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The Past and Present Blur at the Warsaw Film Festival

A yearning for tolerance united many of the festival’s films.

The Past and Present Blur at the Warsaw Film Festival
Photo: Warsaw Film Festival

In Warsaw, Poland, the Palace of Culture and Science is almost impossible to miss. Sometimes derisively referred to as a “wedding cake,” the building is a vast, sprawling structure with a wide base and a high tower. It has a blocky shape that belies its communist roots, and is dotted with ornamentation that suggests Gothic influences. Imagine a shorter cross between the Empire State Building and the Notre-Dame Cathedral. At night, an LED lighting system bathes the Palace of Culture and Science in beautifully lurid colors that suggest the cinematography of a classic giallo—and, indeed, it would’ve made a wonderful setting for either version of Suspiria.

While I was staying in the city for the 34th Warsaw Film Festival, I often used the Palace of Culture and Science as a compass to find my back to my hotel after long walks through the city. I made the touristy mistake of complimenting the building’s immensity to a few of the Polish artists I befriended. A gift to Poland from the Soviet Union that took three years to build, the socialist realist structure is symbolic of the Iron Curtain era, of communism as a totalitarian force. (It was originally called the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science.) Which is to say that tallest building in Poland is much more to its people than a compass. It’s a monument to darker times, and many other buildings in Warsaw have similarly mixed legacies. Such times may be resurfacing, of course, as Poland joins the United States and other countries in a move toward the far right, driven by panic over immigration.

Warsaw’s spellbindingly varied architecture physicalizes Poland’s multiple eras, most pointedly that of the Nazi occupation. In the city, a communist structure can stand by an Old World-style building that wasn’t destroyed in WWII, which might stand in turn by an abstract modern glass skyscraper that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in, say, Dubai. Meanwhile, there are plenty of museums and gardens, the latter of which are astonishing. Especially impressive are the Royal Gardens, which boast an immense sculpture of legendary French-Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, who’s fervently claimed by Poland as a national hero. But even these places are haunted, as the Royal Gardens were once claimed by the Nazis as private quarters.

Whatever its baggage, the Palace of Culture and Science is utilized as the primary hub of the Warsaw Film Festival, housing a theater, café, bar, and other shops that are of use to festivalgoers. People converse on the steps leading to the theater, Kinoteka, or in the café, which served pastries and espresso that would prove pivotal to powering through successive films. Like many festivals, the WFF thrums with the energy of possibility, and the interior of the Palace of Culture and Science is unambiguously romantic—open and cavernous, with the palatial texture that one could once expect from theaters before they became corporatized clones of one another.
The films that played at this year’s WFF were also haunted. Though few of the selections were explicitly Polish—a mini festival within the festival, devoted to classic Polish cinema, played a few days after I left Warsaw—the films that I saw here were devoted to unshakable pasts and to the lingering effects of political atrocity. Documentaries, fictional films, and shorts from such far-flung places as Albania, Romania, Spain, France, Hungary, China, Kazakhstan, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Russia, Mexico, and the United States highlighted these countries’ respective cultural demons, following subjects and protagonists who assumed personal burdens for their governments at large. I asked a programmer if this pervading thematic was intentional, and she stressed the need for “socially important” cinema.

This obsession with social importance occasionally led the WFF to dead ends. The opening night selection, Amos Gitai’s A Tramway in Jerusalem, is a relentlessly didactic exploration of the eponymous city’s religious and political viewpoints, most notably concerning the controversy over the legitimacy of the Palestinian state. True to its title, the film follows characters who come and go on a tram, including a man who’s played by Mathieu Amalric at his dewiest. Certain moments are resonant and entrancing, such as a shot of Amalric’s character enjoying the music played by another passenger on the tram. But there’s little vitality or sense of discovery here: Most of the film’s anecdotes have been included to prove or voice a variety of theses, suggesting a Paul Haggis production that’s been leeched of melodrama.

