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Married to a Polish army officer imprisoned during the Soviet invasion of Poland, Anna dares to hope that Hitler’s subsequent invasion from the west means that her husband will be released and return home, if only to say goodbye before he goes to fight with the Soviet army. Instead of Anna's husband, however, there comes news of a horrific massacre in the forests of Katyn.

Historical Context

On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union) signed the Treaty of Non-Aggression, commonly known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact,1 cementing their plan to partition Poland as part of splitting Eastern Europe into German and Soviet “spheres of influence.” After signing the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, however, Germany invaded Poland from the north, south, and west on September 1, 1939, signaling the start of World War II (WWII) in Europe. Sixteen days later, also without a formal declaration of war, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, in violation of the 1932 Soviet–Polish Non-Aggression Pact. The dual occupation of Poland resulted in a nation both divided and annexed. In the words of Adolf Hitler: “Poland never will rise again in the form of the Versailles treaty. That is guaranteed not only by Germany, but also ... Russia.”2 Poland was invaded from all directions and the country literally was torn apart by the foreign occupying forces.

As part of the Soviet occupation, the Red Army captured approximately 200,000 Polish troops, who became prisoners of war (POWs) in the Soviet Union. Many of the “ordinary soldiers” and soldiers of non-Polish origin were released, but the majority of the Polish officers, the military and cultural elite of Poland, were taken to special NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) prisoner of war camps and detained.3 Then, on March 5, 1940, Stalin and his Soviet Politburo signed the secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria’s proposal to execute men from the Polish Officer Corps who had been labeled “nationalists” and “counterrevolutionaries” and who were “sworn enemies of Soviet power, filled with hatred for the Soviet system of government.”4 The NKVD carried out the orders in April and May 1940 and murdered approximately 22,000 Polish POWs located in different camps/prisons in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The Soviets murdered these Polish men thought to be threats to the Soviet Communist Party because the Kremlin did not want any counterrevolutionary leaders left to fuel insurgencies.

This decimation became known as the Katyn Forest Massacre, named after the location where the first mass grave was discovered.


All nations/cultures have a cultural memory that is continually redefining and renegotiating the past through public presentations in various media, such as film—a popular medium that exists at the intersection of history, memory, and commemoration. Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn (2007) is the first filmic representation of the Katyn massacre and stands as a “powerful corrective to decades of distortion and forgetting.”5 An examination of the overall construction of Wajda’s Katyn as a document of historical memory supports the argument that studying how events of the past are remembered is as important as studying the details of historical events. Katyn is a historical document created at a particular time and place and from Wajda’s particular perspective. Even though film can be difficult to read for historical purposes, since it is simultaneously artistic, thematic, formulaic, commercial, political, and visual,6 it nonetheless offers crucial insights into historical matters, such as the collective remembrance of a nation. A proper historical understanding of Wajda’s Katyn involves not only examining the film, but also looking into the context of the film’s creation.

Andrzej Wajda, one of Poland’s most famous directors, has tackled complex narratives about the Polish war experience during WWII in several films7 including A Generation (1955), Kanal (1957), and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) because Wajda believes that “in a society such as ours, the artist does help shape opinions, and can function as a kind of conscience for the nation. In that sense, yes, we can and should play a leading role.”8 Wajda is acutely aware of his power and duty as a filmmaker to (re)imagine the collective remembrance of Katyn, a complex and difficult “event” for Poland, and to help the Polish nation make meaning out of its history. Wajda’s father, Captain Jakub Wajda, was murdered at the Katyn massacre, a fact that highlights Wajda’s way of turning individual memory into a vehicle for collective remembrance and commemoration.

Wajda’s revered place in Poland, his personal connection to Katyn, and his personal beliefs about art and filmmaking all intersect to create the film. In some respects, Katyn is a film nearly seventy years in the making, as it filled a long-vacant need in Poland’s history. Wajda himself declares his motivation for making Katyn when he says: “The Katyn massacre, despite the fact that so many years have passed, is still current. My purpose in making the film was that the massacre not be forgotten, that the memory should stay alive.”9 Wajda is aware of the role of film in the modern era as a document of transnational and trans-generational remembrance and commemoration. Although Wajda was unable to make the film until many years after the event and after the fall of communism, the reverberations of the massacre remained a part of his being, his memory, and the collective Polish memory.

