Saturday began with Starbux breakfast, then we stopped at Shortwave for tea after the movie. Quiet Takes opened the morning screening on solo keyboard, appropriate mood. We could have watched this from the theater balcony but did not, a missed opportunity. Pawel films from his own balcony for months, getting some good one-off reactions from a variety of neighbors and passers-by, and finding some regular characters. His building’s caretaker speaks of the husband who died 20 years before, calls him a useless drunk. Robert gets the most screen time – Pawel gives him clothes when he’s fresh out of jail, we see him trying to get his life together, and he’s still struggling at the end, says he doesn’t want to end up as trash, a drunk, a criminal, but the straight work he’s found is hard and unrewarding. Time also passes via a regular woman showing up with her newborn baby, and Pawel’s own dog having puppies. Some memorable appearances by a very shy woman opening up to the camera, some shitty nationalists stopping during a parade, and a gay man who’d just lost his longtime partner.
The Lure (2015, Agnieszka Smoczynska)
A very silly mermaid comedy-horror. It’s got songs, but I’m not sure I’d call it a musical… and the songs aren’t great, so I wouldn’t want to. A couple of hot young mermaids, Silver and Golden, get a job at a nightclub and things get increasingly complicated. Silver (Marta Mazurek of recent nun-drama The Innocents) falls in love with a human (blonde Jakub Gierszal of Dracula Untold) while Golden (Michalina Olszanska of Christopher Lambert concentration camp drama Sobibor) kills and eats local humans. I maybe lost track of some of the characters, but Silver gets a legs/fins transplant and fails to make Jakub love her, so turns into seafoam, then Golden takes swift revenge.
Golden is the dark-haired one and Silver the golden-haired, of course, here surrounding Kinga Preis, title star of Four Years With Anna:
Demon (2015, Marcin Wrona)
Wedding day for Zaneta and Piotr gets weird quickly. While everyone is getting very drunk, the groom becomes obsessed with the ground outside, later dances with and becomes possessed by a ghost named Hana, speaking Yiddish. In the morning, Zaneta’s father tells the weary guests they had a collective hallucination, “in fact there never was a wedding,” and all evidence of the groom is destroyed.
It’s like the wedding half of Melancholia, but much better. The movie suggests that older Polish people feel somewhat guilty for the disappearance of their former Jewish neighbors, though their angry, repressive reactions to the subject recalls Ida. Wrona’s third feature, and his last, since he died just as this was coming out.
Hana as Piotr:
Haifa Film Fest jury statement: “The film succeeds in conveying the absence of the Jewish community from Polish society and culture. The use of the Jewish legend of the Dybbuk in a Polish Catholic wedding is original and thought-provoking. The Jury and the Festival mourn the loss of filmmaker Marcin Wrona and offer their condolences to the family.”
White (1994, Krzysztof Kieslowski)
Still my least favorite of the trilogy, though it’s less mean-spirited than I remember it (final image of Julie Delpy seeking reconciliation after her ex has her falsely imprisoned is mostly what I’ve remembered). Delpy’s in the movie for about five minutes – it’s mostly about her ex-husband Karol trying to get back on his feet after their divorce. She (maliciously) leaves him homeless and unemployed, but he befriends a fellow Pole while begging in the Paris metro, gets back to Poland, earns a fortune in a realty scheme, starts a shady import business, then frames Delpy for his own faked murder. The plot description sounds worse than the film itself, and the character described in paragraph form sounds like a total dick, while Karol seems more cuddly in person.
