But even before the final massacre, the film is filled with other moments of comparable, if not equal potency. As J. Hoberman notes “Katyn alternates between scenes of tremendous power and sequences most kindly described as dutiful” and when Wajda seems sufficiently roused to stage one of the former, he communicates the impact of historical event with enough visceral force to rescue the events from the harmless confines of the safely past. Wajda’s especially good with crowds; he turns the sheer numbers of bodies on the screen into a felt presence, bringing ample gravitas to the film’s recreations by emphasizing the physical weight of all that soon-to-be extinguished life. From the opening scene, in which hundreds of terrified citizens flee the Soviets across a bridge – a sequence that Hoberman compares favorably to similar scenes in Europa Europa and Schindler’s List – to a later moment where Polish officers crowd inside a POW camp, the camera craning backward to take in the masses of men, then rising to the heavens as they recite a prayer – Wajda’s skilled choreography emphasizes the full scope of the unfolding tragedy by capturing the vast scale of each individual grouping.
When things get really hectic, the director abandons the elegant, often fixed framings of the more peaceful scenes and cuts to a succession of rough, hand-held shots. In a late action sequence – erupting rudely into the film’s mostly staid post-war-set second act – this visual strategy courts incoherence without giving in. Running from Soviet soldiers after defacing a poster, a young rebel tears down the winding city streets, and Wajda’s camera follows, giving us blurry images of his feet and slightly less blurry ones of his pursuers. Remarkably, this self-conscious kineticism – based on the idea that quick pans and quicker cuts can communicate more tension than fully legible imagery – works: even if we can’t make out the content of every shot, the overall narrative progression of the scene is always wholly coherent and, even if the viewer has little emotional stake in the outcome of the chase, it’s a thrilling bit of business nonetheless, communicating – perhaps with a bit too much glee - the danger of living in decidedly uncertain times.
But these remarkable scenes are altogether too few. In between, we get the long, “dutiful” stretches that Wajda accomplishes with consummate skill, but without generating much in the way of dramatic interest. Split into two parts, the narrative deals first with the buildup to Katyn (covering roughly 1939-1940) while the Soviets (and the Nazis) begin to round up Polish officers and then with the aftermath (mostly 1945) while the victorious Soviets occupy the “new” Poland, enforcing a cover-up of the massacre which they insist on blaming on the Germans. Most of the film’s moral questioning comes in the second act, where several characters who lost family members in the massacre come to terms with the Soviet-dictated “peace”; while three of these characters actively rebel against the cover-up, a third accepts it as the inevitable price of rebuilding.
As interesting as this ethical accounting may be to contemplate, though, it finally seems a strictly academic exercise. As conveyed by Wajda, most of the non-action scenes feel too safely historical, too tied up in a specific moment that has long ago passed. In writing about the recent Holocaust picture The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I noted “the film’s sepia-toned glaze gives the picture the look of a museum piece, so that even as [director Mark] Herman ratchets up the hysteria for a final-bit of on-screen horror, it seems sufficiently removed in time to shield the viewer from any direct engagement with the horrific events being shown.” Let me just say right off that Katyn is a far more accomplished film in just about every way than that shameless death camp weepie and that, unlike Herman’s final set-piece, Wajda’s really does bring home the impact of historical atrocity. But there are certain undeniable similarities in the way the two films look. Like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Katyn goes for a dull, brown-dominated color palette that tends to distance the viewer’s involvement with the material on screen. Call it the sepia effect: if it looks like old photographs, then it can be safely relegated to the past and summarily forgotten as soon as the credits roll.
Fortunately Wajda is a skilled enough filmmaker to transcend this misguided historical distancing - at least at times. When he cuts in at last to his climactic sequence, when he gives us hand-held p.o.v. shots of soldiers being led to the execution chamber, taking in the pools of blood on the floor as they march, when we see an endless stream of bodies emerge from the Black Marias used to transport the prisoners, a gun immediately placed to each individual’s head and fired without ceremony, when the camera tracks above a mass grave, a spooky squawk of strings tingling across the soundtrack, then we understand the horror that is so often the missing element from the endless stream of contemporary films about World War II atrocity. While movies like A Secret and The Reader and even parts of Katyn make the viewer feel all too comfortable in the presence of an obviously historical tragedy, then, when finally roused from the workaday demands of his narrative, Andrzej Wajda sets about bringing the Katyn massacre forcefully, inexorably into the viewer’s present.