Wajda: 'Katyn' had to be told


BERLIN -- Andrezej Wajda's "Katyn" isn't being given great odds to win best foreign-language film at this Sunday's Oscars.

The epic, depicting the 1940 massacre of as many as 22,000 Polish soldiers by the Soviet Secret Police, is the only foreign-language Oscar nominee without a U.S. distributor, meaning no one stateside has a direct financial interest in seeing it win.

But for the 81-year-old director, who was awarded an Oscar for his life's work in 2000, just getting the film made marks one of the greatest accomplishments of his long and distinguished career.

"Katyn" is also arguably Wajda's most personal film. His father, Jakub Wajda, was one of the soldiers killed in the Katyn massacre, and the story of the atrocity is one the director has carried with him his entire life.

Growing up in communist Poland, however, Katyn was a taboo subject.

The Soviets blamed Hitler and the Nazis for the killings and Warsaw, part of the communist East Bloc until 1989, toed the official line. It was only in 1990 that then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev first admitted his country's responsibility.

"For a long time, I didn't think I would ever be able to make this film because I didn't believe Poland would ever be a free country. So I kept the idea at a distance," Wajda says. "When the political situation unexpectedly changed, I faced another dilemma -- the dilemma of how to tell this story. I decided to depict the story both from them perspective of the people killed and from those left behind. From those who fall and those who wait. So it is about my father and my mother."

"Katyn" is already a massive hit in Poland, where it has sold more than 3 million tickets -- blockbuster status in a country with a population of 38 million.

The film has had a cathartic effect for Poles who were long denied the truth about this catastrophic event in their history. Polish historian Adam Krzeminski says "Katyn" is a film that "closes a huge gaping hole" for Poland.

Wajda has resisted attempts to politicize his film and protested when the nationalistic Law and Justice Party, run by the Kaczynski twins, tried (unsuccessfully) to use "Katyn" to drum up support in last fall's election campaign.

But it was hard not to see the political significance last Friday, when "Katyn" had its international premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival and Wajda walked down the red carpet with none other than German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Wajda, who has made numerous films depicting the Nazis' brutal occupation of Poland during World War II, says the time had come to address the "untold history" of communist war crimes.

"The Berlin Film Festival (has) been the scene of scores of political films dealing with German war crimes and German atrocity," Wajda says. "Now Germany and Poland are both part of the same Europe. It is time for us all to tell the truth of the other side of history."