The iconic beginning to this film – Polish refugees run from both sides onto a bridge, one side running from the Russians, the others running from the Germans, and the equally iconic, relentless slaughter which end the film, will be well known to anyone who has looked at the reviews of this remarkable document. Equally well-known is the historical event which is at the heart of it, the murder of 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest by the forces of the Russian NKVD in the Spring of 1940.
Wajda layers his film with the story of one of those officers, Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski) who records the events of the rounding up of the officers through to their final slaughter in a notebook that is eventually returned to his wife, Ana (Maja Ostaszewska). This notebook is the pivot to the ‘plot’ of the film, but what Wajda points up is the effect of all this on those left behind. This is Ana and her daughter Ewa, but also her mother in law, whose own husband, Andrzej’s father, is deported and murdered by the Nazis in Sachsenhausen. One particularly poignant moment is when the two women rejoicing that Andrzej is not on the ‘Katyn list’, start to argue about what could have been done to stop Andrzej leaving with his battalion.
Wadja uses handheld camera shots to move in close on the faces of all those caught up in these horrendous events. At one moment we see Andrzej’s mother flinch and almost clutch the box of personal effects that is returned to her with the notice of her husband’s death. When Jerzy, Andrzej’s friend and lieutenant returns to the flat to tell Ana and Ewa about Andrzej’s death, the little girl initially flings herself into Jerzy’s arms thinking that he is her father returned. After that the little girl’s face is all repugnance and reproach.
Layered into this is the story of Tadzio, art student who is Ana’s nephew. In scenes set after the war, Tadzio enrolls in the Krakow art school, but insists that his CV mentions that his father was murdered by the Russians at Katyn. The female principal to the art college has her own connection with Katyn in that her brother, a pilot, was also murdered there. Thus, she is caught between official disapproval of Tadzio and her own commitment to the truth. Her sister, Agnieska, is obsessed with erecting a marble headstone to her brother, and in doing so, is herself arrested and taken we-know-not-where. Tadzio, too, finally dies fleeing the authorities.
Wajda’s film shows all these interrelations with unsparing calm and unerring skill. That final ending is relentless and shows humans turned into slaughter men, not for minutes but for hours and days. This is a wonderful film, beautifully assembled, with pitch perfect performances, and is a fitting tribute to the intense suffering that these events caused.