Above all, Katyn is (sigh) a WWII movie, but with a minor twist: the victims aren’t Jews — they’re Poles! And the villains aren’t Nazis — they’re Soviets! (Well, and Nazis.) In March 1940, Stalin secretly ordered the execution of 22,000 Polish prisoners, including army officers and academics, who he felt threatened the communization of Poland. Director Andrzej Wajda’s account of the act and its effects is sprawling but inepic: scaled to the individual level, it imagines the conditions of the men captured; the women left behind to wait, wonder and worry; and the survivors coping (or not) with the subsequent cover-up.
Resolutely Oscarbrow, Katyn (pronounced something like “Kah-too-nyah”) doesn’t come to life until its final reel, when the director, with cold brutality, finally recreates the massacre in the titular forest. As in A Secret, though, the dramatization is overshadowed by the documentary footage that appears: here, newsreels capturing the mass graves’ exhumation in 1943. Reproduction’s artificiality breeds emotional distance: against brief glimpses of real-life images of rotted corpses, Wajda’s weeping widows don’t mean a thing.
Though it exposes long-obfuscated history, Katyn barely distinguishes itself, despite Wajda’s formal competence, from the myriad films chronicling other pogrom-era savageries. It’s becoming more important not that we Never Forget these atrocities but that we never forget how to respond to them emotionally, which is increasingly difficult with each successive, repetitive and manipulative WWII heart-render. Though intended primarily as catharsis for Polish audiences, Katyn is also a personal project for Wajda, whose father was among those murdered in the woods that day. Had he been able to make the movie at the other end of his 50-year career, it might not seem as trite and forgettable as it does now.