Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 April 2013
Eryk Lubos and Agnieszka Pawełkiewicz in ‘To Kill a Beaver’
Given the number of national governments who agreed to join the ‘coalition of the willing’ and to send military personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan, there must be a whole sub-genre of ‘returning vet’ films being produced across many film cultures. To Kill a Beaver is a Polish entry. It’s a thriller with sex and violence but also quite a lot of talk and some very interesting ways of representing the trauma of action.
On the face of it, Eryk (Eryk Lubos) is now some kind of freelance killer working on a contract who has returned to his home region, perhaps even his own abandoned farmhouse (this isn’t a film in which you can be very sure of anything). He begins to set up surveillance but he’s interrupted/disturbed by two ‘intruders’. One is a teenage girl who seems to have set up a bolt-hole in the house and the other is a pair of beavers who have damned the local stream. Eryk seems determined to kill the beavers and they are clearly symbolic of something, possibly as a metaphor for invaders or refugees (who have every right to be there). Eryk’s talents are many, including the ability to speak Russian – not always a sensible thing to do in Poland I’m told. How did he acquire this facility? Where has he been a soldier and what has he done? I won’t say any more in the hope that you can get to see the film – though as the still indicates, man and girl do get together.
This film was a hit at Karlovy Vary, the most important festival for showcasing Central European films, last year. Eryk Lubos won the Best Actor prize. But just as films about the impact of war on soldiers struggle to win audiences in the US, so it seems do they similarly fail in Poland. No one wants to know about post traumatic stress or what Poland’s ‘special forces’ (GROM) get up to as this report from Karlovy Vary by the Polish Film Institute suggests. There is a lot going on in the film which ought to mean much more in Poland than it does to international festival audiences. Director Jan Jakub Kolski argues that he makes auteur films – i.e. for himself first. I think that if picked up for wider distribution this film could do well in many countries and perhaps then it would get the recognition it deserves at home. It’s the most striking film I’ve seen at Bradford so far.
Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Polish Cinema | Tagged: Afghanistan, BIFF 2013, thriller | Leave a Comment »
Posted by nicklacey on 10 April 2013
Out of the light
A producer may have pitched this as a high concept film where Kanal (Poland, 1953) meets Schindler’s List (US, 1993) without the latter’s saccharine. It’s the true tale of a Polish sewage worker who was paid to look after Jewish refugees from the Warsaw Ghetto. Robert Wieckiewicz plays Leopold Socha whose motivation, at least initially, is wholly pecuniary. It is a strength of the film that the protagonist is represented as a ‘warts and all’ human being and it doesn’t stint upon the Nazi’s atrocities. Both the lead characters are played by charismatic actors new to me, Wieckiewicz plays Lech Walesa in this year’s biopic of the Solidarity union leader; Benno Fürmann plays a German-Jew who doesn’t trust Socha.
The film’s portrayal, based on Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov, of people living in extreme conditions is psychologically acute. For example, the characters’ need for sex is emphasised despite them being ensconced in confined spaces with many others, including children. Jewish racism against the ‘Polacks’ is also shown. The set design, both above and below ground, is immaculate.
The pitch I imagined at the start of the article was, of course, jokey. The film took 22 years to bring to the screen – see this excellent article. The film not only takes us into the darkness of the sewers but also into the darkness of fascism (have you seen the film Mr Di Canio?); this is one of the key functions of cinema: to take us to places we don’t want to go. In doing so it not only helps us appreciate what we have got but also, viscerally (I was blubbing by the end), helps us to feel the history. It is very difficult, for example, for young people to understand the misery that Thatcherism inflicted (and continues to inflict) upon many people; as a historical figure, the first female British PM, she can seem laudable.
I realise that this is the first film I seen directed by Agnieszka Holland so I have some catching up to do. Her use of the roving steadicam in the sewers conveys the stinking claustrophobia brilliantly and although there a few longuers, in a 145 minute film, they are necessary for the portrayal of human resilience in the face of human evil.
Posted in Canadian Cinema, Polish Cinema | Tagged: Polish resistance, Second World War | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 26 September 2012
Marcin Kowalczyk as ‘Magik’ in ‘You Are God’
I went to this screening by accident and it was only afterwards that I learned that this was the most anticipated Polish release of the year. It opened in Poland and in the UK and Ireland on 21 September and you still have the chance to see it at selected Cineworld multiplexes. The title refers (I think) to one of the songs by Hip Hop trio Paktofonika who were active between 1998 and 2000. The film is a music biopic of sorts covering the short career of the trio from Silesia in industrialised Southern Poland.
