This Oscar-nominated movie tells the story of the mass murder of some 20,000 (the exact number is unknown) Polish army officers carried out in the early stages of World War II by the Soviet Army, after its invasion on eastern Poland in September 1939. The goal was to eliminate a substantial part of the Polish "bourgeois" elite, as many of the murdered POWs were officers of the reserve and included intellectuals such as lawyers, teachers, professors, and doctors. The dead were buried in mass graves in forests near the village of Katyn and in other places in Western Russia and what is today Belarus. Following the German invasion of the USSR, the graves were discovered by the Nazis and the affair used for their propaganda purposes. The Soviets blamed the mass murders on the Germans, and for the sake of the continued war effort and Soviet friendship, the Allies accepted this version. It was not until 1990 that the Soviet Union acknowledged its responsibility for the killings. However, Russia has declined to consider these events as constituting a crime against humanity and declassifying all of the documents related to them.
Directed by the acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda, whose father was among the victims of the massacre, the movie tells this tragic story from the perspective of women: mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of the killed officers. They wait in vain for their loved ones and are eventually confronted with their losses, but also with the Nazi propaganda machine and the Soviet lie. The latter prevents them from mourning the fallen officers in a dignified way, thereby perpetuating their personal tragedies. This is exacerbated by the political tragedy [End Page 1061] of seeing their land fall into the Soviet hands. Still, the movie avoids anti-Russian sentiments, which is an achievement considering the traumatic weight of Katyn in Polish history. What it does not avoid, however, is certain melodramatic flavor and a pedagogical attitude. In addition, the viewer may occasionally get lost as more and more new characters are introduced into the story. However, these flaws are relatively minor, and the director successfully manages to portray the scale of tragedy of the officers and their families. The grim scene of the killing itself, which was a well-organized and almost mechanical process, is a masterpiece. The music by Krzysztof Penderecki is an enormous asset of the film, as is the work of the actors, which include some of Poland's most popular stars. Recommended. [End Page 1062]
Michal Gondek (LL.M.) is a Ph.D. candidate at Maastricht Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, Maastricht University, The Netherlands.