Wojciech Smarzowski’s Rose is at times so brutal that its more tender touches can startle. The 2011 film opens with Tadeusz (Marcin Dorociński) lying wounded in the ruins of World War II Warsaw, watching helplessly as the woman we guess to be his wife is raped and murdered. By the movie’s end there are multiple rape scenes, in present time and in flashbacks.
But Rose is, above all, a love story. Tadeusz, now a widower, arrives in a Masurian village to tell a strange woman, Rose (Agata Kulesza), that she’s also been widowed. With restrained silence, she receives a mangled photograph of her husband as proof of his death. The year is 1945, the war’s end, and Poland has been plundered and burned, its fields so littered with mines that they can’t be plowed. Like the landscape, Rose and Tadeusz bear deep emotional scars: he’s a former Home Army soldier, a persona non grata after the communists rather than the exiled government in London take power; she’s a Masur, a group of people who, as the opening caption explains, are culturally distinct but had once been subjugated by the Germans, only to find themselves at the mercy of Poles following the war. Rose mistrusts Tadeusz at first, as she does all the others. And if their romance seems somewhat inevitable, it’s saved by Smarzowski’s lavishing more attention on the portrait of a woman who must survive, come what may, rather than on amorous advances.
In her resilience and scorn for self-pity, Rose echoes other familiar war heroines: Emilia in Krzysztof Zanussi’s A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984) and, more recently, the unnamed protagonist in Max Färberböck’s A Woman from Berlin, based on an autobiographical account. With her gaunt looks and eyes permanently squinted, as if she were espying danger, readying for a counter-attack, Kulesza creates Rose as a cool-headed pragmatist. But like the Kaszubians depicted in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Rose doesn’t feel as if she’s German, or Polish, and so faces abuse from all sides. Her own community labels her “a whore” for having slept with the Soviet officers bivouacked on her farm.
Privy to Rosa’s suffering (she miscarries and ends up with a carcinoma after a botched-up procedure), Tadeusz stands up to the pillagers and haters. His refusal to join his former Home Army colleague turned Security Service (SB) thug, and his scorn for baseness and servility make him a clear target. In an act that borders on martyrdom, he remains at Rose’s side, searching for scarce morphine, while her carcinoma worsens, and the communists close in. Unable to save Rose, in a startling twist he marries her daughter, Jadwiga (Malwina Buss), to prevent her deportation. Captured after the wedding, he endures savage interrogations. He reemerges, after an undefined number of years, from a train transport—ostensibly from a labor camp.
Smarzowski does a fine job of capturing the tangled political and nationalist agendas: Amid civilians of all stripes eyeing the fertile Masurian lands, and apparatchiks ready to claim just about anything, friends and foes come in similar guises. Tadeusz and Rose’s neighbor, Wladek (Jacek Braciak), a repatriate from Wilno, is nearly shot by Soviet soldiers. Wladek accepts Rose’s help, moving his family into her house after his own burns down, but leaves the village after his wife’s rape. A victim of violence, he nevertheless has a leering, possessive look that makes his loyalty self-interested, at best. In the film’s final sequence, he reemerges again, this time as the likely new owner of Rose’s farm—a befitting coda for a story that mines the thorny intersect of political calculation, opportunism, and fate.