It’s always fun to watch a film with absolutely no pre-conceptions. I don’t know a great deal about Hip Hop and I had no knowledge of the band. Because of this I relied on what I knew of youth pictures and social realist dramas. In some ways the film reminded me of Flying Pigs (Poland 2010) the football-based drama shown at this year’s Bradford Film Festival.
Since I didn’t know this was a true story, I did wonder at one point if this would become a social realist drama rather than a music film. I compared it to Ken Loach or Shane Meadows, the Dardennes Brothers and other realist filmmakers. It is presented in a CinemaScope frame and there is heavy use of shallow focus, especially against the grim housing estates of Katowice. Also, the palette seems to have been reduced to greens, blues and browns to emphasise the drabness. It seemed both stylised and observational in its aesthetic approach and I was interested to learn that the director Leszek Dawid trained at the famous Lódź film school, specialising in documentaries. He won a prize at the Gdynia Polish Film Festival for this film and prizes also went to Marcin Kowalczyk as ‘Magik’ and Dawid Ogrodnik and Tomasz Schuchardt, the two supporting actors playing ‘Focus’ and ‘Rahim’. My feeling certainly was that these three young actors – and the other performers playing friends or family – were some of the strongest elements in the film. There are some similarities to the UK film Control (about Joy Division) and I was quite impressed by the music, even if I don’t know much about it. The weakest part of the film seemed to be the script (remember I didn’t know it was based on a true story) and I didn’t really understand why it ended as it did. I was relieved to see that the festival reviewer felt the same way.
Find out more about the true story and the coverage of the film in the Polish media on Culture.pl and the Polish Cultural Institute. The surprising feature of the Culture.pl coverage is the reference to the importance of the film in critiquing ‘degenerate Polish capitalism of the post-transformation era’ and the attack on consumerism (i.e. the band’s ‘art’ against the consumerist society). The festival review also refers to the film’s script as being claimed as a “post-1989 Man of Marble” (the famous film by Andrzej Wajda), but then finding its statements about consumerism naïve. I guess we are so used to these kinds of narratives in Anglo-American films that the anti-consumerism didn’t really register with me – it just seemed like a conventional element in a music film about ‘rebel’ musicians. Another lesson about watching films more carefully and more objectively perhaps?
Here’s the trailer with English subs (beware that the comments below give away the ending if you don’t want to know it – but if you know about the band, you’ll know the ending anyway):
Posted in Polish Cinema | Tagged: biopic, music film | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 April 2012
Oskar and Basia conduct the ultras of the Flying Pigs team
In her introduction Anna Draniewicz, the festival’s Polish consultant, told us that the leading man in this film, Pawel Małaszynski, was the Brad Pitt of Polish Cinema. This suggested that the film might be ‘popular’ rather than ‘arthouse’ for me and so it proved. Grodzisk is a small town in Western Poland and its football team ‘Czarni’ has just been relegated despite the dedicated support of its ‘ultras’ whose task is to focus on chanting and flag-waving rather than actually watching the game. The ultras are in turn protected from opposing fans by the ‘hools’ – who also attack the opposing fans and attempt to steal their colours. Anyone who prefers to actually watch the game is a ‘picnic’ and sits in the family enclosure.
We are told all of this at the beginning of what is a conventional genre narrative. And it isn’t really a genre about football – or really about sport at all. The relegated team now face the prospect of a local derby against an old enemy, a team that have been bought by a major business – a manufacturer of parts for the international aerospace industry. The company’s logo is a wild boar with wings – hence the film’s title. Our hero Oskar is the leader of the hools of Czarni Grodzisk – but he is also suddenly without an income after he crashes his van. If that isn’t enough he’s now the father of a son born to his girlfriend when he was fighting the police after the last match. He needs money now and the only option is to accept an invitation to work for the Flying Pigs as ‘manager’ of their newly-created ultras. Inevitably, he will face his own brother Piotr and all his ex-mates in the first derby game of the new season. He is also joined by his brother’s girlfriend Basia who loses her job as the (‘live-in’) organist at the local church when the priest tells her that being a hool is not acceptable for someone associated with the church.
The only real surprise is that the film becomes more a mix of family melodrama and dark romantic comedy than a violence-filled narrative about football hools (which the opening section seems to promise). New director Anna Kazejak-Dawid has created a very enjoyable mainstream crowd-pleaser which is handsomely-mounted in ‘Scope and boasts a good soundtrack. The central characters are all attractive young stars and what this demonstrates for me is the relative strength of Polish popular cinema. The festival brochure suggests that the film is like a Polish Green Street (UK/US 2005). I haven’t seen that film, but it sounds unlikely and Keith confirmed that the melodrama element means that the comparison doesn’t really work. I think the tone and the feel of the film is more akin to a widescreen version of a Shane Meadows film like This is England (UK 2006) or even earlier UK social comedies such as the Full Monty (UK 1997). I felt that the film was rooted in its small town sensibility and issues about local ownership and ‘community’ – similar in fact to the themes of Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric (UK 2009).
