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Eroica, 1957

DziewonskiPrefaced as a heroic symphony in two parts, Eroica is a darkly comic, intelligent, and unorthodox chronicle of the Polish resistance against the Germans in World War II, a movement commonly referred to as the Warsaw Uprising. The first movement, Scherzo alla polacca, opens to a shot of an apprehensive and reluctant militia soldier named Gorkiewicz (Edward Dziewonski) evading his conscription by running away during the chaos of an air raid. Upon returning home, he discovers that his attractive young wife, Zosia (Barbara Polomska), has been entertaining a charismatic and genial Hungarian officer named Istvan Kolya (Leon Niemczyk). With the imminent retreat of Hungarian military personnel from the city, Istvan enlists Gorkiewicz to broker a sale of armaments to the officers of the uprising. Ironically, Gorkiewicz's efforts to profit from the uncertainty of war delivers him into the throes of the national struggle. The second movement, Ostinato lugubre, chronicles the resigned existence of prisoners of war in a converted sanitarium POW camp, as seen through the eyes of a new inmate named Kurzawa (Józef Nowak). Suffering from the passivity of interminable boredom (but under the relatively comfortable internment conditions defined by the Geneva Convention), the prisoners retain their hopes for an eventual flight to freedom, encouraged by the legendary escape of Lieutenant Zawistowski (Tadeusz Lomnicki). However, when Kurzawa accidentally stumbles into the unusual activities of Turek (Kazimierz Rudzki) and Marianek (Wojciech Siemion) one evening, he becomes an integral ally in perpetuating the morale and optimism of the prisoners.

Andrzej Munk presents a clever, engaging, and insightful satire on duty, courage, and heroism in Eroica. By correlating the sensoral tone of an orchestral symphony to the idolatry and heroic myth associated with the Warsaw Uprising, Munk reflects the solidarity and strength of character of ordinary people in times of profound national uncertainty. The animated and jovial first movement becomes a leitmotif for Gorkiewicz's hedonism, trepidation, and instinct for self-preservation that assists in his safe passage as a courier for the resistance. Similarly, the somber and threnodic second movement proves to be an elegy for the idealization of a war hero. Inevitably, Eroica demystifies the quixotic, archetypal image of heroism and martyrdom to reveal the underlying dignity and and perseverance of the human struggle for nationalism, autonomy, independence, and self-determination.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Czlowiek na torze, 1957
[Man on the Tracks]

Opalinski At dusk, the impressive sight of a steam engine passenger train bisects the horizon, traversing an empty stretch of track under construction near a rural train station. The train engineer Zapora (Zygmunt Listkiewicz) and his junior assistant Nowak (Roman Klosowski) perform a station check of the semaphores and, upon seeing only one light on, proceeds through the intersection at normal speed before coming into an abrupt and violent stop at the unexpected sight of a man standing on the tracks. A cursory inspection of the accident site reveals that a second light source had been removed from the semaphores, creating a false indication of all clear in what was intended to be a warning sign to proceed slowly through the intersection in order to minimize risk of derailment on the tracks undergoing repair. On the side of the tracks lies the body of a recently retired engineer named Orzechowski (Kazimierz Opalinski). From these suspicious (and seemingly damning) set of physical clues, a team of accident investigators that include high-ranking officials from the railroad workers union gather at a stationhouse and attempt to recreate the circumstances behind the tragic incident. Volunteering to provide the initial testimony is an ambitious and opportunistic stationmaster named Tuszka (Zygmunt Maciejewski) who testifies on his strained professional relationship with the exacting engineer, first as a subordinate whose mechanical oversights never escaped Orzechowski's meticulous eye, and subsequently, as a superior unable to compel his senior employee into implementing unproven (and clearly substandard) practices in the name of worker efficiency. Implicitly revealing his own insecurities towards his vocational competence and unearned position of authority, Tuszka sets the stage for Orzechowski's character assassination.

Based on a screenplay by novelist and screenwriter Jerzy Stefan Stawinski (whose novel Kanal was adapted for the Andrzej Wajda film), Man on the Tracks is a penetrating and trenchant examination of conscience, individualism, and obsolescence. From the rhythmic introductory title sequence shot from the rails of a passing train, Andrzej Munk presents an intrinsically human perspective from beneath (and subliminally crushed by) the interminable wheels of progress and industrialization. The inferential metaphor is further reinforced in repeated images of fuel servicing, coal shoveling, checkout inspections, and mechanical repairs that depict workers as faceless, commodified labor (note the soot that repeatedly cover the assistants' face, a figurative erasure of identity that is subsequently underscored in Orzechowski's hesitant pause before recognizing Zapora at a public park) that serve the industrial machines, a theme that similarly pervades Wajda's depiction of turn of the century, pre-communist Lodz in The Promised Land. Filming in primarily dark tones and framing a procedural, reconstructive mystery within the idealized, competitive environment of Soviet-modeled Stakhanovite worker efficiency demonstrations (a sociopolitical incentive that Wajda also subsequently explores in the seminal film, Man of Marble), Munk incisively captures the pervasive psychological atmosphere of distrust, paranoia, and denunciation that inevitably resulted from widely reported acts of sabotage (from both willful resistance to the movement and unintended consequences of detrimental practices resulting from unrealistic and goals) that, at times, unfairly led to both over-inflated commendation and public scapegoating at the seeming whim of (politically motivated) fate. It is this systematic marginalization of the individual for the purported benefit of a collective that is inevitably captured in the bittersweet irony of the film, the human consequence of social revolution reduced to cynical scrutiny, needless self-sacrifice, and anonymous heroism.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.

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