By contrast, Marco Wilms’s documentary Metal Politics Taiwan could stand to be more engaged with the implications of its subject matter. Wilms has landed on a fascinating theme that’s relevant to contemporary global discourse: the intersection between politics and overt entertainment. The filmmaker follows Freddy Lim, a famous “black metal” singer who enters Taiwanese parliament, utilizing his popularity to attempt reform. Wilms was granted extensive access to Lim, which appears to have taken a toll on the film’s sense of perspective, as Metal Politics Taiwan is less a living and breathing film than a prolonged advertisement for its central subject. Scrubbed of messiness, the film refuses to examine Lim as a human being, or to probe the ironies of electing an entertainer to office. Namely, that the person in question is a trained manipulator who comes armed with an unquestioning coterie of admirers.

After seeing other films that were unable to sufficiently digest their themes, such as Arto Halonen’s ridiculously overcooked political thriller The Guardian Angel, my filmic experience at the WFF began to turn around. Dmitriy Meskhiev’s Two Tickets Back, from Russia, is tonally and narratively all over the place, running the gamut from youthful coming-of-age film to familial tragedy to a bonding story that suggests a volatile cover of Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon. Yet this adventurousness gives Two Tickets Back a peculiar intensity that’s harnessed by the performances of Sergey Garmash and Mariya Skuratova. The actors’ vividly contrasting body language subtly expresses the divide, and the bond, between their respective father and daughter characters, emotionally grounding a potentially contrived genre exercise. Garmash’s heavy, regretful visage is especially haunting.

It Must Schwing

As a jazz fan, I eagerly awaited Eric Friedler’s documentary It Must Schwing—The Blue Note Story, from Germany, which tells of the formation of one of the musical form’s most influential labels in the United States. The New York City-based Blue Note Records was started by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, two German immigrants who fled the ascension of Nazi Germany. Working side jobs, focusing their entire remainder of their lives on the label, often at the expense of their romantic relationships, Lion and Wolff cultivated a recognizable musical and branding style, recording Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Sonny Rollins, among many others.

Throughout It Must Schwing, Friedler interviews a diverse group of jazz artists, mixing talking-head footage with animated sequences that dramatize personal anecdotes as well as stories of the day-by-day experience at Blue Note Records. Friedler captures the intricate nitty-gritty details of running a business, while sketching Lion and Wolff as two distinctively different sorts of producers. Lion was the extroverted ladies’ man, while Wolff was the private artist in disguise (his iconic photos served as the covers for many of the record label’s albums and helped to define the company’s aesthetic and even the mythology of American jazz music). The documentary is lively, moving, and intimate, fusing the personal and the political in a manner that serves as an ideal of this festival’s socially minded proclivities.

Despite much talk in the culture of the “personal” and the “political” though, such boundaries don’t neatly exist. The personal is the political, and vice versa, as people bleed diaphanously into their respective cultures whether or not they wish to admit it. This idea is ham-handedly broached by A Tramway in Jerusalem and The Guardian Angel but is more feverishly mined by two Kazakhstani entries that played at the festival: Tolegan Baitukenov’s Satash and Emir Baigazin’s The River. Both films utilize genre elements, particularly of the American western, to suggest that the past and present are as easily blurred as the personal and the political, and both use Kazakhstan’s strikingly stark landscapes as signifiers of alienation and the tension existing between individuals and their government.

Baitukenov, who I spoke to at length while I was in Warsaw, is a devout admirer of John Ford, which shows in Satash. In the tradition of many westerns, the film follows a lone individual of uncompromised moral standing as he faces off against a group of vicious thieves and killers. The end result of such a conflict is inevitable, but Baitukenov doesn’t allow the violence to be cathartic or celebratory. People in the film die slowly and agonizingly, and long stretches of silence suggest the murders to be fissures in the psychological fabric of this society. Satash is a rueful refutation of the American western’s most insidiously disreputable qualities, particularly its lust for bloodshed as a testament to insurmountable will.

