Deaths and Lives

by The New Republic | March 18, 2009

Katyn

Koch-Lorber Films

Tokyo!

Liberation Entertainment

The Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who has had a sixty-year career, crowns it with a consummate film. Katyn seems to be the work that he has been moving toward all of his busy life. Katyn Forest is the place, or the main place, where more than twenty thousand Poles were massacred in 1940. Most of them were army officers, some of them were intelligentsia--professors, lawyers, doctors, scientists. Wajda's father was one of the officers. Katyn is thus something other than just one more film for Wajda.

A hot controversy flared about responsibility for the Katyn slaughter. The Soviets, who in fact were responsible, tried to pin the guilt on the Germans, who were murdering elsewhere in Poland at the time. For decades it was strictly forbidden in People's Poland under the USSR to suggest that Moscow was involved in Katyn. But after the end of Soviet communism, the guilt of the Soviets was established. Stalin had wanted to crush in advance any possible Polish resistance to Soviet control after World War II; so he had all these possible leaders shot in the head and blamed the Germans. (One purpose of Wajda's film is to underscore Stalin's guilt.) We see a few of the executions. These add to the horror of the deaths in a particularly macabre way: those executions emphasize the grim workaday persistence of shooting all those men in the head one by one. Not even machine guns or gas.

The films of Wajda's life have ranged widely in intent, but he is rightly linked with the subject of World War II. Three of his earliest features were A Generation, about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1942; Kanal, about partisans in 1944 under the German occupation; and Ashes and Diamonds, about immediate postwar states of mind. Several others during the sixty years have returned to that period. All the Wajda films that I have seen, whatever the theme, were staunch in fervor and humane in essence, but they were sometimes a touch heavy and self-conscious. Katyn seems the work of a reincarnated artist, sure, deep but simple. From its first moments, the film feels like the beginning of an acquaintance that will last.

First, swirls of clouds and ominous skies. (The music by Krzysztof Penderecki haunts the picture then and thereafter.) The clouds thin away, and we are on a bridge in September 1939. A group of people coming from one side meets others coming toward them. All are Poles. The ones on the left are fleeing the Germans, the ones on the right are fleeing the Soviets. Only a week or so after the signing of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, the Germans are invading from the west, the Soviets from the east, to divide Poland between them. The atmosphere for the central catastrophe is in place at once.

Then the several stories begin--stories that take place before and during and after the Katyn disaster. The screenplay is by Wajda and three others, one of them Andrzej Mularczyk, author of the novel that is the picture's chief base. These writers use the fact of the massacre like an immense radiological core that affected some who were not murdered. Wajda himself says that Katyn is "a film about individual suffering, which evokes images of much greater emotional content than naked historical facts." His film weaves the garments of that suffering--and of desperate courage.

The first of those interwoven stories, the dominant one, concerns a Polish captain named Andrzej, his wife Anna, and their small daughter Nika. Andrzej and his regiment have been detained by Soviet troops. Amid tides of fleeing people around them, Anna pleads with Andrzej to escape, which he could do, and come with her and Nika. He cannot. He has his officer's oath. It doesn't seem intrusive to suggest that this scene may be autobiographical for Wajda (represented by the daughter, of course--Wajda grew up in a military garrison and may indeed have been part of such a moment). Anna and Nika leave: Andrzej rejoins his regiment. In time we see the results of his decision.

One of the other stories involves Andrzej's parents--his father is a professor whose university is smothered by the Germans. Another is about an officer who survived the massacre somehow and later finds himself in the army of Soviet-dominated People's Poland, even after he knows (but is forbidden to say) that the Soviets were the Katyn killers. The stories of relatives and friends are on the screen much more than Katyn itself, but the effect of Katyn is never absent.

The beautiful texture of this film furthers Wajda's purpose. The cinematography by Pawel Edelman drains the film of color when necessary to a black-and-white that looks exactly that way--shots from which color has been drained. Through other scenes, Edelman's camera seems to have reached into the dark and brought the faces forth. The acting is flawless. Wajda has cast his film with people who have talent and understanding. Besides his film life, he has also been active in the Polish theater, and we almost feel that he drew this company from a national ensemble. (There is a theater reference--one passing suggestion of Antigone. A young woman wants to give her murdered brother a fitting burial.) In particular, Artur Zmijewski as Andrzej and Maja Ostaszewska as Anna are quietly forceful. Wajda, consistent in tone, keeps them and all his actors on the outer edge of understatement. His control is masterly. Inevitably, when we remember that this film was directed by a man in his late seventies, this mastery leads to the thought that Wajda wanted to make this work before it was too late. It is a benefit to the world's film treasury that he succeeded.

