Unburied dead
Archived Articles 28 Jan 2008  EWR
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Poland's historical epic in the limelight

A crime and a lie are the twin strands in the shameful tragedy of Katyn: the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police, and the cover-up that followed. Now Andrzej Wajda, Poland's leading film maker, has made his last film (he is 81) about what he calls the "unhealed wound" in his country's history.

Mr Wajda's own father, Jakub, was murdered at Katyn, as were family members of many of the production team. Those killings come in a gruelling, 15-minute final sequence. First, the film shows in sombre and claustrophobic detail the Polish POWs' travels to Golgotha; the occupation authorities' vengeance on their families, and flashes forward to the attempts by the country's post-war rulers to disguise and deface the historical record.

The film has been nominated for best foreign-language film at this year's Oscars. Those watching it should not expect to come away happily humming the dramatic theme music by Krzysztof Penderecki. "Katyn" is based on the letters and diaries of real-life victims—unearthed when the Nazis first came across the mass graves in 1943. The last entry records the Polish officers' arrival at the killing fields. "A thorough search. They didn't find my wedding ring. They took my belt, my penknife and my watch. It showed 0630 Polish time. What will happen to us?"

Expert cinematography, compelling acting, and a story that leaves the viewer both sorrowful and angry, are a strong combination. But they may not be quite enough to convince the judges. "Katyn" is filmed from an uncompromisingly Polish point of view. Some outsiders may find it confusing. One of the most powerful scenes, for example, is the mass
arrest of the professors of Cracow University by the Germans. Those who already know about the upheaval that followed the German invasion of 1939 will see the point: the Soviets and the Nazis were accomplices. Others may puzzle.

The moral dilemmas of post-war Polish collaborators are better portrayed than those of the wartime occupiers. If honouring the dead means doom for your family—or for you—is it better to keep silent? Poles faced that choice again and again after 1945, as their new rulers used Katyn as a litmus test of loyalty. But barring one Red Army officer, impeccably played by a Ukrainian actor, Sergei Garmash, who saves his neighbours (an officer's widow and child) from deportation, the foreigners are so villainous as to be little more than sinister mannequins.

Melodrama is perhaps one fault of the film; an oddly sanitised picture of daily life is another. Teeth, complexions and clothes all evoke the prosperous Poland of today more than the squalor and hunger of 1945.

Material deprivation brings out the worst and the best in people. But it needs to be shown to make the measure convincing.

Astonishingly, some in Russia are now reviving the lie that the murderers at Katyn were not by the NKVD, but the Nazis. That was maintained during the communist era, but only by punishing savagely those who tried to tell the truth. Last year, as Mr Wajda's film opened in Poland, a commentary in a Russian government newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, dismissed the evidence of Soviet involvement in Katyn as "unreliable". An Oscar would be a good answer to that.

(From The Economist print edition, Jan 24th 2008)
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