I don’t think that the film gives any pointers towards fan behaviour at the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine this summer. Except that Polish fans seem to have things in common with Italian ultras. I enjoyed this film and it would seem a good choice for a limited release in the UK if a distributor is so inclined.
Posted in Comedies, Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, Melodrama, Polish Cinema, Romance | Tagged: BIFF 2012 | Leave a Comment »
Posted by nicklacey on 1 March 2012
Jonathan Rosenbaum makes the point that while this film is about the forties, it’s set on the day of the Nazi surrender, it’s overlayed by a fifties’ sensibility. This is evident through the James Dean-like Zbigniew Cybulski (though Rosenbaum cites Brando) but also in the European Art cinema style in which its shot. The ‘heavy’ symbolism of the still above is a good example. Add to that the melodrama of the young man, who’s fighting against the Communists and wrestling with his conscience whilst falling in love with the beautiful, and melancholic, barmaid, you have cinema made for me.
This blu-ray edition looks terrific and so emphasises the wonderful cinematography with stunning Expressionist lighting. Director Andrezj Wadja was clearly influenced by Bergman, I love the horse that simply walks into the mise en scene, but also Welles, particularly his use of deep focus.
The film brilliantly dissects a moment in history when everything for Poland was going to change (except in a way it didn’t as they, once again, became dominated by a foreign power). The possiblities of the time, those grabbing power, the splintering of families due to the war, are all portrayed in an affecting human story. Cybulski plays Maciek who’s been sent to assassinate a Communist Party official; he fails but has the night to fulfill his task except that’s when he meets the barmaid.
The official’s son is part of the reactionary forces that are opposing the Russian takeover, however the bourgeoisie’s grab for power is in full swing anyway, shown by the small town major’s celebration at being appointed a minister. The climax of the party, where they are all drunkenly dancing to a bastardised version of a Polish national song, is truly surreal. As is the denouement for Maciek, in a setting worthy of Bunuel.
I’m not sure if Wadja’s in or out of fashion at the moment, very few of his recent films have been distributed in UK; he’s still making them and is 86 next Tuesday. Ashes and Diamonds forms the third in his ‘War Trilogy’, A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955) and Kanal (1957); there are all must-see films. The first two, the narratives are unconnected, have a pronounced debt to neo-realism; Ashes and Diamonds is a triumph of expressionist cinema.
Posted in Polish Cinema | Tagged: Melodrama, Second World War | 4 Comments »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 3 February 2012
The impact of Polish migrant workers on the UK economy was a major news story in the British press a few years ago but with the onset of recession and better opportunities elsewhere it seemed like those workers might have gone home or moved elsewhere (Norway for instance now has 15% of its workforce who were born overseas). At one point Polish films were on offer (with English subs) at cinemas across the UK and there were even occasions when selected Hollywood titles were subbed or dubbed for Polish workers (Borat, if I remember correctly, was one example).
Anyway, this week’s chart news demonstrates that the Polish community in the UK is still interested in Polish films. Sztos 2 (Polish Roulette, 2012), a mainstream crime/spy comedy set in the Communist period of the early 1980s, last weekend took over $250,000 at 40 locations in the UK for a screen average of $6,225 and No 17 in the chart. That screen average was the fourth best of a week dominated by the massive splash of the Hindi Cinema remake of Agneepath which took over $10,000 per screen. I mention these two films partly because otherwise UK cinemas are awash with English-language awards contenders at this time of year and many of us feel starved of an alternative. Sztos 2 is, as the title suggests, a sequel to a 1997 hit film and for comparison it opened No 1 in Poland a week earlier at 153 locations with a screen average of $4,115 (I assume ticket prices are lower in Poland). It’s still playing at Cineworld in Bradford so I’m going to try to catch it. Here’s the UK trailer:
Posted in box office, Polish Cinema | Tagged: crime comedy | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 30 September 2010
Sabine (Agata Buzek) and Bronislaw (Carson Daly) in Rewers
The last film that I saw at Cambridge deserves its own entry. Although I enjoyed all the films that I saw and found something interesting in each, none of the others particularly surprised me. Rewers was the exception. As the Sight and Sound writer Catherine Wheatley pointed out earlier in the day (see next blogpost), the best experience comes from entering a screening without any real expectation of what you are going to see. In this case, I had read the blurb, but then promptly forgotten it.
