The Cradle

Michael Curtis Nelson

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.

The Cradle

Director: Jan Rybkowski
Cast: Wojciech Pszoniak, Marek Bargielowski, Wanda Neumann, Franciszek Pieczka, Boleslaw Plotnicki
Distributor: Polart
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1974
US DVD Release Date: 2009-03-24

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.