One evening in 1939, exactly when the Germans and Soviets were invading Poland, I was at a ballet performance in New York. An announcement was made that a leading man in the company, a Pole, had asked to do a special piece as his Polish declaration of protest and love. (I forget his name.) He then came out and performed a solo dance to a Chopin polonaise, which was not much as ballet but was nonetheless overwhelming. I thought of that dancer, of the audience's wave of sympathy and helplessness, when I saw the last shot of Wajda's film--which I won't disclose.

 

Anthology films used to come along fairly frequently, films composed of three or four shorts, usually made by the same number of directors and often with a theme (the city of Paris, say) or all written by one author (Somerset Maugham, say). Such a film has the advantage of a magazine or a print anthology over a novel: if a novel disappoints after a few pages, we are stuck. With an anthology, there are chances for recovery.

Tokyo! is an anthology film, which needs no recovery. An exclamation point in a title often means fear on the maker's part that the work will seem dull. Here it has a real ex post facto purpose--a chuckle afterward because none of these three short films, made in Tokyo with Japanese actors, was directed by a Japanese. The "!" possibly means "Yes, it really is."

The trio has a common theme: denial of society, refusal of social norms. The first one, Interior Design, is the quietest: the theme slides in sideways. A young woman, Hiroko, and her filmmaker boyfriend visit a young woman in Tokyo. The boyfriend is crammed with ambition; so are their hostess and her boyfriend. Hiroko, congenial enough, has no particular ambition. She just floats along with the filmmaker and others in an amiable way. Time passes, and separation occurs between Hiroko and her gent, mostly because of her lack of drive, congenial though she is. A couple of years later, long gone from the filmmaker, she writes him that she is still floating along, not keenly motivated and quite comfortable about it. Michel Gondry, the Frenchman who directed the sparkling Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, makes the visual most of dailiness throughout.

Merde, directed by another Frenchman, Leos Carax, renders the theme violently. A man, not Japanese, emerges from a Tokyo manhole. He is no knockoff of Harry Lime in The Third Man: he is ragged and aggressive, stealing cigarettes and flowers as he passes people, filching a crutch for a while from an impaired man, in general being an irritant. (Denis Levant makes the most of the film's most vivid role.) Then he disappears into another manhole. Eventually he gets involved in serious crime, is arrested in a sewer, and is brought to trial. He cannot or will not speak any known language: he communicates by various gestures and odd sounds.

The case is telecast globally, and a Paris lawyer says he understands the prisoner's language, travels to Tokyo, and interprets. (Explanations--of why the lawyer knows the language, of who the stranger is--are not this film's concern.) It comes out, through translation, that the anonymous prisoner is or was a civilized man who hates people and loathes society and has chosen to live as he does. Despite the lawyer's defense of his client's oddness, the stranger is sentenced and hanged. But that is not the end.

Shaking Tokyo, which lives up to its title, was directed by a South Korean, Bong Joon-ho. It deals with a hikikomori, evidently a term that the Japanese language has in stock--an apartment shut-in. This one lives on remittance money from Pa and on pizza deliveries. Clean-shaven and presentable though he is, this young man keeps to his lair just because he wants to. One day the pizza is delivered by a pretty girl, and the earth shakes. Presumably it is an earthquake tremor, but it is perfectly timed for this pair. She is frightened and never returns. He learns her address and goes in search of her. (Technical note: he races through absolutely empty Tokyo streets, with not one person or moving car. Anyone who has ever been in Tokyo knows that this is as much a surprise as discovering Times Square in the middle of the Sahara.) At last he finds her, just as another earthquake shivers on cue. What will then happen we do not know.

The first episode seems slight until we see the rest of the picture, which highlights its point. The second and third shorts dramatize more vehemently what is on Hiroko's mind and make her clearer. All three of these protagonists are cousins of Melville's Bartleby. That scrivener rejects the world, saying, "I would prefer not to." In their own ways, and in one case aided by fantasy, these three in Tokyo! are saying the same thing. Interesting!

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann

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