Every so often a film comes along which doesn’t merely intend to change the world’s political and social perceptions but actually succeeds in doing so. The numbers in the first group are large enough but the numbers in the second are small. I dont believe I'm over-exaggerating when I suggest we think of the effect that Rossellini’s Rome Open City or Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Pasolini’s Salo Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses or Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth had on society, on their own national cinemas and the cinema itself. You can go all the way back to the silent era and D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation or Eisenstein’s Strike and Battleship Potemkin, to find yet other films which shook the world or at least the part of it that stood to be deeply affected by such radicalism.
It may just be that the latest such transformative film might have been made by Polish master Andrzej Wajda. You might have thought Wajda’s battles, lasting forty years or so, against authoritarianism and Soviet communism had all been won. He had spent most of his adult life as a film-maker trying to bring the truth of the modern Polish nation to his own people and to the world. He had done it in an environment of suppression, censorship and fear. He had stood resolutely against the oppressing forces and Poland recognized his work sufficiently to give him latitude.
Using that latitude Wajda, like all of his colleagues, still had to develop strategies to outflank and out think the forces of a state dedicated to strait jackets of thought. Poland, like all of the satellites of the USSR developed a highly repressive police state structure. However, its people, especially its artists, spent much of their time seeking to undermine this apparatus, questioning its legitimacy and supporting dissent. The strategies that Wajda and the film industry used frequently involved the use of historical parallels or personal issues that reflected current political reality.
Wajda was fortunate enough to start his career by making a trilogy of master works, A Generation, Ashes and Diamonds and Kanal, that still live on not just as films but as political documents produced by a society which has spent centuries involved in doomed attempts to repel invaders, and whose history is littered with failed national causes and disastrous revolts against tyranny. That history provided rich resources for a fearless film-maker and for those who followed in his footsteps. In the bleak cold war years Wajda and his acolytes and followers produced film after film that peeled back layers to show the true feelings of the Polish people. Communism slowly withered. Wajda and the film industry were at the forefront of its demise, especially by supporting the Solidarity movement. Wajda documented the progress towards democracy with two of his greatest films Man of Iron and Man of Marble. He also chronicled those issues more obliquely in his Polish/French co-production Danton. Since then Wajda has made half a dozen films, most of which don’t seem to have traveled beyond Polish borders.
It’s something of a surprise that, 25 years after Danton and at the age of 80 he has come roaring back into public, and political, prominence with one of his most ferocious and controversial films. The premiere of Katyn in Poland took place on September 17, 2007, the 68th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. It took place at the National Opera Theatre in Warsaw, was attended by the elite of Poland’s state and church and covered live by the major Polish television networks. Two million Poles saw the film within a month of its release. In an article in The New York Review of Books, Anne Applebaum reported that ‘for a few weeks almost every cinema in the country was showing the film, sometimes a dozen times a day.’ Its release started a national debate again and brought long-simmering issues out into the open. To some surprise, it has even re-opened debate about the Kaytn massacre in Russia as well. Almost two decades earlier, in 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev had acknowledged Soviet guilt about the events. Later Boris Yeltsin had ordered the Soviet archives to be opened, allowing research to be freely undertaken. A number of books were published in Russian and other languages which made plain the Soviet Union’s guilt and complicity. Notwithstanding this, in Putin’s Russia, nationalism has re-emerged and one major newspaper suggested that Soviet responsibility was ‘not obvious’. Such a view added to the continuing furore in Poland.
So, how should those for whom the Katyn massacre is an unknown byway of history approach the movie. There should be several things to consider. First there is the depiction of the massacre itself. It was a gruesome occurrence, endless cold blooded murders of the flower of Polish youth. Ruthlessness predominates as the anonymous, hardly noticed Soviet foot soldiers go methodically about the business of executing and then burying the dead in mass graves. No detail is spared.
More importantly Wajda leads us to the climax with a fresco of characters and incidents that fill in the details of Poland in 1939. In his statement accompanying the premiere, Wajda saw the film as “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 wait their return every day, every hour, suffering inhuman uncertainty.” It takes him more than two enthralling hours to tell the tale and he starts by ensuring that we realize that it wasn’t just Soviet tyranny that was intent on destroying the intelligentsia of Poland. Early in the film we see the shocking round up by the Germans of the faculty at Jagellonian University in Cracow. Poland, its clear, is a nation jammed between two great powers. Faced with occupation there is resignation and rebellion. There is also stupidity and reckless courage. Small vignettes of Polish pre-war life finally build a composite image of a nation whose entire history has sadly been subject to constant invasion and repression by outside forces. That produces a quite aching sadness. Katyn is a film in which the great and powerful crush the small and weak.
For those outside Poland, Wajda has told the story of one of the worst crimes of the twentieth century. His own father was one of the victims. Has he made a film just to settle accounts, to bring one of the key moments of Polish history still unresolved to the forefront? “Wajda himself says: “Let it spin a tale about the suffering and drama of many Katyn families. About the Katyn lie that triumphs over the grave of Joesph Vissarionovich Stalin which forced into silence about it for half a century the then allies, the western ones of the USSR in the war against Hitler, Great Britain and the United States.” Once again, perhaps for the final time, he has used the cinema to remind us that tyranny, oppression and evil have to be resisted at every step.
(NB. Some of the information in this article is drawn from “A Movie That Matters” by Anne Applebaum, The New York Review of Books, February 14 2008. Katyn had its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in January. It is being screened at both the forthcoming Melbourne and Brisbane International Film Festivals. Dont miss it.)