Certain directors were born to tell particular stories. Take Romanian filmmaker Nicolae Margineanu and his film "Bless You, Prison (Bincuvantata fii, inchisaore)" (2002) or Roman Polanski and "The Pianist" (2002). To that list we can also add Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda and "Katyn" (2009).
These stories are so personal and closely related to their filmmakers we are unable to separate the two. The films become more than telling a single story instead they become symbols of a country. They become windows into history. Does that make these movies sound too important? That might be because you haven't seen them.
Andrzej Wajda is the premier Polish filmmaker. He has had perhaps the greatness cross-over success in America, and that includes Roman Polanski. He has become something of a statesman representing his country's cinema and informing others about the history of his country.
War is not a new subject for the great Wajda. His earliest films were the "WW2 Trilogy" he made back in the 1950s; "A Generation" (1955, which a very young Polanski starred in), "Kanal" (1957) and "Ashes & Diamonds" (1958). Each of them, rightfully so, is considered a masterpiece. I wouldn't consider "Katyn" to quite be in those films league, but, it had moments just as powerful as any you've seen in any WW2 film.
"Katyn" is clearly a very personal film for the 82 year old director. For those unfamiliar with history, "Katyn" is based on a true story of the massacre which happened there when the Soviets killed 15,000 Polish soldiers, professors, engineers and intellectuals. One of the men to have died those dreadful days in 1939 of March and early April was Jakub Wajda, Andrzej's father. Imagine how Andrezj felt having to relive those memories. To tell such a painful story of his country's past.
For years controversy surrounded the event. A government conspiracy was in place to cloud judgement on who exactly committed these terrible crimes. During this time in history the Nazis were occupying Poland. But the Soviets were also storming into the country, just as they did in much of Central and Eastern Europe. After the war the official word, by the Germans, was the Soviets were behind these crimes. But, once the Soviet Communist took control, they decided to change history and said it was in fact the Germans who committed these crimes. While citizens knew the truth, the Soviets tried their hardest to hush it up.
The two main characters in "Katyn" are based on Andrzej's parents. We follow Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) who is separated from her husband Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski) a Polish officer. He, along with several others, are now considered POWs. They are sent to camps in Russia, where they must attempt to keep their spirits up, while the evil truth lingers in the back of their head.
"Katyn" feels like an important film. I complained last year about all these WW2 stories. And I have grown a little tired of seeing them. We must get at least 92 WW2 themed movies released every year. But I'm glad I saw this film. It was a story which needed to be told and Wajda was the only person who could have told this particular story.
Still there are a few things which I feel prevent this film from becoming a masterpiece. First of all the film largely deals with the before and after of the Katyn massacre. I would have liked to see more of the during. More of the actual incident itself. That was what I originally thought the movies would be. Showing us these men facing their deaths. Their ride to the camps, knowing their fate. The bonds which would form between them. Cross-cut with stories of their loved ones back home, all of whom can do nothing but hope and pray for the best.
"Katyn" doesn't give us these moments and in the end I felt the film missed some heartfelt emotional moments. It missed the opportunity to show us the evilness of the Germans and the Soviets and missed the chance to show us the enduring nature of the human spirit and the frailness of humanity.
When we do see clips showing us the massacre it felt like a delayed payoff. But because the images are so powerful it was still able to grip me. It still makes us think about what people had to endure during this period. But I just felt we could have used more of these moments.
I also wonder why Wajda and his cinematographer, Pawel Edelman, who worked with Polanski on "The Pianist" and "Oliver Twist" (2005), didn't shoot this film in black & white. It would have given the film a more nostalgic feel. As if we are watching a documentary. History unfolding right before our eyes.
Still I admire what Wajda has given us. Even if it doesn't reach the full potential of what could have been.
If there are young film fans who have not seen an Andrzej Wajda film I would strongly recommend watching this film. He belongs in a class with Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson and Istvan Szabo as one of the great masters of cinema. His work should not be neglected by a disrespectful youth which has no time for foreign films.
Wajda won an honorary Oscar back in 2000. His film "Promised Land" (1975) was nominated but lost to Kurosawa's minor "Dersu Uzala" (1975). His films have been nominated 6 times for the palm d'or at the Cannes Films Festival and "Katyn" was nominated for an Oscar but lost to "The Counterfeiters" (2008).
Watching "Katyn" made me appreciate Wajda again. Hopefully it will have the same effect on others. I'll be sure to review more of his films in the future.