This understated 1974 epic tells the story of the birth of the Polish state through a psychological portrait of the leader responsible. Mieszko 1, in defiance of his father’s dying wish to keep his lands isolated from the Germans to the west and to make Mieszko’s younger brother his heir, consolidates his rule, conquers neighboring territories, converts to Christianity, and allies with Holy Roman Emperor Otto 1, thus bringing Poland into being.
The bulk of The Cradle’s action takes place in flashbacks, recollected by the ailing Mieszko (Wojciech Pszoniak) as he reassesses his life the night before the crucial 972 battle of Cedynia, which pitted Polish forces against a combined German army of Saxons, Serbs, and others angered by the Poles’ occupation of the strategic Wolin region.
Aleksander Scibor-Rylski’s compact script enables director Jan Rybkowski to cover a lot of history in under two hours. A tense parley across the river economically establishes the conflict between Poles and Germans, as well as the resentment and respect the brothers feel for one another, while the flashback structure distills the past into manageable parts.
A visit from a witch who challenges Mieszko to appease the spirits of the dead lends an air of fate befitting the import of the historic battle to come. Mieszko, plagued by guilt for having disobeyed his father Ziemiomysl (Boleslaw Plotnicki) and cheated his brother Czcibór (Marek Bargielowski), takes the witch’s advice to heart, and worries that he will lose the fight if he can’t make peace with the dead. Caught between folk religion and monotheism, just as he is caught between tribal and national politics, Mieszko ends his evening of self-searching with a dramatic direct address to Ziemiomysl (and the camera), justifying his actions.
Alternately majestic and intimate cinematography by Marek Nowicki emphasizes both the historical and personal theaters of action in The Cradle. Extreme long shots of gathering forces stake out the epic scale of events, while tight interior scenes show the tribal, familial, and psychological machinations behind nation-building.
Rybkowski and Nowicki make the most of the dark, cluttered interiors of the Poles’ medieval dwellings. Characters are usually filmed behind objects: the flames of a brazier, hanging animal skins, weapons and armor. After Mieszko announces the death of his father to the assembled nobles, he and Czcibór circle the room, disappearing and reappearing behind the other men, until Mieszko forces Czcibór to tell the lie that their father has chosen Mieszko as leader. Their movements capture perfectly the gamesmanship at work.
Scenes of falconry, Ziemiomysl’s grand funeral, complete with keening women and funeral pyre, the men’s armor, and Mieszko’s ring fort give the film an air of authenticity, especially since Rybkowski treats all the period details naturalistically. There are no ostentatious, lingering shots of the fort, for example, as there often are of CGI structures in present-day historical drams such as Troy.
Jerzy Maksymiuk’s score, by turns modern and medieval, matches the atmosphere of tension and dread (as well as the rare moments of levity) scene for scene: martial during the moments preceding battle, solemn and yearning when Mieszko meets his wife-to-be.
Unfortunately, The Cradle appears to have been rather crudely digitized, projected and captured rather than scanned. The frame shakes slightly throughout, and ragged edges form the top and bottom of the picture. Either the quality of the print was poor or the transfer process has washed out the image. Tracking shots jerk. Dialog and the score are clear enough, but the subtitles are full of ungrammatical sentences, such as “We may loose if we wait”, which suggests that the film wasn’t resubtitled for this release.
Given the historical subject of the film, and the fact that it was made at the height of the Cold War, it’s disappointing that the DVD provides no context for either The Cradle’s subject or its production (Note: earlier videotape versions translate the title as The Nest). Extras are limited to filmographies for Rybkowski, Pszoniak, and Bargielowski; and lists of a few dozen other Polart features. As for the latter, the titles on the DVD covers, presented 12 to a screen, are barely legible.
Many aspects of The Cradle recommend it as propaganda. The battle of Cedynia clearly had the status of approved history, since not long after the end of World War II, Poland’s Soviet-sponsored government placed a commemorative marker there. The portrait of an eastern strongman defeating and taking land from the Germans would have resonated with the official Eastern Bloc narrative that Warsaw Pact countries were locked in a standoff with a decadent, belligerent West, as would have the nationalism inherent in Mieszko’s declaration to his father that “Here must be only one thought, one faith and one hand”. Perhaps, too, presentation of the Christianization of Poland as a political expediency would have pleased authorities suspicious of the Church’s potential for subversion.
But as is often the case with films about approved subjects in totalitarian countries, The Cradle undercuts the communist worldview in ways perhaps too subtle for censors to notice. Czcibór remains faithful to his brother, and for all Mieszko’s imperial ambition, he appears happiest when with his band of retainers. This, along with Mieszko’s embrace of tribal folk religion, places local and familial allegiance over the nationalism the film ostensibly champions. One could even make a case that The Cradle prefigures the rise of Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarity labor movement, and Poles’ eventual rejection of communism in 1989 elections.