Wajda’s Katyn serves as a historical document, a renegotiation of collective remembrance, and a transnational memorial of commemoration. Wajda knew that “such terrible historical events must find their place in the art if we want them to survive in the memory.”10 Wajda’s words emphasize that film can both sustain and create memory. Although Wajda was technically finally able to make the film after the Revolution of 1989, it would be nearly another twenty years before Katyn premiered on September 17, 2007 (on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland). This delay was because Wajda did not know initially how to tell this mythic Polish story.11 Wajda decided, in the end, that the film’s narrative focus needed to be about the crime and the lies because those were the elements that most defined the event;12 Katyn is not simply the story of the crime, but equally, if not more so, about the subsequent lies and the decades-long shroud of silence.

Wajda did a masterful job at constructing Katyn to serve as a testament to the pain, suffering, chaos, uncertainty, hope, hopelessness, denial, and lies surrounding the Katyn massacre and created a film that represents Poland’s national narrative and memory of victimhood at the hands of Soviet oppression. Katyn stands as a testament, a commemoration, not only to the 22,000 lives lost at the hands of the NKVD, but also to the nation left behind to grieve the loss. The opening title sequence is of cloudy skies, a symbolic nod to how the collective remembrance of Katyn had been clouded by decades of Soviet lies. Even more poignant is the film’s first scene, which shows Poles running from harm’s way on a bridge as they meet coming from opposite directions. The Poles running east are escaping the Nazi occupation in the west; the Poles running west are escaping the Soviet occupation in the east. The film shows Poland, from the first narrative frame, as a victim of two foreign occupations, a nation simultaneously trapped and divided.

The film then follows a narrative path with the female protagonists—mothers, sisters, wives and daughters—who were left to piece together truth and understanding in the face of the Soviet lies and to figure out a way to mourn. The film also incorporates clips from both the German propaganda newsreel about the 1940 Soviet massacre at Katyn and the Soviet counter-propaganda newsreel blaming the Nazis for the atrocity at Katyn in 1941. The historic Nazi and Soviet propaganda film illustrates how confusing it was for the public to separate fact from fiction during WWII and the post-war years; the public was told two different stories regarding the same event.

Katyn highlights how meaning in the present is constructed from understanding the past. Yet to create this meaning and understanding, the truth about the past needs to be recognized. In a dramatic scene towards the end of the film, Jerzy, a Polish officer who managed to survive Soviet NKVD camp, is now in postwar Poland and is a solider of the Red Army after compulsory conscription. Jerzy gets drunk in a bar filled with Russian soldiers and says, “a dozen thousand of our officers were murdered in Katyn.” He physically implicates the Soviets in the bar surrounding him. His friend replies: “What are you talking about, dammit?” To which Jerzy replies, “About the historical truth.”13 The scene concludes with Jerzy shooting himself in the head; Jerzy is unable to make meaning from the lies. He is denied his historical truth, his experiences, and, therefore, Jerzy is unable to communicate and, ultimately, to survive.

Similar to the beginning of the film, Wajda ends the film with highly symbolic images. The final narrative scene of the film is actually the start of this story—the murder of the Polish officers, shot in the back of the head, one by one. When one protagonist is shot, he falls into the mass grave clutching a rosary. The film’s final image is of this man’s hand tightening his grip on the rosary as the Soviets begin to bulldoze dirt to fill in the mass grave—a visual representation of the NKVD’s literal cover-up of the Katyn crime in 1940. Wajda ends the film with the gruesome crime, in that exact moment of murder, but the final image is of the first cover-up of the crime, highlighting the indistinguishable double meaning of Katyn—the crime and the lie.14 The scene then fades to black and, for an entire minute, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Polish Requiem15 accompanies the darkness. Next, the credits roll in stark silence. The blackness followed by silence symbolizes how the impediment of historical truth about Katyn has clouded Polish national memory for decades and raised Katyn to a mythic representation of Polish suffering and Soviet oppression.

