It’s been a year of momentous returns in Polish cinema. One of the country’s most original nonfiction filmmakers, Bogdan Dziworski, made a comeback in May 2014, when he received a retrospective at the Kraków Film Festival and announced that he was at work on a new film. Another Polish auteur, Grzegorz Królikiewicz, marks his return to making features with his new film, Neighbors, which ran in the main competition at the 39th Gdynia Film Festival.
Królikiewicz established his unique style with masterpieces such as 1972’s Through and Through and 1993’s The Case of Bronek Pekosiński. The former was a unique collaboration between Królikiewicz and Dziworski as his cinematographer. Shot in black and white, it astounds with its thematic and visual ferocity as it tells the story of two outcasts who, in spite of finding a common language and love in dire misfortune, nevertheless commit a horrendous crime. Królikiewicz returned to a similarly marginal social sphere with the latter film, in which he famously cast an invalid, alcoholic chess player to play himself.
Neighbors again evokes the Gorky-like lower depths. Nothing could signify this more than the visual refrain of two massive brick walls that create a dark passage, apparently without end. Shabby housing units, desolate post-industrial spaces, and overcrowded stores make up the landscape whose tonality is murky, at times bordering on impenetrability. In these desolate surroundings, husbands and wives engage in mysterious whipping rituals, neighbors shove and push in line for meat, or humiliate the weakest among them, but also, in the most dramatic scene, engage in a heart transplant, an act of utter selfishness.
Based on a short story collection by Adrian Markowski, Neighbors has a largely episodic structure. The death of two of the protagonists in a heart transplant damns science for its inability to counter human suffering, but it also robs us of any closure. But then Królikiewicz exacts so many passionate performances from his actors that we can’t help but be intrigued by them, as they oscillate between brutality, buffoonery, and grace. Notably, real-life singer Marek Dyjak creates a brutish yet loveable persona, and Katarzyna Hermann enthuses her character—a wife who demands to be whipped—with daredevil quirkiness.
A cumulative, impressionistic portrait, the film should be taken very seriously yet with a grain of salt. Gossip, hearsay, urban legends—nothing in Królikiewicz is what it appears to be, with the everyday grotesque, yet not devoid of texture. And if Neighbors may be nightmarish to some, with one scene featuring a wondrous, giant carp’s mouth as it’s being carried from a store for slaughter at home (a Polish Christmas ritual not always observed due to its goriness), it’s also full of folk-like vividness and, most of all, so intricately composed that one might sometimes forget that this a film and not a moving painting.
At the conference, Królikiewicz, who teaches at the prestigious Łódź Film School, stressed the importance of learning from his students. “Once you’re away from making feature films for 20 years, it’s almost as if you’ve never made one,” he said. More than anything, his words betray a freshness of seeing—a freshness, boldness, and originality that would have been somewhat scarce in Gdynia this year, had it not been for the Young Cinema competition. Under the new artistic director, Michał Oleszczyk, the section was moved from its traditionally unimposing quarters to the main venue, the Musical Theater.
It was in this section that I saw the most daring work, including Kalina Alabrudzińska’s short Lena and Me, about a young mother who finds herself revolting against her body’s changes after having a baby. The premise isn’t new, but Alabrudzińska transforms it when she sends her protagonist off to her friend’s apartment, where Lena fixes up her own psychologist in an orgy. Confidently navigating between discomfort and farce, the film refuses to be just another tale of an unhappy young mother saddled with biological burdens. I was similarly taken by Kordian Kądziela’s Larp, in which a poorly adjusted teenager with a deep love for sci-fi spends his time trolling around in the woods with his amateur-friends, inventing games and magical quests. Kądziela draws out so much heartfelt laughter at the teenage achiness of his character’s plight, and has so much fun in the sci-fi sequences, that his enthusiasm for the material is genuinely infectious. Also notable was Joaquin Del Paso’s Siamese, a tale of young misfit lovers whose wanderings reveal no predetermined aim but work up tension through odd, desolate scenery and striking characters, and Bartłomiej Żmuda’s Sandland, in which a straightforward story of an ill-fitting triangle takes a sudden, unexpected turn.
But perhaps the most original work belonged to Bartek Konopka. Konopka’s short From Bed Thou Rose was shown in the Polish Independent Cinema Review. Among his earlier films are 2009’s inventive Ballad About a Goat, in which he explored social ills from the point of view of goats given to poor families. In Rabbit à la Berlin, from 2004, he used the animal POV again, depicting the dramatic story of the Berlin Wall through the eyes of rabbits that lived in the area and, when the Wall went up, got trapped between the East and the West. Both a political parable and a spoof on nature TV channels, Konopka’s film made use of archival material, often to surprising ends.
In a way, Konopka is back to the metaphorical approach in From Bed Thou Rose, narrating a single man’s ups and downs—and Poland’s transformations from communism to rampant capitalism to, it seems, capitalism with humane face—through the central image of a bed. Konopka’s symbolism, which echoes earlier Polish masters, Tadeusz Różewicz and Wojciech Wiszniewski, is married to striking camera angles and imagery. In one memorable scene, a dense crowd floods through the imaginary walls of the protagonist’s room, a somber revolutionary tide that threatens to carry him away.
And while most awards at this year’s Gdynia Film Festival went to technically deft though fairly safe films, Konopka and the young generation’s ability to tell edgier, brasher stories left me hopeful for the following years.
The Gdynia Film Festival ran from September 15—20.
You can follow Ela Bittencourt on Twitter here.