“Certainly its Polish viewers know how it will end, long before they enter the cinema. Katyn, as its title suggests, tells the story of the near-simultaneous Soviet and German invasions of Poland in September 1939, and the Red Army’s subsequent capture, imprisonment, and murder of some 20,000 Polish officers in the forests near the Russian village of Katyn and elsewhere, among them Wajda’s father. The justification for the murder was straightforward. These were Poland’s best-educated and most patriotic soldiers. Many were reservists who as civilians worked as doctors, lawyers, university lecturers, and merchants. They were the intellectual elite who could obstruct the Soviet Union’s plans to absorb and ‘Sovietize’ Poland’s eastern territories. On the advice of his secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria, Stalin ordered them executed.
“But the film is about more than the mass murder itself. For decades after it took place, the Katyn massacre was an absolutely forbidden topic in Poland, and therefore the source of a profound, enduring mistrust between the Poles and their Soviet conquerors. Officially, the Soviet Union blamed the murder on the Germans, who discovered one of the mass graves (there were at least three) following the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941. Soviet prosecutors even repeated this blatant falsehood during the Nuremberg trials and it was echoed by, among others, the British government.
“Unofficially, the mass execution was widely assumed to have been committed by the Soviet Union. In Poland, the very word “Katyn” thus evokes not just the murder but the many Soviet falsehoods surrounding the history of World War II and the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. Katyn wasn’t a single wartime event, but a series of lies and distortions, told over decades, designed to disguise the reality of the Soviet postwar occupation and Poland’s loss of sovereignty.”
“The real test of Katyn, of course, is whether it remains a part of the Polish national conversation over time, as a handful of Wajda’s earlier films have indeed done. This is not just a question of the film’s quality. Its endurance will also depend on the continued existence of an audience that shares Wajda’s knowledge of twentieth-century Polish history, and that understands the symbols and shortcuts he uses to evoke his national and patriotic themes. Fifty years after it was made, a significant number of Poles still know that when the two young men in Ashes and Diamonds start listing names, setting a glass of alcohol alight for each one, they are talking about friends who died in the wartime underground and the Warsaw uprising, even if they never say so. If, fifty years from now, there is still an audience in Poland that understands Wajda’s characters and references— an audience that intuitively draws its breath when the general tells his men that without them ‘there will be no free Poland’—then Katyn, the movie, will still matter.”
A Movie That Matters,
by Anne Applebaum, NY Review of Books, February 14, 2008