Recent Historical Films



Katyn (A. Wajda, 2007)






Directed by Andrzej Wajda; written by Mr. Wajda, Wladyslaw Pasikowski and Przemyslaw Nowakowski, based on the novel “Post Mortem” by Andrzej Mularczyk; director of photography, Pawel Edelman; edited by Milenia Fiedler and Rafal Listopad; music by Krzysztof Penderecki; produced by Michal Kwiecinski; released by Koch Lorber Films. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, West Village. In Polish, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. This film is not rated.

WITH: Maja Ostaszewska (Anna), Artur Zmijewski (Andrzej), Andrzej Chyra (Jerzy) and Jan Englert (General).




"Katyn", directed by Wajda, is the first Polish film on the Katyn crime and the so-called Katyn lie. The movie uses stories from an authentic diary of major Adam Solski found during the exhumation in 1943 to tell the fate of four fictional officers and their families. Wajda's father, lt. Jakub Wajda, then 43, was among the Polish officers taken prisoner by the Soviet army and killed by a shot to the back of the head in the Katyn forest.

In March 1940 Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the executions of 22,000 Polish army and police officers, intellectuals and clergy. The killings took place in the spring of the same year in the Katyn Forest. The victims, mostly from POW camps in Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostaszkow, were shot in the back of the head. The Nazis discovered the mass graves during their march on Moscow in the fall of 1941, but Soviet propaganda blamed the deaths on Adolf Hitler and punished anyone speaking the truth with harsh prison terms. In 1990, Moscow admitted that dictator Josef Stalin's secret police were responsible.

2007: Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.


From the Director

"I see my film about Katyn as a story of a family separated forever, about great illusions and the brutal truth about the Katyn crime. In a word, a film about individual suffering, which evokes images of much greater emotional content than naked historical facts. A film that shows the terrible truth that hurts, whose characters are not the murdered officers, but women who await their return every day, every hour, suffering inhuman uncertainty. Loyal and unshaken, convinced that it was only enough to open the door to see the long awaited man at it as the tragedy of Katyn concerns those who live and lived then." (Andrej Wajda).


Quotes on the Film

"A great movie." (Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle).

"'Mr. Wajda is too honest and sensitive a filmmaker to foreshadow an eventual redemptive ending. Instead, he focuses on the grief and confusion of his characters, and on the ferocity with which they hold on to the dignity that history conspires to strip from them. The result is a film with a stately, deliberate quality that insulates it against sentimentality and makes it all the more devastating." (A. O. Scott, The New York Times).

"'Katyn" is a history lesson for a country and a people forced to forget at gunpoint. A quietly epic, very precise re-creation of events leading up to and following the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish Army officers and POWs by Soviet troops in the Katyn forest and elsewhere, the film is a national reckoning brought to the screen by possibly the only man up to the job: legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda, 83 at this writing and with a body of uncompromising, politically charged cinema stretching back to the 1950s." (Ty Burr, The Boston Glove).


Press Clippings


By Peter Bradshaw

Having addressed the wartime occupation of Poland in films such as Ashes and Diamonds (1958), and its later experience of communism and dissident trade-unionism in Man of Marble (1976) and Man of Iron (1980), the 82-year-old director Andrzej Wajda has now tackled the most painful, most personal subject of all: the Katyn forest massacre of 1940, a subject of enduring rage and shame.

On Stalin's orders, the Soviets slaughtered some 22,000 Polish prisoners of war in Katyn forest near Smolensk in western Russia - mainly military officers and professional-class civilians. The postwar Polish government had to kow-tow to the Soviet Union by backing its claim that the Nazis had been responsible, a claim that Britain's Foreign Office did not dispute and which was only finally contradicted by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. The victims of the Katyn massacre included the director's father, Captain Jacub Wajda.

