Smile Politely

Donald Duck teaches math, and one of the many reasons Poland has it rough

Despite my dismissive reference last week to a certain teen sensation (the namesake of a certain large, rural, and mountainous state on the west side of this country) and her new film being the only offering on video this week, there are a few releases worth checking out. Irrelevant to impecunious people such as myself, Criterion keeps shoveling out Blu-Rays, this week releasing both Jacques Tati’s modernist farce Playtime and Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior). Playtime is well worth the buy for Blu-Ray-player-owning cinephiles, as the format’s resolution might be the closest home video can get to the giant, detailed 70mm in which it was shot. Kagemusha I never got around to seeing when I went through my Kurosawa phase, but it’s supposed to be one of his umpteen masterpieces, his return to glory after a middling and somewhat tragic 1970s.

Also out on DVD this week is the video you probably watched during one of those short days in public school. I know I watched it in 7th and 8th grade algebra, 9th grade geometry, and caught it once on TV. Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land managed to convince me not only that math was cool, but that a commanding knowledge of the shape of a triangle would lead to immediate success at the billiards table. It also taught me that Greeks and Romans are responsible for pretty much all math, ever. Come to think of it, this little program may have been wrong on all three counts.

There’s also Dexter: Season Three, The Simpsons: Season 12, and yet another horror remake, Last House on the Left.

Finally, at a certain local video store (you know, the only local video store) you might be able to find an imported (but nevertheless NTSC/Region 1) DVD of the highly regarded Italian Mafia film Gomorrah, but don’t tell anyone I told you. Especially not the Criterion Collection, who is apparently planning an official U.S. release at some point in the future.

Anyway, now that we have those out of the way, here’s a film I didn’t get around to last week. A rather excellent film though, as one might expect from non-kitschy Eastern European art cinema, pretty downbeat.

Slightly-Dated Release From the Box


Over a dozen years in the making, Katyn is Andrzej Wajda’s reclamation of a Polish story usurped first by wartime Nazi occupiers and then by de facto Soviet occupiers, whose mendacity was supported for forty years in Communist Poland. When Soviet and German troops stormed into Poland in 1939, when Stalin and Hitler were allied, the Polish Army was dismantled, its officers put into Soviet camps in the East. In 1940, 12,000 Polish POWs, all officers, were put to death and buried in a mass grave in the Katyn forest.

After the inevitable rupture between Hitler and Stalin, Poland’s Nazi occupiers used the slaughter as propaganda, hypocritically using it as evidence of the Communists’ base disregard for human life. After pushing the Third Reich out of Poland, the Soviets claimed the massacre was a Nazi war crime, changing the dates and appropriating much of the same propaganda footage for their lie. To suggest that the officers were killed in 1940 by the Soviets was now treason; the Party line was that the Germans had executed them in the fall of 1941.

Wajda’s father was among those who died in the forest in the Spring of 1940; his film is a testament of the truth of what happened to them, and a microcosm of what happened to Poland during and after the war, caught between the two major powers of Continental Europe. In this version of history it seems Poland was never liberated, and certainly not by the Russians in 1944; a character in the film pessimistically declares that there will never be a free Poland, and for her character, in her 30s in 1945, there very likely never was. But the film itself is evidence of a free Poland, the Polish version of the Katyn story that another character points out is missing, finally told 70 years later.

As Wajda says in an interview included on the DVD, the film is his mother’s story, and the bulk of Katyn focuses on women after the war who were forced to bear the burden of the knowledge of what happened to their men and to their country. The climax of the film, however, flashes back and lays bare the details of the executions of the officers. In his response to the manipulative propaganda of the Nazis and the Soviets, Wajda also bends the truth in this scene, having each in a succession of soldiers being violently shoved to their death recite a part of the Lord’s Prayer in Polish. The Soviet massacre at Katyn is not merely a truth, it is now a wholly Polish story.

Next Week on From the Box

Sunshine Cleaning and Adventureland are two films with chances at getting watched by me, and I might even like one of them. And look out for upcoming reviews of next week’s releases The Last Days of Disco and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1800 Bruxelles.

More Articles