Karol is Zbigniew Zamachowski, who starred with his hairdresser brother Jerzy Stuhr in the final Decalogue segment, in which they also played brothers. Karol’s Gabriel Byrne-looking Polish friend is Janusz Gajos, a lead in the fourth Decalogue. This won best director in Berlin (vs. Philadelphia and Smoking/No Smoking)
K.K.: “The subject of the film is humiliation – men are not, and do not want to be, equal. The film is also about equality.” His cowriter Piesiewicz: “I knew very well that people in fact didn’t want to be free. All consumerism and advertising is based on us not being equal. Equality of opportunity, yes. But what does that mean? What’s needed most is empathy…”
Also watched the great Talking Heads short again, and…
Seven Women of Different Ages (1979, Kieslowski)
Dancers at different stages. First: young girls being pulled into position by a patient teacher, then older girls being screamed at by an abusive teacher. Rehearsal, then on stage, then a terrified-looking woman doing a routine. An understudy, watching closely but not actually practicing the moves. Finally an instructor of young girls the age of the first segment – I wondered if it’s the actual teacher from that segment, but it’s not. Fits in well with Talking Heads, obviously.
Ashes & Diamonds (1958, Andrzej Wajda)
A Generation was a pessimistic film about the young resistance movement during WWII nazi occupation and Kanal was an extraordinarily pessimistic film about the near-total destruction of the resistance movement at the depths of WWII nazi occupation. Naturally this third film is a completely pessimistic film about the remnants of the resistance movement at the very end of WWII when the soviets were taking over. Wajda has become less sympathetic to the resistance fighters as the films have progressed, from the idealistic, lovestruck youth of A Generation to the murderous Maciek here, a sunglasses-sporting hit man, who will finally kill his intended target after destroying a few innocent lives.
Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski, the Polish James Dean in the aftermath of this film, later star of The Saragossa Manuscript) takes orders from his more serious friend Andrzej, who works for the bald Major, who works for some vague remaining idea of the resistance army. Maciek, then, is far removed from any real authority, feels more like a freelance gangster than one of the desperate young soldiers of the previous films. Further complicating the alliances, Maciek’s Russian target shows up at his sister-in-law’s house where the Major is plotting to kill him in the next room. The movie goes out of its way to humanize the Russian – and to give Maciek a way out, as he meets a girl named Krystyna and contemplates leaving the dying resistance behind. Eventually Maciek does get his man, and is immediately hunted down and shot, dying like a dog in the street.
Andrzej, at right, mistakenly reporting mission success after killing the wrong guys, as their intended target strolls in at center of frame:
Krystyna with Maciek:
Set on the last day of WWII. Sam Fuller was also interested in what happens on the final day of a war: see Run of the Arrow and The Big Red One. There’s more humor and fun in this one than the others, despite the grim subject matter. Played in Venice along with fellow war-resistance film Il General Della Rovere, also The Magician, Night Train, Some Like It Hot and Come Back, Africa.
Until 1958, it had been impossible for a Polish artist like Wajda to make a film in which an opponent of the new society was presented as a tragic victim. The Stalinist period in Poland from1949 to1953 had brought open terror, arrest and torture of members of the Home Army, as well as enforcement of Soviet cultural models. The Thaw in 1956 resulted in a more independent Polish Communist regime. Finally the arts, liberated from Soviet-imposed socialist realism, were allowed to return to the Polish tradition of poetic metaphor and political allusion. During long years of dismemberment and foreign occupation, literature and drama in Poland had always kept alive belief in the nation’s revival. In Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda continues this tradition, posing the question of Poland’s postwar identity.
Kanal (1957, Andrzej Wajda)
If ever asked what’s the most depressing WWII European resistance movie, I’d briefly consider Rossellini’s trilogy before answering Army of Shadows – but now that I’ve seen Kanal, it easily takes the title. But nobody ever asks me these things. Kanal was the first film made about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, written and adapted for the screen by a participant. It’s Wajda’s darker, more intense follow-up to A Generation, and the centerpiece of his own war trilogy, or at least that’s what critics and marketers belatedly claim.
The Uprising was Polish resistance’s attempt to free Warsaw from Nazi rule, and was a huge failure, in part because they knew the Russian army was just over the river, but the Russians allowed the resistance to get wiped out before entering the city. First half of the movie shows the losing battles, and in the second, they retreat to the sewers, to their slow, dark, confused deaths from sickness and suffocation, injury and poison.