Wajda's film is a powerful and even remarkable memorial to these victims and to the belated destruction of one of the most persistent untruths about the second world war. His film is not merely about the crime itself, but the process of collusion in which the postwar Polish state sought survival by swallowing what most knew to be a lie about the mass murder at Katyn. For years, in this country and elsewhere, disputing the official line was considered to be the exclusive, seedy preserve of the extreme revisionist right. But Wajda is a film-maker with the artistic and moral authority to say what was long unsayable. The scenes in his movie that show the Nazis, having smashed and bullied the Polish people, self-righteously cranking up their propaganda machine about the Soviets at Katyn have an irony and horror that is impossible to stomach.

Katyn begins with the dual invasion of Poland in 1939, sandwiched by the twin tyrant cynics of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact: from the west, the Nazis, and from the east, the Soviets, who take prisoner virtually the entire Polish officer class. Anna, played by Maja Ostaszewska, is desperately looking for her husband Andrzej, played by Artur Zmijewski, a Krakow cavalry officer who has been captured - and whose father, a university professor, is sent away by the Nazis to be murdered in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Danuta Stenka plays the wife of a slaughtered Polish general; she declines to cooperate with the Nazi propaganda effort after the Germans discover the forest grave in 1943. Andrzej Chyra is Jerzy, a Polish army lieutenant and survivor of the war, who knows the awful truth about Anna's husband and cannot bear the burden of guilt at the knowledge he has helped to suppress. Finally, there is Agnieszka, played by Magdalena Cielecka, whose brother was killed at Katyn: she is obsessed with the only way to bear witness to the truth. She wants to erect a marble headstone to her brother, simply bearing the true date of his death as 1940, the date at which only the Soviets could have carried out the killings.

Wajda's story begins with the confusion and agony of war's outbreak, then moves on to the confusion and agony of occupation and then the confusion and agony of the postwar settlement. It is a story of embattled civilian life, of people not knowing what is going on or what to think, and realising that the majority of what they are being told by the authorities is untrue. The actual, moment-by-moment horror of the Katyn slaughter itself is saved for the final sequence. It is a narrative ordering that is intended to mimic the way in which the crime was buried in the collective memory and only disinterred long afterwards.

This is a film made with great moral seriousness, and with a clear-eyed deliberation: it is sombre and measured as it treads carefully around this most contentious mass grave in Polish history. Yet there are flashes of poetry and tragedy. When Anna is desperately looking for her husband in the chaos and confusion ushered in by the Nazi invasion, she arrives at a churchyard, at which we have time to register a bizarre and painful touch: a statue of the crucified Christ has evidently been knocked down - only a nailed hand is visible on the cross. Moments later, Anna sees a body under a blanket, and fears it might be her husband's corpse. But wrenching away the blanket, she finds that it is ... the figure of Jesus. From some scruple of Catholic decency, someone has draped this icon like an injured combatant: Jesus has been parodically transformed into a casualty of war. It is a brilliant yet low-key surreal moment, and a hint of what is to come: crushed innocence and cover-ups.

Since it was premiered at the Berlin film festival in 2007 - which is where I first saw it - many have wondered if Wajda's Katyn would ever arrive in the UK. There were industry murmurings that audiences here would have no appetite for it. I can't agree; this powerful, heartfelt and important drama from one of the great names in world cinema deserves to be seen in Britain.

(The Guardian, 19 June 2009).



By Tadeusz Sobolewski: "The Gesture of Antigone"

The big screen image of Katyń will enter collective memory as a presentation of innocent Polish death. Everybody will see this film. I saw it not at an ceremonious opening but in secret at a cozy press screening. Now that Poland is artificially inflamed, nibbled at with patriots of various fractions hurling insults at one another, they may also put the screws on the film about Katyń, which is quite clear, judging by the tone of some statements. No matter what you can accuse Wajda of,  be it a certain didacticism or theatricality of some scenes, what really strikes you is his striving for an apolitical attitude that has featured in his works from the start.

This films wants nothing from us nor tries to convert us to anything. The coloring of Paweł Edelman's cinematography, the music of Krzysztof Penderecki (perfectly selected fragments of finished pieces), and the low-profile acting, try to make an impression as if the film were covered in ashes. Its key is mournful and penitential. This protects the film from firebrands, whose weapon is aggression. You have this irresistible felling that this film is doing good for Poland, clears the air of hatred.

