I typically do not do any background reading before I check out any film – I prefer to go into them blind. I figure that a really good story, told well enough, will still resonate with me even if I don’t have any background. The only downside to this approach is that sometimes a story is indeed well-told, but I’m just far-enough removed from the context that I feel like I’m missing some things.
There were parts of this Polish work which had me feeling this way. Set immediately after the Second World War (and I do mean immediately – one of the first scenes features a crowd listening to a news report about German leaders signing the peace treaty on VE Day), this story is about the confusing power struggle that took place in post-War Poland, between Poland’s Communist “Workers’ Party” leaders and the more nationalist Polish resistance movement, the Home Army. Ultimately the Communist Party won out, but the Home Army apparently gave them a run for their money for a while.
Or at least they tried. In our opening scene, we see three Home Army soldiers – Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski), Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) and Drewnowski (Bogumił Kobiela) – staked outside a small rural chapel, lying in wait to assassinate Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński) the local Secretary of the Polish Workers’ Party. Maciek and Andrzej are joking around a little too much and nearly miss their shot when Drewnowski warns them a car’s coming – but Maciek gets his gun together in time, shooting both passengers in the car and fleeing with the others for the nearby city of Ostrowiec to check in with their own leader. ….Which is how they learn that Szczuka wasn’t in that car – he was in the one after. So they still need to finish the job.
Fortunately Szczuka is also bound for Ostrowiec, to attend a banquet hosted by the mayor – who’s also Drewnowski’s boss – where he will surprise the mayor with a promotion. Maciek spots Szczuka checking into a local hotel, and cons his way into getting the room next door – he’ll take care of Szczuka overnight, he tells Andrzej. In the meantime, they can maybe let their hair down a little – there’s a cute girl tending bar in the hotel, maybe they can hang out with her.
Maciek does end up getting quite friendly with bartender Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska), and their whirlwind connection – leading to Maciek questioning whether his job is worth it – is the bulk of the remaining plot. But there are about three other subplots and a couple of character studies thrown in as well, and there were a couple points I was confused how a given scene fit into the story. Some were enjoyable enough on their own merits – like when Drewnowski hears about his boss’s promotion before it’s announced, has a few “celebratory” drinks and turns up at the banquet completely plastered, dancing on the table and hosing everyone down with a fire extinguisher. There’s also a surprisingly poignant moment when an aristocrat character – who only wants to retreat back into his genteel pre-War life – convinces a night club band to play a polonaise for the last handful of guests, encouraging the exhausted guests to join him in that one last dance.
But Maciek’s crisis of conscience over Szczuka’s killing is the main story. He falls hard for Krystyna – harder than either planned – and both sense that they might each find a better life with each other than they currently have. But severing their respective ties – especially in post-war Poland, where the Workers’ Party is getting stronger by the minute – will prove especially difficult.
It’s also shot beautifully with some eye-catching moments. The hell of it is that I can’t really talk about any of them, as it would spoil the story – but there’s a moment with Maciek backlit by fireworks that was particularly well-done, and another moment with Maciek at a garbage dump towards the end (again, can’t clarify). The polonaise dance scene is also eye-catching – the club is lit only by the rising sun coming through the windows, and the camera is focusing on the exhaustion on the dancer’s faces as they half-ass their way through the traditional dance, the aristocrat too caught up in his reverie to notice.
I may have been confused on occasion, but it’s the kind of confusion that is prompting me to speak to a Polish colleague about if he’s ever heard of this film and find out what he thought.