Sunday, 14 December 2008


I must admit to having a fair bit of catching up to do with legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda, having only seen the early (if widely considered seminal) Ashes And Diamonds and A Generation. (No, I wasn’t starting with the A’s.) So when Brighton’s Cine-City Festival announced this year would include of two of his films, I was suitably attentive.

However, though keen to see his most recent film Katyn, I was in some ways wary. Directors often try to achieve the summation of their career near its end, and this had many of the signs. Aged 82, Wajda is putting on the screen the Soviet wartime massacre which not only set the tone for their subsequent occupation but also claimed the life of his own father. (As the Guardian commented: “In many ways, Katyn is the film that Wajda has been building up to throughout his career.”)

Does this sound bad? Perhaps counterintuitively, it can be. Such portentousness can crush the life from a film, leaving something sumptuous but stately – perhaps even stodgy. (Kurosawa is a classic example, compare Yojimbo to Kagemusha.) And despite their wartime settings, his early Films had a contemporary Fifties feel. The young lead Zbigniew Cybulski agonized so pensively over how he fitted into society, all the time sporting a pair of sunglasses (the era’s symbol for alienated cool), that he earnt the nickname “the Polish James Dean.”


In some ways Katyn takes this heritage head-on, introducing a headstrong and impulsive young nephew. He’s not exactly Cybulski reborn, in fact he’s quite precisely committed where Cybulski was conflicted. But the film first follows and indulges his swingheeled romanticism, seeing the world from his elevated rooftop perspective, only to swat him.


However, it would be more accurate to say that Wajda’s concerns have now shifted to the adult generation. His characters are less concerned with where to place their idealism, and more burdened with balancing their consciences against the encumbering business of survival. At one point the authorities smash a tombstone for bearing the wrong date. (Suggesting it was carried out during the Soviet, not the Nazi, occupation.)

But the film is not the celluloid equivalent of that tombstone, proclaiming something which no reasonable person now rejects. Instead his focus is not so much the moment of the massacre as it’s aftermath, not those who died from it but those who have to live with it. As he himself said: “While Stalin’s crime deprived my father of life, my mother was touched by the lies and the hoping in vain for the return of her husband.” Living with such knowledge becomes a microcosm of Soviet occupation, where the unbearable must daily be borne. No easy solutions are offered for this, and the collaborators are given their say as much as the rebels. This gives the film a tension which prevents it from falling into heritage status.

Of course, all of this could not be further from the Hollywood treatment of political events as a backdrop to a ‘personal journey’, like a yuppie backpacking through Nepal to “find himself.” Wajda’s famous deep field photography comes in here. Characters never look like lead actors, posing potogenically in front of some neatly arranged backdrop. They always seem to spring from and inhabit the space around them.


Only in the final scene, shifting back in time, do we see the actual massacre. The horror here is that it’s shot neither through the eyes or the victims nor the perpetrators – instead it merely follows their hands. As corpses are repeatedly piled onto slides to enhance disposal, the killers work in a detached a way as workers in a slaughterhouse. Such behaviour has become normalised.


But if Katyn is the summation of Wajda’s career, Man of Iron is the departure. Made at great speed during the first wave of Solidarity strikes in 1981, it trades in much of Wajda’s reflectiveness and becomes much more of a bulletin. Often shot on location and incorporating real news footage, it has an almost Sixties cinema verite style. Like such films as Medium Cool, the process of film-making is often foregrounded. The film starts with a woman making a passionate and poetic speech about freedom, who then stops to ask the radio engineer for another take. It’s protagonist, Winkel, is a journalist ordered to perform a hatchet job on the strike leaders. Wajda commented afterwards “we were learning to understand this new reality and to show it on the screen at the same time, which was not easy.” (Notably, while Western films of this style seek to dispel the chimera of ‘journalistic objectivity’, here the question never even comes up. Winkel must choose one side or the other, no third options.)

However the film also has a reflective half – with the frequent flashbacks, which set the current strike (and the main characters’ behaviour) into context. Here Wajda’s patented style comes back – muted colours, deep field photography and poetic composition. (These refer back to an earlier film, Man Of Marble, which was presumably shot in that style.)

Functionally, this is effective – the two distinct styles never leaving us in doubt which era we are in. But the two tones can at times jar. You naturally indulge Wajda’s more poetic instincts when they take on a poetic form, less so when they are inserted into a news report. One example would be Winkel’s symbolic pilgrimage towards the worker-occupied Shipyard. (Which he is only able to enter at the very end of the film.) We seem supposed to infer that this swapping sides has cured him of the alcoholism which has plagued him up until then. There is also a subplot, involving a striker’s father, which drops a smart expectation-denying twist, but then one which simply seems to get forgotten. More pettily but still notably, whilst Katyn has a score by Pendereski, the music here is mostly Eighties synth stuff!

However, Wajda is keen as ever to keep matters nuanced. The provisional nature of the worker’s victory is stressed, and even Winkel’s side-swapping is not altogether welcomed. This cautious optimism was validated, when the authorities later imposed martial law. Wajda later commented he’d earlier asked the military to borrow their tanks as props for the film – but been denied. A year later, those tanks were on the streets for real...

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