On Katyń, directed by Andrzej Wajda

The director, Andrzej Wajda, was only 13 years old when father was killed in the massacre in the Katyń forest. His remains were never found.

A few facts from the Wiki entry for the film:

The most widely accepted estimate of the number of dead is about 22,000. The victims were murdered in the Katyn forest, Kalinin (Tver) and Kharkiv prisons, and elsewhere. About 8,000 were officers taken prisoner during the Soviet 1939 invasion of Poland, the rest being Poles arrested for allegedly being “intelligence agents, gendarmes, spies, saboteurs, landowners, factory owners, lawyers, priests, and officials.”

That’s an average indoor stadium: imagine a crowd at a college basketball game, and then imagine them piled up in a large ditch. The final scene of the move is a stark portrayal of the massacre, showing the officers hauled out of truck and immediately shot before being dumped in a mass grave. A few – the generals, I’m guessing – are dragged into a building to be herded through some kind of snuff tribunal, presided over by a portrait of Uncle Joe, fat and happy as ever.

Most of the film plays out like a dramatic reenactment – something of a kindred spirit with a docudrama that might appear on the History channel. Which is not to say it isn’t good, because it is. So good, in fact, that it left me wondering whether any other moviemaking or even storytelling is really worth the effort. From start to finish the film is marked by a kind of purifying desire for truth – to be discovered, to be acknowledged, to be understood. We tend to think, I think, this is a simple thing, and it is not.

The movie begins as Anna and her daughter Nika are about to cross a bridge in the evacuation of Krakow. Anna learns that her husband, Andrzeg, an officer in the Polish army, is being held as a prisoner by the Soviet army and is about to be deported to territory controlled by the Soviets. The rest of the move is largely concerned with his fate, as well as her connection with it. There are other stories, other plots that shed a slightly different light on the horrors of both the German and the Soviet occupation.

These dramas seem more emblematic than personal; small and confined in contrast to the grand sweep of historical events. One man is heroic and defiant, another is cowardly, but even in these moving portrayals of very different answers to the call of history there is a horrifying loss of individuality. What remains of an individual shot and then pushed into a mass grave? Does it matter that one stands tall while waiting for his bullet, while another struggles in vain to escape? Perhaps Andrzej provides the answer: by keeping a diary of what happens, and then hiding it so it can later be discovered, he becomes a witness to the truth – a true martyr. It’s not so much the end that matters, but how one lives with the knowledge of that end.

Satan, according to John, is both murderer and liar, and being a film about murders and lies, Katyń is ultimately about Satanism. The German Nazis find it convenient to divulge the truth about the massacre, and so the truth becomes propaganda; when the Soviets gain control of Poland after 1945, they claim that the Germans are responsible for the massacre. Everybody knows this is a lie; the ease with which one can then live depends on one’s willingness to live according to the lie.

Your religion can’t save you. A young woman goes to place her brother’s tombstone in a cemetary, but the priest refuses on behalf of those who must go on living according to the lie. And whatever her personal life may have been, she must now play Antigone, bound to complete proper rites that now defy the state, but with the added twist of being rites no longer recognized by the church, because the church has joined the state in defying her.

Or maybe your religion does save you. The first scene of a prison camp shows a missing crucifix – only a single forearm remains, hanging from its nail like the hand of a clock on six. The corpus is revealed later, mistaken for a corpse under an overcoat. A mass of military men – what I learned in Greek to call the “host” – sings a hymn, and it is as if the Spirit is moving over the waters at the creation of the world. Another victim tumbles into the pit, his outstretched hand holding a rosary. The bulldozers pile on the dirt, and then the hand moves so that the rosary shakes … more dirt, and then everything goes dark.


  1. Jonathan Webb says
  2. Quin Finnegan says

    Yowza! I've had my doubts as to whether a Twitter feed, good as it is, can actually support a television series. Can't blame them for trying, but part of the charm was the "pithy", as I think Rufus called it.

    As for the language issue, I'd recommend following the lead of my students with Tourette's… "Ship My Dad Says"

    There's a great idea for sitcom: The Shipyard. It'd be like Taxi or some other classic show about work, but in the Shipyard every dialogue would be a double entendre involving "ship".

    Boss demands of the foreman, who has just stepped out of the powder room: "You finished unloading that ship yet?"

    From the episode Problems at the Port: "Jeez, guys, that ship sank like a rock."

    And from that same episode, looking admiringly out the window, "But look how high she floats!"

    Apprentice, holding up a rudder: "What's with this piece of ship?"

    Topical allusion to the Gulf crisis: "That ship just exploded with gas, and now it's all over the place!"

    It's the foreman's birthday!: "Hey guys, I just got back from the bakery. You can all eat ship!"

    The foreman, to a captain who happens to have a cold: "This ship is filled from bow to stern with Yak manure, and you're trying to tell me that ship don't stink? Get outta here!"

  3. Jonathan Webb says

    How will they make it work without the vocabulary?

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