Saturday, June 5, 2010

Katyn (2007): review- 5/10

A film about Soviet mass murder of Polish officers during the Second World War and subsequent decietfulness regarding responsibility for this crime.

In style it is episodic, with various confusing time leaps: this makes it difficult (probably impossible- my Brazillian wife was totally lost) to follow for those unfamiliar with the history of the Katyn massacre and Polish history and its various wartime borders.

It is unclear what the main objective of the director was: to evoke sympathy for those involved in events, or to examine historical memory, or to show how history is manipulated?

I don't think the film can be said to be a success in any of these terms: the characters are not memorable, (it's hard to identify with anyone- we hear about their professions but there is no construction of character, albeit of the most cardboard sort); the historical events are very unclearly narrated and the issue of the manipulations of historical memory is examined in insufficient detail (where, for instance are the voices of the ex-patriot communities, who maintained truthful accounts?). So the film feels muddled: it has the qualities of a disturbed dream.

The film also suffers from gloominess. If this criticism seems absurd, given that that it concerns mass murder, then that is to forget that it is first of all a film: and must succeed in maintaining the viewers interest as a temporal art form. Gloom militates against this because gloom is fatalism, and fatalism leads to the belief that the destinies of the main characters are pre-determined, and this in turn prevents one from caring much about the dilemmas they face as their outcome is already known.

A temporal medium such as film must succeed on a "I want to know what happens next" level, and this film doesn't because the narrative is too confusingly related and the characters too lightly sketched and because their fates can be pre-supposed.

Put another way, the characters aren't presented with real choices. Compare this film to "Bridge over the River Kwai': where moral dilemma acts in every scene to animate the film. Likewise, it's used to enliven "Schindler's List". This film does not offer moral drama because there is no lever acting upon the consciences of the oppressers -alternately Nazi, Soviet or Polish communist or a-moral Polish (while "honour" is the lever acting on both the British leader and the Japanese in Bridge on the river Kwai)- so any dealings with the baddies have a predictable outcome.

One response to my criticisms is to say- "oh but the events don't allow another approach". But surely it is the job of the director to trace an effective narrative: a narrative that is both truthful and successful as drama.

No film can do everything: perhaps this film attempts too much. I can't help thinking if a much more conventional format- either a linear documentary, or the dramatisation of the life of a heroic individual, Hollywood style (viz. Schindler's List) would have been a more successful means for describing the events and effects of Katyn.

It might be argued that the "disturbed dream" effect is indeed what the film is really about, and that I am asking the film to suit an audience (international, young, uneducated) that the film is not intended for. To that I would say that even I, approaching middle age, who has a good-ish grasp of events (being half Polish) found the film hard to follow.

If the film is intended as a sort of catharisis then it isnt emotionally affecting, because the means of identification offered viewers are through national symbols, not though characterisation or artistic effects (most notably apart from Penderecki's score, which is magnificent). And the film contains few memorable or beautiful images. This is a pity and is surprising because Wayda's films are usually visually very striking.

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