Dramatisation of stories about victims and (very few) survivors of the WWII massacre at Katyń, Poland, blamed on the Germans but to which the Kremlin confessed 60 years later. The stories include that of Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), who in 1939 arrives at the eastern border of Poland in search of her husband, Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), a Polish officer who resists her pleas to run away with her, preferring to stay with his cavalry regiment; Andrzej's friend Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra); sisters Agnieszka (Magdalena Cielecka) and Irena (Agnieszka Glinska), who, in the new post-war regime, take opposing sides. And an interned General (Jan Englert) with his proud wife Róza, (Danuta Stenka), who refuses to knuckle under German pressure to participate in their anti-Russian propaganda.
Review by Louise Keller:
Oscar nominated and winner of numerous awards, this is a sobering film of high virtue depicting the horrors that transpired in the Katyń Forest. It's the story of how Polish officers and others were executed by the Soviets in 1940 with a single shot in the back of the head, but in an appalling piece of propaganda, blamed on the Germans. Director Andrzej Wajda, who contributed to the screenplay, treats the topic with as much gravitas as you would expect, but it occasionally feels like a history lesson. The story becomes personal through the characters we meet, but storytelling at times becomes confused through the complexity of timeframes, locations and details.
The story begins in 1939 as Russia invades Poland. There's panic among the crowd that is leaving on foot, but none more than Maja Ostaszewska's Anna (and young daughter) who searches frantically for her missing cavalry captain husband Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski). The film jumps from her point of view to that of her husband's, awaiting transportation to a Russian camp and whose moral code is bound by his military pledge. We become involved in other lives - the women left behind while husbands, sons and brothers are herded helplessly into camps. The weather is as constantly bleak as the story that unfolds. Production values are excellent and Krzystof Penderecki's score expertly captures the foreboding nature of events as does Pawel Edelman's powerful cinematography.
Two strangers sit on a rooftop before a stolen kiss; a plait of hair is sold to pay for a tombstone; an officer borrows a sweater with unexpected consequences; two sisters differ in how to deal with political propaganda. Conscience, morals, loyalty and survival are all at issue. Wajda keeps the most shocking moments until last, when Andrzej's diary comes to life and we are taken as eye witnesses to the fateful date of the massacres in March 1940. The final sombre scenes take us into the forest where we learn first hand exactly what happened to the men who were taken there. These are shocking to the extreme, revealing a side of human nature that is totally devoid of humanity.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The grand old man of Polish cinema, Andrzej Wajda (b. 1926), can't be accused of overt sentimentality or patriotic overstatement in this harrowing dramatisation of yet another atrocity committed during WWII, this one by the Russians. For decades they blamed the Germans and in Soviet dominated Poland, to try and stand up for the truth was dangerous to your health and well being. Finally, though, the Kremlin admitted that it was a Soviet butchery, a systametic assassination (borrowing the Nazi's preferred method).
But Wajda can be accused of being a bit confusing in the storytelling, with characters and time shifts sometimes overcoming our concentration.
The film doesn't look at the Kremlin's admission at all; he's looking at the impact of the event on Polish men and women, before, during and after the capture of the Polish officers, academics, professional and drafted soldiers. He doesn't tell the story in a 'this is how it happened' way, but pieces together related, criss-crossing stories about people who were affected by it. His father was a victim of the massacre, but he doesn't personalise the film. He doesn't need to; it's a scarily tangible evocation of the mood of the era, of a war in which Poland was caught between the Soviets and the Germans - like much of Eastern Europe. We see the 'new Poland' after the war, where the Russian presence twists morals and beliefs out of shape in a devastating aftermath - not just of the Katyń massacre but of the whole war, in which Poland became a prize.
Beautifully crafted with superb cinematography and design, the film maintains its mood perfectly, setting us down in the insecure world of Poland at war. Performances are tops all round, with sisters Agnieszka (Magdalena Cielecka) and Irena (Agnieszka Glinska) and the General (Jan Englert) especially noteworthy. Much loved Andrzej Chyra is, of course, outstanding as Jerzy, the soldier friend in Russian captivity who lends Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), a spare pullover, which has his name stitched into it. A key plot point to watch for.
This is the first film brought to Australia by a new joint venture between exhibitor Filmways and sales agency/executive producer IFM. The companies had worked together before, but this time they are focusing on mostly high quality foreign language films that have not been released here before. Katyń, a Best Foreign Language Film nominee in both the Golden Globes and the Oscars (and several other accolades including seven Eagles [Polish Film Awards] and a Prix d'Excellence at the European Film Awards), is a significant work that sets a high standard for the partnership.
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CAST: Andrzej Chyra, Maja Ostaszewska, Artur Zmijewski, Danuta Stenka, Magdalena Cielecka, Agnieszka Glinska
PRODUCER: Michal Kwiecinski
DIRECTOR: Andrzej Wajda
SCRIPT: Przemyslaw Nowakowski, Wladislaw Pasikowski, Andrzej Wajda
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Pawel Edelman
EDITOR: Milenia Fielder, Rafal Listopad
MUSIC: Krzysztof Penderecki
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Magdalena Dipont
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Filmways/IFM
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 28, 2009