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Review by Michael Edwards

IndieLondon Rating: 2 out of 5

WORLD War II dramas are a painful subject. Old emotions and continuing tensions are addressed, personal tragedies are juxtaposed with macropolitical aims and abhorrent schools of thought are exposed for what they are.

More than anything else, however, films about WWII (and war in general) attempt to bring to light a story that is too important to be forgotten. In this instance, that story is that of the Katyn massacre.

Little known outside of Poland, the 1940 Katyn forest massacre was a mass murder of thousands of Polish army officers, intellectuals and prisoners of war. A cold-blooded mass killing of this scale could only have been undertaken by the Nazis. Right?

Well, that was the official line of the Soviets who liberated Poland. But, following the story of several characters, the film sets out to show how this truth was gradually questioned by a brave few who cared more for the memory of those who were so cruelly murdered than their safety under the Communist regime. And how the truth gradually came to light.

Like any story with such sombre subject matter, Katyn is not an easy watch. All of the grim archetypes of Eastern European drama are here, from poverty-stricken families yearning for the return of loved ones, put-upon peasants fighting to survive, and lengthy pauses in the middle of dialogues to digest just how hopeless the despair of the situation faced by the protagonists.

Audiences are gradually bludgeoned into understanding that, amidst all of the horror, truth was the only thing left to fight for.

More uncomfortably still, director Andrzej Wajda succeeds where so many visual artists fail: in making the horror of the event itself exceed that lived in the minds of those affected by it.

So often this grim shared reality forms the crux of the expression of disgust at an event but, primarily in the harrowing final moments of this film, Wajda illustrates the mechanised evil that was the Katyn massacre.

It’s a chilling scene whose power is only matched by the most powerful of the World War II films.

However, I left with an uncomfortable niggle that stretched beyond a gut reaction to the horrific events under scrutiny. What had bothered me throughout was the vehement nationalism that underpinned the stoicism of the victims, and the search for truth among those involved with them.

The intercutting with stories of the fight for Polish freedom, and what it means to be Polish, undermined the universal human empathy for what is an indisputable act of barbarity reprehensible to all who consider it.

Linking it so strongly to some sort of Polish identity is an unnecessary extension that does injustice that all audiences, regardless of nationality, will feel toward the cover up that followed the massacre.

It’s a powerful piece of cinema, and one that is very well made and profoundly affecting. But one that must be suspected of alterior political motives that sadly undermine its subject matter.

If only such historical tragedies could remain free of political considerations, we might all learn a more valuable lesson about humanity.

In Polish, with subtitles

Certificate: 15
Running time: 118mins
UK DVD Release: October 5, 2009