Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review: "Katyn"

A nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards last year, renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda's Katyn is just now making it to American screens.

Arriving an the Film Forum in Manhattan tomorrow for a three week run, Katyn tells the story of the massacre of Polish soldiers in the Katyn forest at the hands of the Soviet Union, and the massive cover-up that ensued, as the Soviets attempted to blame the massacre on the Nazis.

It is a well known event in Poland, less so in America, and as a result the film is a fascinating history lesson. Wajda allows the shadow of the tragedy to hang over the film like a great black curtain, but never allows us to actually see it until the very end of the film. Our first glimpse comes in a German propaganda newsreel, in which the actual story of the event is told. But, coming from Nazis, you can't help but wonder just how true what you are hearing really is.

But it turns out they are telling the truth. The Soviets were at fault, and as soon as the war is over they begin their campaign of lies to reverse the official story against the Germans.

Wajda tells the story from several different viewpoints. He centers around the family of a Polish officer who is captured by the Soviets in a prison camp. His wife and daughter are on the run from the Soviets, who are rounding up officers' families, while his father falls victim to the Nazi roundup of professors at Polish universities for teaching against Nazism. His mother is left to fend for herself, and eventually take care of her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, as the Soviet grip on Poland grows ever tighter.

If the film had stayed focused on that core group of characters, it might would have made for a more engaging, more streamlined narrative. Instead it branches off, following a myriad of secondary characters with mostly dead end stories, in an attempt to illustrate as many aspects of life in Soviet controlled Poland as possible. While it's an admirable effort, the ultimate effect is one of disorientation. I can't help but feel if Wajda had kept the film's focus more trained on the core group, the film would have been much more successful in its aims.

That being said, Katyn is undeniably a beautifully shot film. It contains several haunting images, especially during the climactic massacre scene. However the entire film seems strangely disjointed, the emotional impact neutered by its scattershot structure, and the often overbearing score by Krzysztof Penderecki.

Having now seen all of last year's Best Foreign Language Film nominees (with the exception of Russia's 12...I just haven't gotten around to it yet), I think it's pretty safe to say that my favorite of the bunch is the Israeli entry, Beaufort. Katyn, ultimately, is far too weak structurally to have the emotional impact it should. There is a great film yet to be made about this tragedy. Sadly, Katyn falls short of the mark.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

KATYN; Directed by Andrzej Wajda; Stars Artur Zmijewski, Maja Ostaszewska, Andrzej Chyra, Danuta Stenka; Not Rated; In Polish w/English subtitles; Opens tomorrow, 2/18, at the Film Forum in New York.

2 comments:

Nick Plowman said...

I agree, what a lame effort. Beaufort was the best of the nominees, which didn't exactly reflect the best in foreign cinema that year, unlike this year with Waltz with Bashir. Ugh, "12." We should get on that before it opens at the Film Forum. But, if I recall, it is oh-so-long and I'm not in the mood for that.

Anyway, completely agree with your review Matt.

Sam Juliano said...

I will be seeing KATYN during this Film Forum run, you announce here. Perhaps tomorrow night, even. I had a DVD of this last year, but had to watch it without subtitles. I'll admit, even with that crippling disclaimer, I did like it more than you and Nick. But I will wait until this proper viewing to further comment. Your review is nonetheless fecund and involving. I will have more to say in a few days.