Film Review:- Czarny czwartek – Jan Wiśniewski padł (2011)

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Dir:- Antoni Krauze

Starr:- Michał Kowalski, Marta Honzatko, Cezary Rybinski, Wojciech Pszoniak, Piotr Fronczewski, Grzegorz Gżył

It would seem that of all the great Polish filmmakers from the last century Andrzej Wajda is the one who is having the most significant effect at the ‘serious’ end of the current Polish cinema landscape. Wajda’s Oscar-winning film on the Katyn massacre managed to establish a new ‘historical-realist’ agenda in Polish drama, that has seen an increasing number of movies in recent years focusing on the events of Poland’s last combustible century of history as sources for dramatic action. This has, in particular amongst those films set during the Soviet-era, led to a sort of ‘anti-propaganda propaganda’ that attempts to rewrite the failings  and omissions of the Soviet record of history, replacing it with an account that emphasises modern Poland’s abiding concerns with heroism, patriotism and religion. Next year Wajda will return with a biopic about Poland’s folk-heroic former-President and Solidarność leader Lech Walęsa, but in the interim comes a lean and particularly vicious account of the 1970 Gdansk/Gdynia Shipyard massacre that served as a backdrop to Wajda’s 1981 movie Człowiek z żelaza

Director Antoni Krauze (Akwarium, Palec boży) comes from much the same period of Łódź film school students as Kieślowski and Polanski, but has clearly been influenced by the interests and technique of Wajda. Czarny czwartek looks to construct a multi-layered examination of the events of the winter of 1970 in the trójmiasto area. It focuses on three distinct areas of action: the political decision-making level of closed-door military and politburo meetings, the street level conflicts between protestors and the army and military police, and, finally, the pained heart of the movie which examines the experiences of the Drywa family during that fateful period of violence and unrest. This is a classic ‘realist’ film structure in Poland, that clearly demonstrates the large-scale operations of society and how they then filter down to impact upon the everyday working man and woman. It frequently dominates Wajda’s work in particular, but can also be found in recent ‘cause’ movies such as Enen. Krauze deviates from the well-worn script a little, primarily in the way he chooses to frame the events of the day in a pseudo-documentary, mock newsreel style.

The symbolism of Polish blood upon a Polish flag makes the long solemn march, in the movie's tense opening 40 minutes, particularly impressive.

One of the most striking aspects of Soviet-era Polish history is the manner in which certain stories were simply never told, or were deliberately erased from the public record. Krauze manages to emphasise this lack of a public narrative to events, by subtly showing the events as they occur upon the street and then juxtaposing them against the complete lack of radio and television information being given. The fact that so little media attention was devoted to events during the 70’s presents both possibilities and difficulties for a filmmaker like Krauze. Without the public record very little can be proven outside of the conflicting accounts of eyewitnesses. One image that did become synonymous with the 1970 protest movement, is the image that gives the film its sub-title and provoked a poetic and musical response from Polish artists of the time. Zbigniew Godlewski, a young shipyard worker from Elbląg was shot and killed in Gdynia, by militia firing into a crowd of protestors from an overhead helicopter. His fellow protestors managed to hoist his body up onto a door and carried him through the streets of the city until they were confronted by more armed militia units. At the time of this event nobody knew Godlewski’s identity, so he was given the common Polish name Jan Wiśniewski, which then served as the title of a particularly frank and forthright political poem and song ‘Ballada o Janku Wiśniewskim’. The song was sung by Krystyna Janda at the end of Człowiek z żelaza and as a direct reference is reprised at the end of Czarny czwartek, in an even more guttural and impassioned manner, by Kazik Staszewski, lead-singer of one of the foremost Polish rock bands Kult.

Polish cinema is generally having a bit of an identity crisis, similar to many other ‘national’ cinemas within Europe. With its undoubtedly rich traditions (Jerzy Hoffman’s epic cinema on a shoestring, deserves a particular mention at this point) and its assortment of Internationally recognized filmmakers Polish film could, and perhaps should, be some of the most inventive and challenging of the former Soviet nations. However, popular Polish cinema is pretty much an unending stream of bland Hollywood derivatives that often don’t even attempt to hide their glaringly obvious English-language origins. As a remedy to this, many ‘serious’ Polish filmmakers have perhaps mistaken solemnity of tone and overarching portentousness for involving, high-quality filmmaking. The combined effect of these conflicting and ‘unofficial’ policies, has left modern Polish cinema with a dearth of interesting and entertaining film. Czarny czwartek is undoubtedly an important piece of cinema, as it neatly brings to light a piece of Polish history that hasn’t been fully explored and will almost certainly be unknown to an international audience. Yet it is a difficult film to watch and the style of the film seems haphazard and needlessly chaotic, as if the filmmaker was trying to unsuccessfully demonstrate the ways in which a work like this might have been censored back in the period it depicts.