The last scene shows the shooting of officers, culminating the whole film. Nobody has shown it yet, so we see it for the first time. As once, in Wanda Jakubowska's Ostatni etap of 1948, the Poles saw a picture of crematoria for the first time. Katyń is half a century overdue. From my childhood, I remember that word, mysterious and unspeakable, as if its use threatened you with something. In Polish its morphological structure reminds you of torture; (Katyń, ageographicalname, katować – to torture).

The cinematic image of Katyń will enter collective memory as a presentation of innocent Polish death and the covered-up truth, which will be shown in its brutal dimensions. This alone must have been argument enough to make this film, to become a new Matejko, Grottger, or a Polish Goya, painting the shooting of patriots. In his film the Katyń scene has its strength and also a certain aesthetic modesty. There is no imposed symbolism in it, no additional effects except the Lord's Prayer repeated by the officers, which seems quite natural. The music dies down, only to build up again. The last words heard in the film, right after the scene of quick, as if accelerated shooting, come from Penderecki's oratorio: “Requiem aeternam do-na eis eternal peace"

A symbolic burial of the victims.

One of the earliest ideas of the ending, which Włodzimierz Odojewski is said to have suggested, the author of the famous description of the Katyn crime in his novel Zasypie wszystko, zawieje, was a vision of the dead rising from the pits. The Katyń Forest, like the Birnam Forest of Macbeth, springing to life to threaten the incumbent rulers. That symbolic vision was born in the times when the Katyn lie and the covered-up truth spread not only over the USSR and People's Poland, but also to the West, which wouldn't hear from Poles about Stalinist crimes. Finally, the West listened to Solzhenitsyn...

Wajda's film in 2007, naturally,  has a different meaning. Its addressee is us not the world. It is not calling heavens for vengeance.

During the premiere at the Wielki Teatr, after the last frames, in silence, a single voice said the Lord's Prayer. That's how Katyń elicits response from the audience. The cinematography of Paweł Edelman, the music by Krzysztof Penderecki, and the low-profile acting try to make an impression as if the film were covered in ashes. Its key is mournful. In the frame, the Christmas Eve of the Polish POW's with Paweł Małaszyński as the pilot in the foreground, whose sister would try to build a symbolic grave for him.

With this film, Wajda unexpectedly revives the traditional Poland's relationship with misfortune, unwanted, forgotten, incompatible with the civilizational supermarket in the crowd of other voices after Rwanda, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, and Darfur.

To me, Katyń is not so much the bringing to light of the covered-up war crime, which Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia blamed each other with, as a symbolic burial of its victims.

This film is a gesture of Antigone. Sophocles' lines are literally integrated with dialogs. For instance, in the conversation of the two sisters of a pilot killed in Katyń,

Agnieszka (Magdalena Cielecka) and Irena (Agnieszka Glińska). The former wants to build a symbolic grave for their brother, the latter, however, thinks that the manifestation makes little sense.  With the memory of the victims in you, you have to recognize the laid down law: There will never be a free Poland! Visions of the end of Poland permeate Wajda's film in the scene of tearing  the white-and-red flag into two, to make makeshift socks of the white part, or in the scene, where the figure of Christ covered with a soldier's overcoat, is carried out of the church during the flight from the eastern territories.

The memory of Katyń is identified here with loyalty to Poland that is dying. The Katyń death is a burden on the consciousness of the main characters, taking its toll after the war too. Like fate, it catches up with those who have crossed to the other side, such as Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra) saved from Kozielsk, now returning in the uniform of the Kosciusko Infantry Division. He will also have to die in the film by committing suicide with the hypocritical speech of Wanda Wasilewska in the background.

