Wajda’s father was among more than 20,000 Polish officers murdered by Soviet troops in 1940, many of them buried in the Katyn forest. In this fictional take on that tragedy, Wajda places special focus on the influence of malevolent politics on the impossibility of any resolution for the victims’ families. As we learn, sometimes through excellent use of archive footage, when the soldiers’ bodies were first discovered in 1943, the Soviets blamed the Nazis; then, when Poland fell under the USSR’s influence after 1945, any attempt to blame the Soviets was so strictly outlawed that, as we see, any mention even on a gravestone of the correct date of the massacre was brutally punished.
Wajda reflects this fog of truth in the story of Anna, the wife of a Polish officer who knows her husband is a Soviet POW, but who, even after a list of the dead is released in 1943, does not know whether or not he died at Katyn. Although Wajda introduces several other women, young and old, each closely affected by Katyn, it’s the story of Anna and her husband which offers a backbone to the film, along with intermittent, reverent and serene scenes of the POWs, whose grim fate Wajda reserves for the film’s final chapter. But some other characters, although instructive, feel like misplaced footnotes.
The principal success of Wajda’s stately, widescreen and exquisitely shot film lies in its sober attempt to mirror the fragmented truth of a genocide. For half a century, the perception of Katyn was clouded by ideology: it was a distortion whose ripples were felt at the most intimate of levels. Wajda is excellent at portraying the lingering corruption of this top-down rewriting of history. On the downside, he tries to reflect so many experiences in his time-hopping story that he clouds our view at times.