Andrzej Munk died in 1961, at 40. He had only directed five (non-documentary) feature films. Despite his short life, he remains one of the giants of Polish cinema. Eroica, produced during the brief artistic thaw in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc that followed Stalin’s death, represents an honest attempt by Polish nationals to come to grips with the spiritual ambiguity that followed the conclusion of World War II and their subsequent annexation by the Soviet Union.
The film is split into two stories, each illustrating the moral quagmire of a noble, defeated national spirit. The first follows Dzidzius Gorkiewicz (Edward Dziewonski) in the latter days of the war, as the Nazi dominion of Poland is beginning to crumble but before the Soviet “liberation.” Dzidzius, by all appearances an inveterate civilian, leaves a pitifully assembled group of irregulars (non-commissioned amateurs) in the resistance in favor of returning home to his wife. However, when he gets back, he finds that a regiment of Hungarian Hussars, following the German army, has been billeted in his house. The Hungarians, visibly bemused by their erstwhile German allies, contact Gorkiewicz about arranging for a shipment of arms to the Polish resistance. Hungary, while ostensibly allied with Germany, sees the end of that alliance coming, and is intent on leaving Poland quickly and quietly (in advance of the notoriously brutal Russian offensive).
Gorkiewicz has no real desire to help the resistance, knowing the war is winding to a close on its own. But he agrees to act as a go-between, as much to get away from his unfaithful wife (whom he catches in a tryst with one of the billeted Hussars) as any real patriotic fervor. This portrayal of the anti-Nazi resistance as laughably ineffective is bracing in its cynicism. It offers no romance or revisionist nostalgia associated with the resistance, as there was in post-war France. Gorkiewicz is caught in the grip of circumstances beyond himself; he wants nothing more than peace but is unable to escape the war.
While the first segment is set in the heart of the war, filled with uncertainty and random violence, the second is functionally removed from any battle, set in a Nazi POW camp filled with remnants of the battered Polish army. The time frame is roughly concurrent with the first segment, as the war is ending. A new influx of prisoners taken from the resistance mingles with a group of embittered and slightly deranged veterans, most of whom have spent five or six years behind the barbed wire fences. The mood is harshly pessimistic: the Polish army is essentially a joke and the officer corps’ efforts to retain military discipline are met with derision by those who actually fought in the war. At the same time, the imprisoned officers are quietly jealous of the newcomers’ combat experience, having only scant memories of their very brief and disastrous 1939 campaign (Poland was conquered in the space of a week).
The one thing that keeps the officers’ morale from totally collapsing is the story of Lieutenant Zawistowski (Tadeusz Lomnicki), purported to have escaped the camp. This reminder of martial courage enables those left behind to summon the dignity necessary to stand upright in the face of unending boredom. It doesn’t matter that Zawitoski’s escape is eventually revealed to be a myth, that he actually fled the guards and hid in the attic of the barracks for the better part of a year. Just the idea of freedom is enough to combat the deathly torpor of the prison camp. The sullen Lieutenant Zak (Józef Kostecki), Zawitoski’s best friend, is tormented by the claustrophobia of the cabins and eventually resolves to escape by any means necessary, even if that means walking into the waiting machine guns of the Nazi guards.
In both segments of Eroica, the Polish attitude towards the inevitable Russian advance is cool, a bit of irony transposed from the Poland of 1944 to the Poland of 1957 (the year of the film’s release). The Red army may have “liberated” the country from the Nazis, but they would immediately impose their own totalitarian order on the besieged and dispirited country. The film is a powerful assertion of identity in the face of cruel happenstance. In a Communist state, controversial or subversive ideas must be masked when presented as art. Eroica presents a picture of a bifurcated country, ostensibly cowed and obeisant to the pressures of Soviet domination, but still seething with recrimination and indignation.