Wajda's film gives me trouble with its radicalization of memory. In line with the conventional knowledge, Jerzy, a soldier of the Kosciusko Infantry Division, who was likely to remember the slaughter at Lenino Stalin had sent Poles to, did not have to be ashamed of his uniform in the post-war Poland. My family memory tells me that Kosciusko soldiers, liberating us from the Nazi occupation, brought along the true knowledge about the Soviet system. The liberation was a new enslavement and the beginning of a new life at the same time. In post-war Polish art, it was none other than young Wajda who brought that unsolved dilemma to a head in his Ashes and Diamonds. The memorable scene of the conversation of Maciek, an underground fighter, who wants to live, do his duty, and abandon the mission; is played out in a ruined chapel under the crucifix hanging upside down overhead. It is hard to imagine a more eloquent image of an inevitable victim with no sense of redeeming himself, who is wasted, like Maciek Cybulski's life. That film, shocking with the horror of death, addressed life in protest against history and all those political powers from the left and right, ready to squander young lives. No wonder that years later, Wajda prophesied and supported the Solidarity, becoming a prisoner of her myth anyway. That was a dream come true of his generation about the first bloodless and victorious Polish uprising that broke the chain of disasters.

Half a century later, Wajda in his Katyń again sentences his Maciek to death (in the  character of a partisan boy, a would-be student of Kraków's Fine Arts Academy), as if he questioned his subsequent life and achievements. In the half-hearted scenes of the film, devoid of substantial reality, lacking the shocking expressiveness of Canal or Ashes and Diamonds, in the dialog lines that smack of abstract school knowledge, full of information as if they were from a soap, a hidden tragedy shows through. Wajda touched the untied knot of the post-war Polish existence. Its tragedy is exploited today by the powers that be, used to blackmail people with it, dividing them into the best and worse Poles, depending on the degree of acceptance of the post-war system, in which, willy-nilly, everybody lived under the Soviet rule with appearances of independence.

We used to push away that tragedy. We did not live through it till the end, nor wanted to go though it facing the future.

Let me wax personal: In 1939 my father lost his former family due to German bombs. After the war he started over. But for that tragedy, I wouldn't have come into this world. I'd push his misfortune away from me, remaining fully aware of it. He also pushed it away all his life, never forgetting about it till the end. In that double process of retaining the memory of misfortune and waving it aside without a sense of betrayal, it was art that helped, the anti-heroic cinema of the Polish school that conveyed traumatic images of death that were supposed to cleanse us rather than burden.

To Overcome Trauma

We live through tragedy in art, which we don't want to do in life. This may be the secret of Katyń, which we can predict will be a big success in Poland. Like Wajda's erstwhile films, this is also addressed to us all above all divisions. What politics preys on is transferred into the sphere of tragedy here. You sense the former Wajda's inclination for cruelty -  as the intrigue of Katyń boilsdownto dispelling of illusions and confronting us with the brutal truth of the officers' death that gets through in the finale. We want to see it and say goodbye to it. To overcome trauma, that is. It is the secret of art that the image of this death rather than make us go into a rage, will unite the viewers no matter all the stupid party and ideological divisions soon to be forgotten.

Everyone will go to see Katyń.

"All of us", wrote Józef Czapski in 1950, "regardless of whether we want it or not, are connected with an invisible chain, whose one of the last links is Katyń.” The writer and literature professor Maria Janion, quoting that in one of her books, supplemented it with a sentence we could hardly expect from this revisionist of Polish mythology: “The corpses unite us. Hence you are Polish.” The most cruel censure of Poland cannot step over that invisible chain, cause to make it break off, and cross over to happier or more brilliant peoples.

With this film, Wajda unexpectedly revives the traditional Poland's relationship with misfortune – unwanted, forgotten, and incompatible with the civilizational supermarket.

Quite a different film about Katyń could have been made: realistic, devoid of academic didacticism, featuring the notorious hellish feuds of the imprisoned POW's by the Soviets, whose trace we can find in the Christmas Eve scene in Kozielsk in Wajda's film. Wajda chose another road in line with his artistic temperament. After all he has always provided us with images for national imagination. Such is the case this time around too.

(Gazeta Wyborcza, 18 September 2007).