Out of Competition

BERLIN -- In "Katyn," Poland's master filmmaker Andrzej Wajda vividly and movingly dramatizes one of the last major crimes of World War II to be acknowledged. This was the mass execution of 15,000 to 20,000 Polish officers, the intellectual elite of that society, among them Wajda's own father, by Joseph Stalin's secret police in the spring of 1940. The Soviet Union long maintained the mass murder was perpetrated by the Nazis and punished anyone who said otherwise in Poland, which it occupied until the fall of communism in Europe. In 1990, the Kremlin officially accepted Russian responsibility.

This is a very Polish story with deep resonance for Wajda's countrymen but it may have trouble attracting a wide audience elsewhere. There are perhaps too many characters and references that may confuse those unfamiliar with Polish history. Unlike Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" no single protagonist takes us through the war years. Rather the point of view shifts from this character to that as children grow up, women cling to hope and men await their fate.

Working from a novel by Andrzej Mularczyk, letters and diaries by many of the victims and reportedly details from his own family's struggle, Wajda -- who co-wrote the script with Andrzej Mularczyk -- works on a wide canvas as he weaves the fictional stories of four families, forever separated from one another in late 1939, through the Soviet occupation in 1945 when the truth gets suppressed. It is more the story of the women and children left behind than of the men, but Wajda has cagily constructed his film so that it ends with a chilling flashback to the crime itself, a sequence lasting over 20 minutes that brings all the storylines to a horrific conclusion.

Some sequences sear the mind. A group of refugees heading east, crosses a bridge, fleeing the Wehrmacht. On the bridge, they encounter another group of refugees heading west, fleeing the Red Army. The wife of a Polish army officer pleads with her husband to flee with her and their child before the train arrives to transport the officers to the Soviet Union. But his army vows trump his marriage vows.

The Nazis close Krakow University and mass arrest every professor including the father of the army officer. Months later, his wife receives a package containing his things and a letter saying the aging man died of an untreated disease.

Loudspeakers in town announce lists of the dead found in mass graves by the German army in 1943. No mention of a loved one ignites false hope. After the fall of the Nazis, surviving wives and sisters confront Soviet lies to their own peril. A young man loses his life by tearing down a Soviet propaganda poster.

A surviving Polish officer can't stand his collaboration with this lie any longer and blows out his brains. A Red Army officer saves his neighbors (an officer's widow and child) from deportation. Finally, comes the intense sequence in the Katyn forest where officers are one by one shot in the back of the head and tumble into a mass grave ready for bulldozing.

The treatment of this story is not novelistic, with a care for intense plot and character development, but rather a selective presentation of highly emotional scenes. The time jumps and multiple characters at different ages cause confusion occasionally. But Wadja penetrates the lives of these family members just enough so that their collective hopes, frustrations and fears are palpable.

An opening on-screen statement informs viewers of the historical tragedy so Wajda makes no attempt to create any suspense over the officers' fate. The forces of history rule this film as the gods do Greek tragedy. Nothing will save these men and many survivors go to their own graves without the truth coming out. What must have been in the director's mind then when he at last came to the climatic sequence, when he in essence staged his own father's demise?

The period sets, costumes and cinematography all superbly recreate the brutal era, grand illusions and everyday suffering of the Poles under both the Nazis and the Soviets.

An Akson Studio ,Telewizja Polska S.A., Telekomunikacja Polska S.A. presentation
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Writer: Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Mularczyk, Wladyslaw Pasikowski
Based on the novel by: Andrzej Mularczyk
Producer: Michal Kwiecinski
Executive producer: Katarzyna Fukacz-Cebula
Director of photography: Pawel Edelman
Production designer: Magdalena Dipont
Music: Krzysztof Penderecki
Costume designer: Magdalena Biedrzycka
Editor: Milenia Fiedler, Rafal Listopad
Anna: Maja Ostaszewska
Andrzej: Artur Zmijewski
Jerzy: Andrzej Chyra
General: Jan Englert
General's wife: Danuta Stenka
Running time -- 122 minutes
No MPAA rating