The ruins of a Russian Orthodox monastery, 1939: paint peels from the walls, light filters in from the cracks in the ceiling, cigarette smoke whirls through the air. Primitive wooden camp beds are stacked up high, one on top of the other, for the monastery has been turned into a prison. The prisoners, soldiers in khaki-brown wool uniforms and black boots, are gathered in a large group. Craning their heads forward, they listen to their commanding officer make a speech. Solemn and tired, he does not ask them to fight. He asks them to survive. “Gentlemen,” says the general, “you must endure. Without you, there will be no free Poland.”
The scene ends. The audience—at least the audience in the Warsaw theater where I watched the film—sighs, rustles, collectively draws its breath. Those watching know, as they were meant to know, that the soldiers, the flower of Poland’s pre-war officer corps, did not survive. And without them, there was indeed no free Poland.
In its way, this episode—both the action on screen and the audience reaction in the theater—represents the quintessence of the art of its director, Andrzej Wajda. For half a century, beginning in the darkest era of communism and continuing through the years of Solidarity, martial law, and the post-Communist present, Wajda has been conducting precisely this kind of cinematic dialogue with Polish audiences. Although they have sometimes been celebrated abroad, his movies have always been made with his countrymen in mind, which gives them a special flavor. Because he knows what his Polish viewers will know—about history, about politics, about the ways people behave under occupation—Wajda has always been able to rely upon them to interpret his work correctly, even when censorship forced him to make his points indirectly. His latest film, Katyn, in which the scene described above appears, is in this sense a classic Wajda movie.
Certainly its Polish viewers know how it will end, long before they enter the cinema. Katyn, as its title suggests, tells the story of the near-simultaneous Soviet and German invasions of Poland in September 1939, and the Red Army’s subsequent capture, imprisonment, and murder of some 20,000 Polish officers in the forests near the Russian village of Katyn and elsewhere, among them Wajda’s father. The justification for the murder was straightforward. These were Poland’s best-educated and most patriotic soldiers. Many were reservists who as civilians worked as doctors, lawyers, university lecturers, and merchants. They were the intellectual elite who could obstruct the Soviet Union’s plans to absorb and “Sovietize” Poland’s eastern territories. On the advice of his secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria, Stalin ordered them executed.
But the film is about more than the mass murder itself. For decades after it took place, the Katyn massacre was an absolutely forbidden topic in Poland, and therefore the source of a profound, enduring mistrust between the Poles and their Soviet conquerors. Officially, the Soviet Union blamed the murder …