Film can function as a “site” of memory that both commemorates and creates discourse regarding historical events. Film analysis includes understanding the messages communicated through film language, understanding the reception of the film, and tracing how the meaning of a film shifts in differing sociopolitical contexts. Katyn has proved to be not only a very cathartic “site” for Wajda and the Polish nation, but also an important film for both Wajda and Poland because the truth could finally be told.16 Arguably, it’s not important just that the story is finally told, but that it is told in a very public, transnational forum.17 After decades of lies, the truth is broadcast in a very visceral way to millions of people across the globe. Katyn’s historical truth is resurrected through Wajda’s film.

Since Wajda’s “dad has no grave,”18 this film can function as a transnational memorial site for grief and mourning. Usually, when commemoration and memorialization are discussed, they are most often in the context of physical and architectural structures, such as statues and plaques. Although the Katyn massacre has war memorials across the globe and a location-specific memorial in the Katyn Forest, Wajda’s film acts as a more readily-accessible memorial “site” that transcends location and generations. Sanford Levinson, in Written in Stone: Public monuments in Changing Societies, argues that “to commemorate is to take a stand, to declare the reality of heroes (or heroic events) worthy of emulation or, less frequently, that an event that occurred at a particular place was indeed so terrible that it must be remembered forever after as a cautionary note.”19 Katyn is Wajda’s declaration that both the crime and the lie must be remembered so as never to be repeated.

Historical Accuracy

Katyn is a film, in fact, that stands as a work of “faction,” in which the backdrop and narrative are rooted in historical research and fact, but the main narrative is purely fictional.20 This “factional” construction allows for a story such as Katyn, a memory that has become mythic in the Polish identity of victimhood and resilience, to become everyone’s story. In other words, the narrative in Katyn is still Poland’s collective narrative, not the single stories of a few real people that a documentary would provide. This is not to say that the film is not rooted in historical truth; this is the point of a factional film—historical inquiry, research, and findings root the film, while the fictional narrative allows for collective remembrance and identification. Furthermore, Andrei Artizov, Head of the Russian Archival Agency, stated in a public debate that aired on Russian television after the debut showing of Katyn in Russia: “Every fact of this film finds confirmation in the archives that I oversee.”21 Fictionalizing fact does not remove the historical truth of the representation.

~Heather O. Petrocelli

Select Resources

Cienciala, Anna M., Natalia S. Lebedeva, and Wojciech Materski, ed. Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment. Documents translated by Marian Schwartz with Anna M. Cienciala and Maia A. Kipp. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007.
This book is a collection of 122 Soviet Governmental documents related to the Katyn massacre that have been translated into English. These documents are from the Soviet state and party archives which were only made accessible in the early 1990s, during President Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy of openness. A number of these documents confirm details of the Soviet actions at Katyn and establish Russian-Polish relations at the start of World War II (such as the Non-Aggression Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, August 23, 1939).

U.S. Congress. House. Committee on House Administration. Reprinting of House Report no. 2505. 82nd Congress, Concerning the Katyn Forest Massacre. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1988.
This 49-page pamphlet is the Final Report of the 1952 U.S. Congressional Katyn Massacre investigation and includes brief historical background as well as a summary of the Congressional proceedings’ seven parts. This report illustrates how the Soviets constructed and presented the cover-up story to place blame on Nazi Germany.

Paul, Allen. Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010.
Allen Paul, a journalist and political speechwriter, examines Katyn from the bottom-up. Paul’s main sources are the aforementioned U.S. Congressional testimony and oral testimonies from three Polish families from which the husbands were murdered, the Hoffmans and the Pawluskis from Lvow and the Czarneks from Krakow. This book shows how familial mourning often shapes public memory. Additionally, Paul argues throughout the book that Western governments were instrumental in the Soviet cover-up at Katyn, again underscoring how contemporaneous political climates affect both memory and commemoration.

