I felt the acting was mediocre, the “shaky camera” technique used annoying at times, and the background music rather primitive, but there were also many strengths to the movie. It had some excellent scenes that capture the Polish dilemma with remembering this pivotal event of 1940 or—as the Soviets would have them believe until official admission to the crime in 1990— 1941.
One thing that particularly impressed me was the portrayal of the process of the massacre itself. Most of us are familiar, desensitized even, to portrayals of massacre in the many films on the Holocaust or World War II in general. There are certain aspects of these scenes that seem almost required: images of angry shouting soldiers herding a crowd of helpless victims, the evil officer given ample chance to fully personify the diabolical, and so on.
Katyń initially passes the point of the massacre without any depiction of it whatsoever, letting it instead hang over all the scenes to follow and allowing the audience to only imagine what has transpired. We then return to the actual scene of killing at the close of the film.
I thought the depiction of the killing was done wonderfully, if one can use such a word to comment on the cinematography of massacre. With the exception of Soviet officers confirming the identity of some high-ranking officers, the perpetrators hardly speak and are generally without expression. Instead, the soldiers simply carry out their terrible task in a quiet and methodical fashion. The killings proceed smoothly and as part of a highly mechanical procedure. Instead of sacrificing an opportunity to vilify the Soviets who carried out Stalin’s orders, this approach, I believe, adds to the horror felt by the viewer, and reminds us of how this process may have been seen by soldiers for whom executions of reactionary elements were thought a natural and necessary component of the revolution.
One after another, we are shown the Polish officers taken to the killing grounds in a truck, individually unloaded, tied, shot, and finally covered with others in the mass grave. In the case of some officers killed separately, the rapid procession of killings in an abandoned forest house is interrupted only by the splash of a bucket of water upon the blood covered concrete basement floor, the expulsion of the corpse through a shoot into a waiting truck outside, and a newly loaded gun being handed to the executioner.
I’ll close these comments by sharing one of the fragments of dialogue which describes the dilemma of collaboration in the postwar Soviet dominated Poland and in so many other places seen, as it was at the time, as a stark choice between silent acquiescence and open resistance. It takes place in a graveyard between the wife and a sister of the slain. Magdalena has a gravestone for her brother made with the forbidden 1940 death year carved on the stone, while the other, Róża, the wife of a dead general, keeps her mourning to herself, finds work as an art teacher, and tries to plead reason with Magdalena:
Magdalena: You’ve found a place in this new world of yours, whereas I am whole in that where Piotr is. If I must choose, I stay with him.
Róża: You choose the dead, which is morbid.
Magdalena: No. I choose the murdered, not the murderers.