Katyn: Can't Get Enough of that Mass-Murder Jazz

Since the last film I saw about Commie democide was such good times, how could I resist more? Unfortunately, it’s slim pickings in the murderous Marxism genre; I had to go to Russia for The Chekist, and this time I had to look to Poland, for 2007’s Katyn. (As an aside, shouldn’t there be more movies like this? We Americans fought a decades-long Cold War against Communist states, and while there are several films featuring them as villains, there’s not really a Western film that I’m aware of that’s like a Soviet Schindler’s List. Instead, there are only these relatively recent Polish and Russian films.)

As one can easily guess, Katyn covers the Katyn Forest massacre, albeit somewhat indirectly. In an interview included as a DVD special feature, director Andrzej Wajda discusses how he’d wanted to make this film for a long time because of his family’s connection to the massacre. His father was among the victims, but he ultimately decided to draw more from his mother’s experience at home. So, while we do see the massacre and some of the treatment of the prisoners, most of the film focuses on one officer’s family during and after the war.

The massacre itself is shown, but it’s saved until the end of the film, where it’s more powerful because we’ve already seen its effects on the survivors and families. For what it’s worth, this scene is less grotesque than the murders in The Chekist; it’s still not easy to watch, but should be easier on the squeamish. Katyn’s approach may actually be more powerful, anyway - The Chekist’s violence gets deadening after a while, and the only character we get to know at all is Srubov. In Katyn, however, we know one officer somewhat, and have spent the better part of two hours with his family and one friend, so his death is more meaningful. Even the murders of unnamed characters carry more weight, since these are the only ones we actually see, and each is shown up close.

The film does come up a bit short, though, by jumping around between settings and characters, and not showing us enough of each. We never get to know anyone particularly well, and never get a sense of just how their lives have been disrupted because all we see are events directly connected to the war and ensuing cover-up of the massacre, like hiding from the Cheka, confronting Soviet collaborators, etc. There are no events that we in the audience can really relate to.

As an example of the too-short treatment of some characters, there’s a scene where a girl helps a young man hide from police after he tears down a propaganda poster. Afterwards, he asks her out on a date for the next day, she agrees, but he’s killed before they meet again. Then what? I expected something like a scene of the girl waiting alone at the movie theatre, but no - the whole thread is just dropped. The death doesn’t carry much weight, because we didn’t see much of either character before they met, and we don’t see anything happen as a result of the death.

Overall, Katyn is a good film, just not as good as it probably could have been. Since I’m on a roll with the Communist democide movies, I’ve gotten a recommendation for Dr. Zhivago, so that’ll probably be next. I might also try to track down a couple shorter films about the Russian Civil War that I saw for a class on modern Russian history, just out of curiosity. Regardless, if you see just one movie about Marxist mass murder, Katyn is probably your best bet.