This said the acting is uniformly convincing throughout, particularly when it comes to the central roles of Stenia, Bruno and Leon Drywa. Krauze does an excellent job of keeping the personal story and the political story separate for as long as possible, which when they eventually do overlap makes the events all the more shocking. Brunon Drywa (Michał Kowalski) is depicted as a reliable family man and shipyard employee, who cares most about his three children: Romek, Gabrysia and Mariolka. Living in cramped quarters alongside a live-in-lodger, Brunon and his wife Stenia (an excellent performance from Marta Honzatko) are struggling to make ends meet, but this doesn’t stop Marta from splashing out on tinned ham for Christmas, nor does it prevent Brunon from dreaming about owning his own taxi cab. The initial phases of the protest movement – which began as a result of Polish politburo leader Władysław Gomułka’s price increases on food and other everyday essentials – are viewed from a distance by Bruno and his family. Little information is revealed through the media, but hearsay spreads rumour and on a few occasions Bruno and his family are able to directly observe events unfolding in the centre of the city. Yet nothing directly impacts upon the Drywa’s until Brunon boards a train to go to work at the shipyard on the 17th December 1970.

Krauze in the chilling opening exchanges of militia fire manages to capture the incomprehensible brutality of a nation turning in upon itself. The chaos of the shooting sequences at Gdynia Stocznia train station, as well as later during the solemn protest march with Jan Wiśniewski’s body, hammer home, in much the same way as the final moments of Katyn, exactly how morally unacceptable the events unfolding are. Later Krauze’s focus upon the military police’s continued brutality toward protestors seems increasingly stylized and ineffective, particularly the protracted beating that an innocent bystander receives at the hands of an army unit and its head. But for the controlled panic and tension that spreads through the opening 45 minutes of the film this should, perhaps, be overlooked.

As with all modern Polish films about the Soviet period there is an in-built awkwardness in the way that the politburo hierarchy are depicted. The tendency is to create broad black and white discriminations between the innocent protestors for democracy and the craven and conceited protectors of the Communist status quo. Krauze initially seems to be following this pattern, as the likes of Zenon Kliszko (Piotr Fronczewski) talk in ideological soundbites with an almost inhuman ideological zeal. Amongst the party lackeys, such as Gdynia’s council head Jan Marianski (Grzegorz Gżył), there is a general feeling that action cannot be taken against a Polish city, by a Polish army and that to slaughter citizens would be utterly outrageous. However, Kliszko and the equally zealous politburo chief Gomułka (played with alternating savagery and senility by Pszoniak) effectively bully the Polish bureaucracy into order. Gomułka’s justification for turning upon his own people was the fear that Russia would commit troops to Poland in the same way they committed troops to the Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring uprisings.

The implacable face of politburo ideology. Zenon Kliszko (Piotr Fronczewski) tells it like it really isn't.

These slight ambiguities within the high-level political narrative are then also explored in the personal story of the Drywa family. In one particularly effective scene the politburo arrive in the middle of the night to inform a still shocked Stenia that her husband is to be buried immediately (a way of enabling the politburo to gloss over the events of the massacre). The city official who accompanies the politburo operative into the Drywa flat has the temerity to ask the lodger for a cigarette, but later on this action becomes an exchange of human courtesy, as the city official stands up to the politburo operative enabling Stenia to call on her brother-in-law Leon (Cezary Rybinski delivering a beautifully understated performance) and get him to attend the funeral also. These little vignettes show that often ‘reasonable’ people found themselves stuck defending a corrupt system, which offers a little more narrative texture than the broad Communist (bad) democratic protestor (good) dichotomy.

At the very end of the film there is a delightfully constructed series of closing shots, that effectively works as a climactic emotional montage. With the Drywa family attempting to escape their politburo organised fate by getting on a train to Słupsk, the carriages pass by the scenes of the worst violence along the trójmiasto’s shipyards. Krauze focuses the viewer’s attention on young Romek Drywa and these snapshots of his father’s workplace (and the sight of his father’s death) have all the more resonance for being suggestively located in the youthful consciousness of the next generation. This artful sequence transcends some of the seemingly televisual limitations of what has come before, but regardless of this unevenness Czarny czwartek is still a haunting and fiercely angry work, worthy of more widespread attention.

