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Posted on May 2, 2008 in Books and Movies

Katyn – movie review

By Paul Glasser

2007, Akson Studio
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Starring: Maja Ostaszewska, Andrzej Chyra


It remained a taboo subject until after the Communist regime collapsed in 1989.

Katyn is an unflinching account of the Polish officers who were killed in the Katyn Forest Massacre in 1940 and how the aftermath affected their families and Polish society as a whole.

The film is based on the novel Post Mortem by Andrzej Mularczyk and was nominated as the best foreign language film at the Oscars. It lost out to the powerful film Die Falscher (The Counterfeiters).


The film was a very personal project for director Andrzej Wajda, whose father was murdered by the NKVD. He told the BBC he never thought he would be able to make the film because Communist officials would censor him. In fact, it remained a taboo subject until after the Communist regime collapsed in 1989. The Russians only admitted responsibility for the atrocity in 1990.

The film does an excellent job of portraying the deep physical, mental and psychological wounds left by the Katyn Massacre. An estimated 22,000 Polish officers and NCOs were taken prisoner in the wake of the Soviet invasion in 1939 and later executed. An entire generation of leaders in a potentially free and democratic society was wiped out, including thousands of lawyers, engineers, professors and artists.

Polish family awaits newsAs shown in the film, the event was a national trauma that affected families all across the country waiting to learn who had died. Several scenes show Polish crowds gathering in the streets to listen as the names of the victims are read out over the airwaves.

However, the universal nature of the massacre is both a strength and a weakness in the film. Wajda focuses mainly on a few officers from the 8 Uhlans Regiment and develops the characters of Lt. Jerzy (played by Andrzej Chyra) and an officer’s wife Anna (played by Maja Ostaszewska) well. However, in an effort to show the depth of the Katyn Massacre, the story is frequently interrupted by some detours that introduce interesting but short-lived characters and tangents.

Prisoner in KatynCinematographer Pawel Edelman uses several good techniques to improve the story-telling quality of the film. Point-of-view shots make the images more intimate and unique transitions bring scenes to life by reaching across time and space to make a connection.

Archival footage form German and Soviet propaganda films are also employed to bring home the immensity and brutality of the massacre. The lens pans over rows upon rows of corpses that stretch across the landscape. Forensic investigators examine the desiccated bodies of soldiers still clutching rosaries or wearing homespun sweaters when they died.

Acclaimed Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki contributes a dark and foreboding classical soundtrack to the film, but silence proves equally effective when the viewer is left in total quiet to read the credits as they scroll by like a grim tableau.

Although Wajda told the BBC he hoped his film would soothe and atone for the wounds of Katyn, the film provoked a short clash in the media between Polish and Russian newspapers. Thousands of graves of Polish victims are still undisclosed or in a state of disrepair.


  1. Why has this film been so difficult to find here in the United States. It was nominated for Best Foreign FIlm Oscar in 2008 but it was next to impossible to find a showing with the exception of a few specialty cinemas.

    • This movie could be interpreted as politically motivated, as the Russians have been so reluctant to admit to the atrocity at Katyn, and to apologize to the Poles. A Russian president a few years ago was flying into a fog on his way to make just such an apology at Katyn, when his aircraft went down, crashing into trees, killing him and his spouse. There was no record of any pilot attempt to make contact with the flight tower, and the crash was regarded as suspicious. I believe the president’s name was Kaczynski. You can find the news of it on the internet. Since the crash the Russians have admitted to the atrocity, but have never apologized.

  2. As a descendant of Polish immigrants, I was astounded when I stumbled across this movie online while researching Polish history. Until that moment, I had not heard of Katyn. It displayed to me the absolute barbarism that men treat their fellow man. Poland was drawn and quartered in World War II and the scars of that time are still seen today. The movie became something personal to me as did the research I’ve done on the subject since. The atrocities displayed in this movie took place at the same time that the Jews of Poland were being murdered. Christians and Jews alike were systematically butchered and whether they died as Christians or Jews, the one common bond that connected them was that the died as Poles. May they ALL be remembered.

  3. I was told about Katyn from my Father since I was a young boy. My dad made such a big deal about it that he eventually did something about it here in Baltimore with the organization of a Katyn Memorial Fund. He collected money on his own in the beginning from working Polish Festivals as the owner of a booth selling food. As I grew up helping him, I began to appreciate what exactly he was doing and the pride he had for his Polish roots. My father was trying to right a wrong and put the truth out there for all to here. The Katyn Forrest Memorial that my father help start is proudly on display in Baltimore, and unforunately was erected after my dad’s death in 02/1993. I know my dad would be so proud to have seen both the Memorial and now the movie Katyn come to fruition. I know that I’ve never been more proud to be a Pole because of his unselfish actions all those years when many people didn’t believe him. God Bless you dad, Major Clement A. Knefel

  4. The annihilation of Poles at Katyn is also long commemorated at the St Albertus Church in Detroit, the monument likely dates back to just after WWII. St Albertus holds ceremonies to honor the Katyn massacre yearly. Please see their website.

  5. watched Katyn the movie on SBS last night. Dad was Polish and was captured by the germans and managed to escape. He died in1987. I am60 now but i remember when i was a little boy of 6 dad told me never believe anyone who tells you the germans did it because he knew way back that the russians were responsible for the massacre

  6. When Soviets are about to execute the General, there is a portrait of Joseph Stalin on the back wall. Stalin on the portrait has the uniform with shoulder straps of the Marshal of Soviet Union. Soviets begun to use shoulder straps in 1943 and Stalin did not had any military rank during events of Katyn massacre. He became Marshal in 1943 and Generalissimus in 1945.