story, it sees the reality of how war spreads over people like a plague. Once the war is over, it's not really over because now we have to live with the consequences of war. And that's how we see this story, often playing out through the women: wives, mothers, sisters, daughters of those killed. Some holding out hope, some trying to move on, some just wanting the closure that truth brings. Katyn is a powerful movie that plays on us like no other WWII movies have.
The movie is gorgeously made, Wajda is obviously a master filmmaker of the highest order. But what I keep coming back to as this movie grows in my mind is the complexity of everything. Wajda has said he wasn't sure how to approach the subject, whether to make it about the massacre (his fathers story) or the aftermath and the lie continued afterwards (his mothers story), ultimately settling on both, which I think was his own story.
But he also doesn't shy away from showing the massacre itself, in fact ending the movie with it. Roger Ebert said it was "a scene of relentless horror, showing the assembly line of execution." Because these people weren't murdered in mass, but one at a time. Wajda leaves us with the senseless brutality of bodies falling and being thrown into mass graves, the sickening dull thud as they hit either the dirt or bodies already down there. It's not a numbing downer of an ending as much as it sounds. It's emotionally powerful and driven because we know that death didn't give any of these people peace, and all sides used them over and over again (the graves were dug up multiple times) as propaganda pieces. Their families weren't given any peace, they couldn't even talk openly about the truth of what happened until Poland's independence was gained in 1989.