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Film Review:- Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom (1986)

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Dir:- Piotr Szulkin

Starr:- Daniel Olbrychski, Jerzy Stuhr, Katarzyna Figura, Leon Niemczyk, Maria Ciunelis, Krzysztof Majchrzak

Put quite simply, Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom is a low-budget absurdist sci-fi masterpiece from the tail-end of the Communist era in Poland. Director Piotr Szulkin made a number of fairly inventive and daring movies during the 1980’s, including Golem, Wojna swiatów – nastepne stulecje and O-bi, O-ba – Koniec cywilizacji. Yet since the end of the Communist era in Poland his cinematic output has been limited to a 2003 adaptation of the Alfred Jarry play Ubu Roi. In many ways this is a great loss to Polish cinema, as the Gdansk-born Szulkin is one of the most distinctive Polish directors outside the holy trinity of Kieslowski, Polanski and Wajda.

Set in a bleakly grim futureworld in which prisoners are put to good use by being blasted out into space, supposedly to discover and claim new planetary terrain, Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom plays out like some twisted blend of Dark Star, Mad Max and Monty Python. The hero (or bohater) of the title is played by Daniel Olbrychski, one of the premier stars of the Polish screen (and an actor who in more open times would have almost certainly become a significant Hollywood presence). Olbrychski does sullen, Eastwood-like terseness almost as well as the great man himself and in Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom he wanders around the hellish ‘western’ civilization he has ‘stumbled’ upon, seemingly unwilling or reluctant to engage with anything, or anyone. What he does discover, fairly rapidly, is that the idealised notion of interplanetary discovery that both the government and the prison authorities are putting across is a lie. Rather than being sent to dangerous new planets the prisoners are sent to one particular planet where they are greeted as arriving heroes by the depraved human population that has colonised this dark place. However this hero-worship has a hidden and sinister purpose that becomes increasingly apparent to Olbrychski, who appears to have simply swapped one type of prison for another, more dangerous, one.

Szulkin, who must have been working on a shoestring budget, manages to convert areas of Łodz (Poland’s heavily industrialised second city and cinema hub), particularly the Widzew stadium, into truly terrifying frontier terrain. At times the film has a close visual feel to the night-time sequences from the cult Australian movie Dogs in Space, laced with a little of the working-class surrealism of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki. One of the most impressive visual metaphors throughout the film is the way in which the old and stately rubs shoulders with the brash and modern. Christmas lights seem to illuminate every shop or bar sign, advertising various iconic American products, such as Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup. In the bar hotdogs are sold (inexplicably made from human fingers), whilst immense pride is taken by the bureaucrats of this hell-hole in the form of transport they drive around in. Inside the hotel that, as a hero, Olbrychski has to inhabit, there is a chaotic assortment of sculptures, busts and artworks, as if the place were some lapidary cemetery, or decaying museum, in which the forgotten history of a culture was haphazardly stored away. So much of the landscape of the planet is familiar and obviously Earth-like, yet Szulkin is circumspect enough in his framing of each shot, that it unnervingly becomes an explicitly alien terrain in which humanity seems to have become hideously degraded and morally deformed.

If you could only find a way to commit a massacre with this toy piano then you'd be our one true hero.

Alongside Olbrychski another titan of the Polish screen, Jerzy Stuhr (Amator, Seksmisja, Kiler), features as the camp and craven local bureaucrat, who seems at first to have only Olbrychski’s best interests at heart. There is a certain ‘theatrical’ style of acting that comes through in some Polish cinema and television and resembles a milder form of the deranged performances extorted by Andrzej Zulawski in his 1981 horror film Possession. At its worst this manner of performance can be seen as an irritatingly ineffectual and heavily signposted anti-realism, that seems to turn every role into a cabaret comic turn. However, when given the right narrative conditions, and when executed with the sophistication of a figure like Stuhr, this type of performance can significantly escalate the absurd comic energies of a given film. Here Stuhr puts on a whining, wheedling, brilliantly brown-nosing display that comes to encapsulate the passive-aggressive implacability of ‘officialdom’. This comes across most effectively in one brilliant sequence in which Stuhr arrives, unannounced, in Olbrychski hotel room to shower the ‘hero’ in gifts of a most disturbing nature.