Lt. Zadra has a diminished company of 40 men, including his second-in-command Lt. Wise, messenger girl Halinka, record-keeper Sgt. Bullet, shirtless young Korab (Tadeusz Janczar, who played the charismatic fool hunted down for killing a German in A Generation), and a composer called Michal (Vladek Sheybal, who moved to England and appeared in some Ken Russell films). They already feel defeated at the start, but manage to hold off some weird remote-control mini-tanks before the retreat to the sewers, where the composer starts quoting Dante, making it clear that this will be their hell.
Their guide Daisy claims to know the sewers, ends up with Korab, who was wounded in the mini-tank battle. The men start separating into groups. The composer, plus Wise and Halinka (who’ve been sleeping together before the sewer escape) are in a team until the composer goes mad and starts roaming alone. When they reach a dead end Wise says he has to escape for his wife and child, and Halinka shoots herself. After a long slog looking for a way out, Korab getting sicker, and and Daisy reach an iron grate.
Wise finds an exit straight into the hands of waiting nazis, who are disarming men as they surface and executing them. Meanwhile, Lt. Zadra proceeds, being assured by a spooked Bullet that the rest of his men are behind him. Very tense scene with a grenade trap – the third guy with them is killed disarming it. Finally a safe exit into the ruined Poland, but when Zadra realizes it’s just the two of them, he shoots Bullet and descends into the sewers to find his men.
Learned from the extras: Andrzej Munk, then a documentarian, was going to make the movie but cancelled because the sewers were too dark to film realistically. So Wajda didn’t shoot them realistically, used expressive lighting. To solve another light problem during a surface fight scene, they shot live ammo because blanks weren’t bright enough.
The movie looks wonderful and demands screenshots, but I watched on the big TV and didn’t get any, so here’s Wajda with Jean Cocteau from the extras:
Ida (2013, Pawel Pawlikowski)
Little Orphan Anna grew up in the church, is about to become a nun when the higher-ups say they’ve located her only living family, and send her off to meet her aunt. Aunt Wanda, a judge in town, says Anna’s real name is Ida, she is a Jew whose parents were murdered during WWII. The two set out to visit the parents’ grave, which is complicated since they haven’t got one, but fortunately run across their murderers who’ve taken the family home as their own. They take a couple bags of bones (Ida’s parents, Wanda’s son) to the family plot in a now-abandoned cemetery. Wanda tries to convince Ida to give up the nunnery, hooks her up with a cute saxophonist called Lis. Not much dialogue in the movie so we have to draw our own conclusions why Ida sleeps with the boy then sneaks away to return to the convent – but not much imagination is needed to figure why Wanda commits suicide.
4:3 b/w movie, beautifully shot though I sat close enough for the screen to look pixelly in wide shots. Plenty of head room, and a tendency to cram Ida into a lower corner of the screen, reminding me of Josh Brolin in Milk but probably for a different purpose.
The only actor I’m seeing in anything else is Joanna Kulig of Elles, gorgeous young singer of the saxophonist’s band. Pawlikowski made My Summer of Love and won awards for Last Resort with Paddy Considine.
Something I didn’t get that J. Kuehner explains: Wanda reveals “her own past as a prosecutor of ‘enemies of the people’ (historically, former anti-Nazi resistance fighters who were convicted in show trials under the Stalinist regime)”.
A Generation (1955, Andrzej Wajda)
I wanted to see Ashes & Diamonds, but since Criterion released it as the third title in a loose war trilogy, I figured I’d dutifully start with the first and work my way up to the masterpiece. But damned if this one didn’t feel like a masterpiece itself. It’s an anti-nazi resistance movie, more emotionally deep than Rossellini’s Paisan, younger and less world-weary than Army of Shadows. It also sports my favorite kind of 1950’s photography: artful, almost expressionistic compositions with great depth and lighting
Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki of Blind Chance, a mild-looking Polish Tobey Maguire) and his buddies are introduced stealing coal from trains of the occupying nazi forces, one of them getting killed straight away, but Stach doesn’t join the organized underground resistance until he sees the beautiful Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska of Knights of the Teutonic Order) recruiting. He gradually gets involved with the resistance, seeing a bright future ahead for the two of them, until she is captured – a sure death sentence – in the final minutes, and Stach meets a new group of recruits alone, the struggle carrying on.
