Gdynia Film Festival 2014 Day 3: The Citizen / Warsaw 44

Two Main Competition films that explore Poland's past: one treating it as picaresque comedy, the other as harrowing special effects spectacle.

As demonstrated by the recent success of films as diverse as In Darkness (2011), Aftermath (2012) and Ida (2013) (to name but three), Poland’s turbulent and often traumatic history remains a topic of great concern for contemporary filmmakers. This interest is evident again in a large number of the films screening at Gdynia this year, of which Jerzy Stuhr’s picaresque comedy, The Citizen (Obywatel), must rank as one of the most curious.

Stuhr’s movie charts 60 years of Polish history from the ’50s to the present, from the perspective of one Jan Bratek, a man who finds himself at the centre, or on the periphery, of various significant events. Bratek, it emerges, has occupied various roles in his life, from milkman to Solidarity hero, all the while nursing the hurt of an early lost love. (The lead role is shared by Stuhr and his son Maciej.)

Covering the crisis of 1968, the first free elections, and Poland’s transformation into a “free” country, Bratek’s experiences are presented in intriguingly non-linear flashbacks from the hospital bed where he ends up after being felled by a “Telewizja Polska” sign.

Stuhr’s intention with The Citizen is surely to present Bratek as an “Everyman” figure representative of his generation, and to thereby probe Polish attitudes to Catholicism, Communism and (most problematically here) Jewishness through the years. However, the tone and the satirical targets of the movie sometimes seem muddled.

Though it entirely lacks that film’s considerable emotional impact, the movie that The Citizen most recalls is Forrest Gump (1994). Like Hanks’s iconic hero, Bratek is, to paraphrase Iris Murdoch, “an accidental man”, and a momma’s boy, to boot. And Stuhr’s movie — fitfully amusing but often equally irritating — looks likely to spark almost as many contradictory readings, as many acclamations and denunciations from Left and Right, as Zemeckis’s film did exactly 20 years ago.

Warsaw 44 (2014)

Destined to be more divisive still is Jan Komasa’s extraordinary Warsaw 44 (Miasto 44) which dramatises the Warsaw Uprising in this, the 70th year since the outbreak of that doomed insurgency. It’s an event depicted in numerous Polish films and documentaries, of course. But Komasa’s approach is utterly distinctive, turning the experiences of a group of teenagers involved in the fighting into a staggering special effects-strewn spectacle.

Warsaw 44 is not a movie designed to inspire much reflection: rather, it seeks and gets a primal, bodily response from the viewer. Beginning in a relatively low-key realist mode, the film gradually shifts into a surreal phantasmagoria, with its hero and heroine practically becoming semi-mythical, symbolic beings by the end.

I was moved, gripped and often shaken by the film, even while being appalled by its strategies, which are sometimes those of a heart-pumping, rock-scored video game. (One sequence certainly takes the “Steven Spielberg Munich Prize” for most spectacularly inappropriate sex scene.)

There’s no denying the distinctiveness of Komasa’s vision here, and the impact of the film’s expressionistic exploration of sacrifice and resilience, which is encapsulated in its indelible final image. You’ll likely either adore it or abhor it, but, either way, Warsaw 44 is unmissable, provocative cinema.

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Above image: The Citizen (2014)