The depravity of the frontier terrain that Szulkin has created in the movie has a hysterical and blackly comic tone to it. Gangs of whooping and screaming individuals ride around on converted motorbikes and sidecars, letting off firecrackers and lighting eerie flares. Sex is a prime source of corruption, with Olbrychski being inundated with different perverse offerings from the very moment his spaceship lands. Stuhr’s bureaucrat presents the first of these offerings to Olbrychski in the form of a youthful Katarzyna Figura, who plays an ‘innocent’-looking prostitute called Once. Later in a wonderfully demented sequence involving Maria Ciunelis’ malevolent harridan of a whore, Stuhr’s slimy authority is called into question as he is verbally chastised by Ciunelis with the kind of inventive cursing that is so rarely heard in everyday Polish. Aside from sex, there is an obsession with violence and brutality in this frontier world. The ‘heroes’ are meant to participate in this society by committing a suitably grisly and sickening crime, so that they can then be publicly executed in a truly horrendous and highly comical manner. Having left behind a brutally oppressive and dehumanising prison life on planet Earth, Olbrychski is more and more mortified to discover that far from having the lonely freedom of deep space welcoming him, he rather has an even more distorted and disturbing version of Earth to navigate through.

Szulkin’s film is an extremely funny one, but underpinning, and in many ways fuelling, this humour is a satirical bite that doesn’t need a specific understanding of late-Communist Polish realities to make its mark. The subversive way in which it ennobles Olbrychski’s prisoner figure by showing him to have far more humanity than either the prison authorities who deal with him upon earth, or the citizens of this ‘Depraved New World’, is further complemented by the manner in which government methods of policing and bureaucracy are frequently shown to be corrupt fabrications of idealised ‘authority’. In one particularly effective, if slightly heavy-handed, sequence Krzysztof Majchrzak’s military policeman first antagonizes Olbrychski, then provokes him into committing an absurdly violent act, before finally ensuring that the necessary evidence of wrongdoing is obtained by framing the scene. It is as coy and playful an interpretation of the average Polish citizens relationship with authority as you’ll find in Polish cinema, lent even greater poignancy by Olbrychski’s baby talk protestations (from which the title of the movie is derived) that seem to suggest that the only way to respond to those who wish to infantilise you is to become truly babyish.

Now repeat after me: 'Who has been a naughty little Hero then'?

Being a Polish director Szulkin cannot resist also involving elements of Catholic religious symbolism in his work and in Ga, Ga – Chwała Bohaterom the implicit waiting for the Second Coming of Christ is found in the arrangement of objects in trinities, one on the left, one on the right and one in the centre. On a couple of occasions in the film this religious metaphor accrues an additional political meaning, as Olbrychski’s character refuses to select between left and right, but rather looks toward the middle option, the central way (neither adhering to the failures of either extreme, but seeking to balance one against the other). In this way Olbrychski’s character could be interpreted as a lone voice of reason, in a world of fanaticism and extremes. Szulkin tends to write these exchanges so that they resemble a particularly portentous take on Beckett, straining for elusive ambiguity. This is a rare false note in an otherwise energetic, sharp and wholly original take on the dystopian sci-fi subgenre. Even the naming of the planet on which Olbrychski lands has a degree of ironic sophistication, it being a new-fangled formulation of Australia, that colonial dumping ground for all those dissident elements of ‘British’ society. This excellent film is well worth unearthing and has been handsomely boxed alongside two of Szulkin’s other 80’s films in a recent Telewizja KinoPolska release, replete with English subtitles.

Film Review:- Mistyfikacja (2010)

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Dir:- Jacek Koprowicz

Starr:- Jerzy Stuhr, Maciej Stuhr, Ewa Błaszczyk, Karolina Gruszka, Ewa Dalkowska, Wojciech Pszoniak

In terms of twentieth century Polish art and culture Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (or Witkacy as he was better known) is perhaps best thought of as the enfant terrible, or chief prankster, of the first half of the century. Since his bizarre suicide in 1939, as the Nazi’s came marching into Poland, Witkacy has become an increasingly significant figure in literature, painting, photography and theatre. Very much an anarchic polymath, Witkacy seemed to revel in a certain degree of notoriety within his own lifetime, which has been only amplified thanks to the influence he had on late-twentieth century Polish cultural icons, such as Tadeusz Kantor. Even after his death Witkacy was still capable of creating a scandalous scene, as in 1994 it was discovered that his body was not buried at the site in which the Communist regime had claimed to have buried him in Zakopane.