Stach’s loose-cannon friend Jasio (Tadeusz Janczar of Kanal) kills a German and is eventually shot down in a stairwell. Another friend is played by Roman Polanski, just about to jump into short filmmaking.
Background from E. Mazierska:
[This, Wajda’s first feature,] “marks the beginning of the Polish School, the paradigm of Polish cinema that arose from the political and cultural thaw of the mid-1950s.
A so-called political thaw followed the deaths of Stalin in 1953 and the leader of the Polish Communist party, Wladyslaw Bierut, in 1956, and the bloody events of June 1956, when scores of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by government troops during street riots in Poznan. These events paved the way for Wladyslaw Gomulka, who envisaged a more independent, less totalitarian Poland, to become the new party leader in October 1956.
[The Polish School] directors, including Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, and Wojciech Has, were all trained after the war, mostly at the Polish National Film School, in Lodz, which opened in 1948. They rejected the simplistic world vision offered by socialist realism and wanted their films to appeal to the viewer through images, rather than the verbal tirades of elevated individuals.
I also watched Wajda’s documentary short on the disc, Ceramics from Ilza, mostly of interest for the way he photographs the ceramic figures in natural environments: against a lake or a hillside, instead of in the studio where they’d normally be displayed.
Essential Killing (2010, Jerzy Skolimowski)
Vincent Gallo was amazing in this, won an acting award in Venice. He plays a soldier captured by U.S. forces after blowing up three guys with a rocket launcher – at least that’s what I thought. A couple things I read online suggest that he lifted the launcher off another soldier in the cave, or found it there when he was just stumbling by, but that wasn’t how it looked to me. Anyway, he kills enough people over the course of the movie – and is antagonized and tortured enough – that it’s clear (even from the title) that the movie isn’t making him out to be evil nor especially sympathetic. He is trying to stay alive in the midst of social and military conflict. He doesn’t manage, but not for lack of trying. The movie’s many action scenes are tense and powerful, the images are often poetic, and with Gallo’s great performance on top of that, this has become one of my favorite recent films.
After the initial attack, Gallo is pursued by helicopters and deafened by a rocket strike. He’s interrogated and waterboarded, then escapes when a prisoner transport truck tumbles off-road in what turns out to be Poland. He tries to surrender and make himself known to his captors, but sees a chance and kills a couple of guys instead, escaping into the wilderness – later pursued by dogs and falling into a river to escape. Now he’s in the snow on unfamiliar ground, eating insects and berries to survive, starving, having delusions. He hitches a ride on a logging truck and kills a logger, then in the movie’s weirdest scene, assaults a nursing mother to get milk. He ends up at a sympathetic mute woman’s house (Emmanuelle Seigner of The Ninth Gate and Bitter Moon), for one night of rest and recovery. But by now he’s mortally wounded, escapes on a white horse but doesn’t last long.
As a filmmaker with a puzzling half-century of peculiar projects and long silences and catholic passions behind him, Skolimowski has always been a marginal figure, erratically appearing and helming films so disparate he’s a living disputation to the auteur theory. His work defines him as a searcher, a road movie antihero still looking for his mythical home on the horizon. One of the most interesting nomads in a film culture filthy with them, Skolimowski was cut loose from the Eastern Bloc in the late ’60s and has been roaming the plains of the global industries ever since, coming full circle in his new film, lost in the icy Carpathian wilderness.
It’s a film designed to be noticed, a film about the Afghanistan war that doggedly, even perversely, resists overt politics; an on-location survival saga shot with a recognizable American-indie star (Vincent Gallo) who has not a word of dialogue; a physically rough ordeal that’s meticulously staged and framed on the razor’s edge between pulp excitement and arty poeticism but never quite tumbles into either camp.