Poland’s ‘Man-of-Cinema,’ Andrzej Wajda, was a vital 81 when he made this film about the WWII Katyn Forest massacre, a national tragedy for Poland, where 20,000 POW officers were taken out of their detention cells and shot like cattle. It was made all the worse when the occupying Germans used the incident as propaganda against the Russian Army and then, after the war, when the Russians moved in, rewritten as a Nazi atrocity. Wajda wants to do more than point the finger at those responsible, the Russians have long been held as the perpetrators, he wants to show, thru a series of loosely related personal stories, mostly on the homefront, how this open wound refracted thru Polish society; the noble, the ignoble, the stupid. It’s a great topic, an important one. But, as so often with Wajda, the film is considerably less than the sum of its parts. The opening is just right as masses of displaced Poles approach a bridge in the country. There are thousands on foot, fleeing the Germans. Ahead, two boys come running with news, the Russians are coming! It’s no fanciful metaphor; it’s the Polish dilemma in a nutshell. An equally telling sequence shows one of the POWs’ father, a professor whose university is summarily closed by the SS as a hotbed of free-thinkers. The entire staff is forced into vans and taken on a one-way trip to a Concentration Camp. Terrifying stuff, superbly staged, the finest thing in the film. And there are other impressive moments, but also too many that are jumbled or merely judgmental. Those noble, ignoble & stupid people again. Perhaps it’s all true, but Wajda never convinces us. And by the end, when the film jumps back to show the nuts & bolts of the massacre, we’re prompted to feel the devastation, the inhumanity, the sheer waste. You may not respond.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Pawel Komorowski’s STAJNIA NA SALWATORZE /’67 is a WWII Polish-Resistance tale worth tracking down. (See below)