This latest movie by Łódź filmmaker Jacek Koprowicz, who was responsible for directing the suitably macabre and almost wholly unique 1985 Polish horror Medium, explores the myth-making and fabulations that swirled around Witkacy, long after his death, in a quirky and absurdly comic manner, that isn’t too far from the tone of some of Witkacy’s own works. The movie is predominately set in 1960’s Communist Poland, around the period when the regime was apparently lending a little legitimacy to many eccentric rumours about Witkacy’s death (which some have suggested was merely to drown out the suspicious suicide of political activist and writer Jerzy Zawieyski). Maciej Stuhr, plays a student and bureaucrat, called Łazowski, who has become obsessed with Witkacy, making him the subject of his failed academic thesis. Increasingly convinced that the great artist is still very much alive, Łazowski begins to investigate the domestic life of Witkacy’s last love Czesława Oknińska (played with a real mania by Ewa Błaszczyk), who attempted suicide with Witkacy in 1939, but survived. Oknińska seems to lead a rather subdued and reclusive life in a suburb of Łodz. Only occasionally  does she venture outside the confines of her small flat, that is maniacally covered in Witkacy paintings and drawings.  One particularly ritualistic scene in the film involves Oknińska’s’s ordering of a beer in a restaurant called Giewont (which references the mountain upon which Zakopane is located), but aside from that the other sequences involving her seem to be culled from elements of Witkacy’s literary and theatrical work, in particular The Madman and the Nun and The Crazy Locomotive.

Within Polish cinema Jerzy Stuhr (best known to international audiences for his lead role in Kieslowski’s Camera Buff (Amator) and a supporting turn in the same director’s Three Colours: White) is very much cinematic royalty. As the star of the hugely popular Polish comedy Seksmisja, Stuhr is one of the most familiar faces from Polish cinema of the last three decades. Whilst among the younger generation of Polish actors Stuhr’s son Maciej has risen to increasing prominence in recent features such as Testosteron. Father and son have worked together five times in total, but Mistyfikacja is the first time that Maciej has appeared alongside his father in a film, not directed by Jerzy, since Maciej’s debut performance in Kieslowski’s 1989 Dekalog series of short features.

Stuhr Senior seems to really enjoy himself as the lascivious, exhibitionistic Witkacy, who has had to come to terms with the dramatically reduced circumstances of a pokey Soviet-era flat. Koprowicz never clarifies whether we are to read Witkacy’s appearances within Oknińska’s flat as real, or rather the wild imaginings of her diseased mind. This narrative trickery manages to simulate some of the mood of the times, with many people being convinced by Witkacy’s elaborate posthumous pranking. The gently absurd comedy of these domestic scenes, are underscored with a touch of pathos when considering just how terrifying a prospect Soviet rule would have been for an individualist like Witkacy. In amongst these domestic hauntings, there is a scene that reoccurs at the films close, involving Witkacy painting a portrait of a barber’s young bride, and being unable to keep his hands off the woman who is the subject of the picture. It gives a minor role to the veteran Polish character actor Wojciech Pszoniak (one of the stars of Wajda’s wonderful Łódż drama Ziemia Obiecana), but also serves to further fracture and fragment an already slightly convoluted chronology.

Mistyfikacja follows the pattern of movies like The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, by reimagining and fictionalising a historically, or culturally, significant individual’s biography. Yet Koprowicz perhaps has more purpose to his fictional tangents, as Mistyfikacja serves both as a biographical ‘what if…?’ and an atmospheric account of a peculiar incident in recent Polish history. Although what Koprowicz shows is a stylised rendering of events, much of the history is accurate, as Witkacy’s lovers really did receive mail from Witkacy posted after his death and there was a real sense that Witkacy had in fact been conducting the ultimate practical joke. However, as with much of modern Polish cinema that focuses on the recent Soviet past, there is the problem of specificity when it comes to international audiences. Witkacy is a remarkable Polish cultural figure, but despite some prominence during the 60’s and 70’s within theatrical and avant-garde art circles, his international reputation is somewhat low-key. It is difficult to imagine that too many non-Polish audience members would pick up on some of the more subtle references within the film, which could make the plot seem confusing for all the wrong reasons.

Ultimately, though, this issue of a national cinema’s reach shouldn’t detract from the relative merits of a motion picture. Mistyfikacja has none of the exotic visual texture of Medium, but it does manage to establish a fairly intriguing and mysterious atmosphere. The principal performers all deliver, with Błaszczyk, in particular, seeming to embrace the mannered style of performance frequently associated with Witkacy’s work. Whilst the movie may lack the substance of a more detailed biopic, it does still work quite entertainingly as an introduction to its subject, and even though it fails to offer as stimulating an experience as Koprowicz’s debut masterpiece, it does have an engaging, free-wheeling energy that makes it mildly diverting at the very least.