The River is stranger and more demanding than Satash, alternately more precious and poetic. Following five young brothers as they wrestle with the authority of their father and with the influence of a callous modern cousin, Baigazin makes damn sure that you know he knows his way around a scope aspect ratio. At times, the brothers’ evolving relationships are so rigidly expressed by the frames and frames-within-frames in the film that you feel as if you can detect chalk marks on the floor to note the blocking. However, Baigazin lightens his touch when he gets to the river of the film’s title, lingering on the brothers as they enjoy moments of fleeting peacefulness and solidarity. In these sequences, The River evokes the cinema of Tarkovsky, informing the passage of time with metaphysical poignancy.

After spending several days seeing earnest, despairing political cinema, and having earnest, despairing political conversations with artists and intellectuals from all over the world—most of whom were liberals feeling understandably crushed by the continued, seemingly unstoppable ascension of the far right—I craved something lurid, fetishistic, and sexy. I got my wish with Vincent Mariette’s Savage, from France, and Carlos Vermut’s Quién Te Cantará, from Spain. Both are melodramas following pairs of people who’re estranged from their respective societies, and who use their imaginations to broker some sort of bridge back to the mainstream world.


In Savage, Lily-Rose Depp gives a star-making performance as Laura, a teenager staying at a camp in the south of France who’s physically and intellectually far ahead of the boys trying to get into her pants. Instead, she’s drawn to a middle-aged horror novelist named Paul, played by Laurent Lafitte, who’s potentially perpetuating a myth of a wild leopard that’s stalking the camp. Depp and Lafitte make for a divinely erotic couple, not only for their considerable attractiveness, but for their poignant, spellbinding dramatization of the sort of ennui that can seemingly only be broken by the wild roar of a jungle cat. The film is stylish, ridiculous, and intoxicating. And certain sequences, particularly one set at an outdoor pool at night, are worthy of the Jungian kink of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, which was similarly obsessed by the link between unhinged animals and deeply repressed sexual longing.

Quién Te Cantará pivots on a different and quite common daydream: a fan meeting a hero and getting to influence the latter’s work. Lila (Najwa Nimri) is an acclaimed singer who hasn’t produced anything in years. Told by her manager that she needs to make a comeback to keep paying the bills, Lila meets Violeta (Eva Llorach), a dead ringer who adores her work. Violet begins to coach the despondent Lila, and their collaboration explodes the respective suppressions with which each woman is struggling, particularly Violeta, who is tormented by a monstrous daughter who blackmails the woman with suicide threats. Vermut underscores the quasi-Bergmanish nature of this scenario with penetrating close-ups of each character, though his empathetic grasp of the mechanics of a “woman’s picture” is reminiscent of the late-period films of Pedro Almodóvar. Nimri and Llorach are both heartbreaking.

These selections are representative of my experience at this year’s WFF. Sadly, I saw few of the festival’s award winners, with the exception of Moon Hotel Kabul, which netted Anca Damien the prize for best director. (The film’s acclaim is justified, as it has a spry sense of misdirection, morphing from a political thriller to a sad and atmospheric rumination of a lost life.) I also regret that I didn’t see more Polish films, though Natalia Koniarz’s 22-minute short, Dam, has continued to linger in my mind. Following a weekend getaway between an aging alcoholic and his adult son, Koniarz explores addiction without indulging in the platitudes or histrionics that are typical of such narratives. The filmmaker is movingly in sync with the son, matter-of-factly accepting the alcoholic whether he’s cracking a beer early in the morning or pissing all over the porch of their cabin. Gradually the man dries out and sees the majesty of the wilderness, and we come to realize that the son has given his father a profound gift of tolerance. A yearning for such a gift, in the face of an increasingly inhospitable world, united the films of this WFF.

The Warsaw Film Festival ran from October 12—21.

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