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Andrzej Wajda in Gdynia: audience stunned by Katyn

On Tuesday Andrzej Wajda accompanied by a retinue of actors and others connected with the 'Katyn' production showed up in Gdynia as scheduled for a press conference preceding multiple screenings of the heavily anticipated film. (One screening especially for the foreign press had English subtitles). The 81 year old director sporting a full head of white hair, full cheeks, and a ruddy complexion, seemed to be in good health and spoke with confidence about his latest work before a roomful of journalists some of whom had already seen the film, but most of whom had not. However, in the wake of a floodtide of Katyn commentary in the Polish press and media these past weeks the room was charged with tension and anticipation.

One of the first questions addressed to Wajda was whether he had any expectations for 'Katyn' in countries outside of Poland. To this the director stated that he made the film with only the Polish audience in mind, for this is a totally Polish issue and he does not have any great expectations for the film outside of Poland. He was reminded that Cannes had asked for it but that it wasn't yet ready back in May -- to which he added a most interesting comment. Said the director, 'I'm actually glad the film was not shown in Cannes because you never know what the reaction there might have been. If bad press had filtered back to Poland it might have had a negative effect on the perception of the public here. I am really not very interested in what people in other (western) countries may think of 'Katyn'. In any case, I think it is too specifically Polish to reach them'.

Regarding the potential reception in Russia he said that this is not an 'anti-Russian' film at all, but rather a film about the Great Official Lies that people had to live with in both Russia and Poland under Communism. The NKVD and the Stalin oligarchy were responsible for the massacre of the Polish officers, not the Russian people. Moreover, this same Stalin regime murdered millions of Russians as well. He does not, however, expect the film to be widely seen in Russia, but probably by special niche audiences only. The fact remains, nevertheless, that Wajda is highly regarded and greatly respected in Russia, so it will certainly be interesting to see what the Russian reception will turn out to be.

The main question for Wajda seems to be whether his long delayed Katyn memoir will still have something to say to the young people in Poland today who comprise the bulk of the film going public. In a way this is a didactic work, with key dates and places flashing on screen to orient viewers not familiar with the historical details,and some of the dialogue is geared to conveying key historical information. In order to reach the younger Polish audience Wajda chose to shoot in color and employed younger actors who are well known either from film or television. 'I could have used complete unknowns in order to heighten the documentary effect, but I felt that highly experienced actors would be able to transcend their usual images and convey the message of the film in the strongest way possible. This I think we achieved', was the directors commentary on his casting. A special effect of sorts was the use of only first names for all characters in the film ( their own) thus, subtly underlining the feeling that they spoke for all of the martyred dead, not just for themselves. Wajda added that it was a great pleasure for him to be able to work with a whole new generation of younger actors and a source of great personal satisfaction that they were able to come through for him so completely. Some of the actors said that they felt themselves transformed into their own uncles or grandfathers as they played the roles … Indeed a number of them – besides Wajda himself -- actually had family members among the victims. Immediately after the press conference the gathering dispersed to view the film in several halls, with or without subtitles.

As for the film itself, it turned out to be more like a religious experience than the mere viewing of a motion picture – which is not to say that “Katyn” is not successful on cinematic grounds alone – just that the cumulative effect was overwhelming – truly Over-Whelming. The picture starts in the middle of a bridge on dateline September 17, 1939 – a date which every Poles knows to be the infamous day on which the Russians invaded from the East to crush Poland and divide it up between themselves and the German invaders from the west. Crowds of civilians mixed with soldiers fleeing the Krauts run into another crowd fleeing the Russians –What to do? One young woman with a small child tries to persuade her soldier husband to discard his uniform and flee with her to the relative safety of Krakow in the South. “I am an officer of the Polish Army – I can’t do that” he states, invoking the aristocratic Polish military code which Wajda has called into question in many other films. – and so he falls into Russian custody, from which he will never return. Already the die of the film is cast and the subsequent events – the internment of the officers, the women back home trying to find out what happened to their men – the official lies – the cynicism – the desperate attempts to find out, the clinging to hope against hope and the frustration which is the body of the film, are all things completely, if painfully, familiar to just about every person in this country, even today. There are too many people still alive who went through it all.

The bulk of the film takes place on the “home front” with notable female roles, especially dark-haired Maja Ostaszewska, to single out just one of several powerful distaff figures, and there is one important Russian character, an officer who tries to protect one of the protesting Polish women, played by the very popular Russian actor Sergei Garmash – a further indication that this film is not specifically anti-Russian – and then comes the Grand Finale. Switch to Katyn Forest. The trucks come rumbling in. The Polish officers are unloaded, one by one – and one by one shot in the back of the head – shoved screen forward into a gaping hole in the ground – bang-bang – push-push – plop-plop into ditch – bodies with bloodied heads stacked up neatly like sacks of potatoes – then comes the bulldozer shoving loose dirt practically out of the screen onto the audience to cover up the obscenity – one upraised hand clutching a string of black rosary beads is the last to go under -- Screen goes black. End titles roll. No music. No sound. Nothing. Dead silence. One tiny flimsy attempt at a clip-clap is drowned out by the Silence of the Lambs as the audience files out without a word …

Alex Deleon


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