WARNING: This review reveals a not-completely-unexpected kind of spoiler! So, proceed with that in mind. Thank you! 🙂
This is the kind of film that has so much to offer of whatever you look for in a movie—suspense, political intrigue, socio-economic commentary, a touch of satire, and even a (whisper-thin) romance. But that description is bound to disappoint some of those who watch the film only on that basis.
If you live where I do (in the US of A), you may never have heard of this film. The fact that this is a Polish drama about post-WWII, Communist-run Poland and not especially kind to either side of the schizoid political situation presented in it probably explains a lot of that. Let’s just say the Polish government quite likely didn’t care for the story.
I’ll give you the set-up. See what you think.
The movie opens near what appears to be a small, crumbling church building. There, three members of the former Home Army (of WWII Poland) are present. Two of them seem to lounge on the grass, as the birds chirp. One of the two wears sunglasses and acts like it’s a day at the park. The second gets up and moves off to assist a young girl who seeks entrance into the old church. Then, there’s also a third man (no, not The Third Man, although I could make a comparison here, maybe … no, never mind), who we meet eventually. That happens after a vehicle approaches and a couple of guys get out of it.
By then, our pals on the grass have moved into action. They have guns, which they use in an attempt to assassinate the secretary of the Polish Workers Party. Unfortunately, they fail miserably and end up killing two innocent civilians.
I’m pretty sure they don’t feel good about failing in their mission, but the guy with the sunglasses over the course of roughly the first half hour or so of the film displays certain changes in his outlook. His name is Maciek and he’s the protagonist who comes to doubt the worthiness of his mission to kill this man.
Now, here’s where some viewers may have a tough time with this film. What we’ve got is a soldier with a nearly-nihilist outlook on life who might actually feel a shred of doubt or mixed feelings about the results of his actions.
But this man is a human being, forced to witness the sheer unfiltered anguish the surviving family members undergo due to his botched assignment. Knowing what we do now about what the war experience does to a person, it makes complete sense to me that Maciek might develop doubts about what he’s been tasked with, as well as what he’s done before this.
Maciek is not only an interesting character, who displays a kind of rakish charm and devil-may-care attitude about life and death at first, but was played by Zbigniew Cybulski, an actor who was considered the “European James Dean”. Right there, that tells you something.
Drink and be merry?
It is primarily Maciek’s journey toward a potentially new life that we witness over the course of the movie, which mostly takes place at a hotel where post-war celebration is in full swing among the privileged. This movie follows (with certain digressions here and there, both mysterious and oddly humorous at times) Maciek’s transformation in outlook about his mission. Because along with witnessing the grief he’s caused due to his
fuck up failed attempt to follow orders and a romantic rendezvous one-night stand with a cute bar maid he flirted with briefly, he’s harboring doubts about his purpose.
Okay, so there’s that, plus a brief stop at a church, where Maciek recites aloud a poem inscribed on the wall. The bar maid seems to be moved by this, because Maciek delivers the lines with such emotion. Then again, the question is raised, has Maciek actually changed? Keep in mind the story transpires within a tight time frame of no more than 24 hours.
I won’t tell you if he has changed. I will tell you that the second man makes it pretty clear that Maciek shouldn’t defy their orders. As for the third man, he’s drunk and, having crossed over to the winning side, celebrates to excess a job he doesn’t have yet with the happy revelers.
How’s that for complications, uneasy alliances, and mixed feelings? If you enjoy a movie that captivates at more than a visceral level, this one is well worth watching.
Personally, I enjoyed the movie, despite its downbeat tone. I rather enjoyed witnessing the murky morality behind everyone’s actions. Along with any uncertainty about who the real bad guys are. And it certainly spurred my interest in Polish history.
One aspect of the film I particularly liked was the dialogue–at least, as it was presented in English-language captions. Made me wish I could get hold of a translated version of the screenplay.
I will also say that, unlike most American films with romance as a plot device, this movie does not have a happy ending. And that’s my only real spoiler.
If you enjoy European movies with a combination of political intrigue and a philosophical bent, ignore the quickie nature of the romance that serves as a plot point and just savor the best aspects of the story. Because there’s a lot of that to savor here, even if things don’t end nicely. Maybe especially because they don’t.
Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Screenplay by Jerzy Andrzejewski and Andrzej Wajda (based (loosely) on the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski)
PS: If you have access to Kanopy. you can find the movie there and see it for free.
It’s also on the Criterion Channel. Along with a few extras.
PPS: Seven countries, seven posters, one classic film! 🙂
Check out the Spanish version of the poster! 🙂