Sanford, George. Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, Justice and Memory. New York: Routledge, 2005.
George Sanford, a political scientist, constructs a narrative about Katyn that focuses specifically on U.S. and British motivations (and ultimate complicity) in aiding the Soviet cover-up—an overall policy of not wanting to “provok[e] the Soviets unnecessarily”(182). Of particular value is Sanford’s documentation of the process of how details regarding Katyn were revealed starting in the early 1990s. Sanford’s argument, again, shows how the purposeful, multi-national cover-up of Katyn has altered historical memory about it.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire.” Representations, No. 26 (Spring 1989): 7-24.
This influential article on memory by French historian, Pierre Nora, discusses the cultural replacement of milieux de memoire (environments of memory) with his concept of lieux de memoire (place of memory). As Nora argues, lieux de memoire is the artificial landscape of the modern (re)creation and appropriation of history into the “mythic” realm of cultural memory. As Nora argues, “history is appropriated and re-appropriated beyond recognition into the lieux de memoire, and thus it is used for the political and cultural aims of a society.” The Katyn massacre serves as a perfect example of the re-appropriation of history to fit the political aims of each era examined above.

Katyn Memorial Site
This is the “official” memorial website with maps and photographs.


1 Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop were the foreign ministers of the USSR and Germany, respectively.

2 “Germany: Seven Years War?,” Time, Monday, October 2, 1939,,9171,789000-2,00.html (accessed February 24, 2011).

3 Ian Dear and Michael Richard Daniell Foot, ed., The Oxford Companion to World War II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 698.

4 Lavrentiy Beria, Memorandum to Joseph Stalin, March 5, 1940, cited in Anna M. Cienciala, Natalia S. Lebedeva, and Wojciech Materski, Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007), 118.

5 A.O. Scott, “Bearing Witness to Poland’s Pain: Katyn Review,” The New York Times, February 18, 2009.

6 Jay Winter, “AHR Forum: Film and the Matrix of Memory,” American Historical Review 106, no. 3 (June 2001): 857-864, on 863, JSTOR.

7 In addition to representations of WWII, Wajda has created filmic representations of anti-Communist sentiment in Man of Marble (1976) and Man of Iron (1981). In Katyn Wajda tackles both topics.

8 Andrzej Wajda, interviewed by K. Farrington and L. Rubenstein, in Cineaste 14, no. 2, 1985.

9 Megan K. Stack, “The Memory Should Stay Alive,” Los Angles Times, April 14, 2010.

10 NA, “Poland. Andrzej Wajda. Katyn. The Defeat of the Silence,”, March 24, 2008, (assessed March 2, 2011).

11 Wajda, interviewed by Torbicka.

12 Wajda, interviewed by Torbicka.

13 Katyn, produced by Michal Kwiecinski, directed by Andrzej Wajda, 118 minutes, 2007, DVD.

14 Wajda, interviewed by Torbicka.

15 In 1980, the Solidarity movement commissioned Polish composer Penderecki to compose a piece for the unveiling of a commemorative statue at the Gdansk shipyards, the site of the anti-government riots and the symbolic birthplace of Solidarity. Penderecki's Polish Requiem stands as an aural commemoration of events in Polish memory and narrative that have been elevated to the level of national myth: the death of Cardinal Wyszynski (anti-communist), the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the shipyard workers killed in the 1980 strike, and the Katyn massacre.

16 Celinska, interviewed in “Making of Katyn.”

17 Katyn was even honored with an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film in 2007.

18 Wajda, interviewed by Torbicka.

19 Sanford Levinson, Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 137

20 Robert Brent Toplin, “Hollywood’s D-Day From the Perspective of the 1960s and the 1990s: The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan,” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 36, no. 2 (Spring 2006), 25-29, on 29.

21 Alexander Etkind, “Katyn in Russia,” Memory at War Inaugural Workshop, King’s College, Cambridge, June 2010.