Rewers was the Polish entry for the 2010 Foreign Language Oscar. It is another of those Eastern European films exploring the communist period. We first see Sabine, a rather gawky young woman just turned thirty, with glasses in heavy frames and not very attractive clothes, in a cinema watching a newsreel celebrating Poland’s young male athletes who are presented bare-chested in formation displays. Sabine is clearly excited by what she sees. The setting is Warsaw in 1952 when the Polish state is still very much under the thumb (boot?) of Stalin and the secret police are everywhere. Sabine works as a poetry editor in a state publishing house and she lives with her mother and grandmother in a comfortable flat in an old apartment block. Her brother, an artist, has an attic studio in the same block. Sabine’s mother and grandmother come from the petit-bourgeoisie (they ran a chemist’s shop before the war) are therefore suspect according to the prevailing ideology. Sabine’s brother is reckless as an artist. She herself refers not having fought in the Warsaw uprising but confesses that she wishes she had. The various attitudes towards surveillance are effectively summed up when the family find an old gold coin with the inscription ‘Liberté‘. Gold is supposed to be handed in to the authorities, but Sabine insists on hiding it – by daily swallowing the coin!
The two older women work to find Sabine a husband. She is clearly keen for some sexual experience, but not with the unattractive men who her mother invites to the flat. One evening she meets Bronislaw, a dashing young man who saves her from a pair of thugs who accost her. He looks like the real deal – but things don’t turn out as Sabine expects.
The Polish pressbook calls this film a ‘comedy’ and there are certainly comic moments, some of them not dissimilar to the social comedy moments in the Czech films of the 1960s. But it is dark comedy and it is played out in the context of the real social difficulties of living in a Stalinist state. From my point of view, I found the film fascinating and enjoyable because of the central characters and the interplay amongst the family members. I’m still not quite sure what the title refers to. In some ways ‘Obverse’ would be a better title if the intention is to present Sabine as a surprising character who turns out to be not what we expect. My lack of understanding probably explains why I didn’t really appreciate the modern sequences in which we see an 80 year-old Sabine waiting at the airport. These didn’t work for me, partly because the actors attempt to ‘act’ being old. This rarely works. I’m not suggesting that the acting performances are poor, but rather that when we have been watching the actors play close to their actual ages, we can see through the make-up and costumes to a younger person attempting to move slowly etc. On an aesthetic level, I much prefer the 1950s in the film, shot in beautiful black and white CinemaScope – whereas the ‘present’ is shot in murky colours and appears drab. As well as the wonderful cinematography, the music in the film is also important with jazz as the decadent Western music beloved of the intelligentsia and a tango providing one of the highlights of the film.
I’ve watched a few Polish films over the last few years and I’m struck with the frequent appearance of the national stereotype – Poles in movies drink themselves swiftly into oblivion. It happens so often that I feel it must be ‘true’. It occurs again in this movie. Having said that I think that this is the best Polish movie I’ve seen for a while and it deserves to get a UK release – I hope someone has bought it.
A flavour of the film comes through the Polish trailer (no subtitles) but be warned it hints at spoilers for some of the surprises in the film.
Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Polish Cinema | Tagged: Cambridge Film Festival, communist society | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 25 March 2010
A few years ago, the UK distributor Dogwoof released a number of popular Polish films in the UK, attracting audiences from the expanded Polish community following Poland’s entry into the EU and the influx of Poles into the UK workforce. Some of these were shown in Bradford (which has always attracted the British-Polish community in the North of England). Because of this, The Last Action is a relatively familiar beast. In fact, it is much more accessible than some of the films I saw then – which seemed fuelled by excessive drinking and difficult gender relations.
The Last Action is much gentler and as a light comedy resembles several other films from around the world, at least in terms of narrative structure. At a stretch, it could be seen as a commentary on masculinity in the new Poland. Zygmunt is a man in his 80s who is in Warsaw to attend a celebration with old friends and colleagues from the Warsaw Uprising in 1945. This was the tragic episode in which Polish partisans rose up against the Germans, expecting the Red Army to support them, but the Russians failed to take the city before the Germans crushed the rising. In Warsaw, Zygmunt despairs of his weak son who now runs a business providing turf for parks, sports stadiums etc. – a man of ‘grass’. But, more urgently, he learns that his grandson has been beaten up by a local gangleader who runs a nightclub. Zygmunt rounds up his old colleagues and determines to take revenge – the ‘last action’. The strategy is to con the gangleader and lead him into a trap. In the process, some local police corruption is exposed and an old wound – the distrust between the ‘Home Army’ veterans and a Communist Party member is healed.
Overall, an enjoyable 95 mins which was clearly appreciated (going by the chuckles) by the Polish-speakers in the audience. Zygmunt is played by the veteran actor Jan Machulski who died soon after the film was completed.
Posted in Polish Cinema | Leave a Comment »