The Cruise (Rejs, 1970) is the most challenging film in the collection, for an international audience at least. It is a highly regarded (in Poland) satirical comedy with political overtones: through the actions, behavior and speech of a series of characters, a weekend river cruise highlights some of the absurdities of the Communist system.
The humour is knockabout, even slapstick, and much of the more obvious satire is a little trying; for example, the committee style onboard entertainments event and the character who is constantly imposing a ‘dialectical’ template on occurrences.
But it’s the less obvious comedy elements that pose a problem for a non-Polish audience. There are many language based jokes that don’t quite come across; perhaps it is also hard for non-Poles to understand the nuances and pervasiveness of the bureaucratic mindset during the period when the film was made.
On the other hand, there’s no denying that Piwowski has great observational talents: there’s a plethora of ‘real-life’ characters in the film and they make it very watchable.
Camouflage (Barwy ochronne, 1977) is a sophisticated comedy of manners in which two academics, a younger and an older man (the former idealistic, the latter disillusioned and cynical) compete over their respective world views during a residential summer school.
The drama is very dialogue driven (this is a drama of expositions and counter-arguments, after all) but the film is brilliantly staged and deliciously photographed, emanating a palpable atmosphere of sultry summer passions and their inevitable disillusion.
The film grips in several ways: as an engrossing and thoroughly credible depiction of members of a compromised intellectual elite; as a moral drama – the war of world views; it exudes sexual tensions and it fairly wallows in highlighting the self-interested corruption of Communist Party bureaucrats. Finally, it scoops up all these elements and delivers them to the viewer in an utterly tantalising manner. There can’t be many films that make a situation as niche and microcosmic as pedagogical attitudes at a summer school appear relevant and gripping!
Shivers (Dreszcze, 1981) won the Silver Bear at the 1982 Berlin Film Festival, and it is easy to see why: it is the compelling story of how a religious young man becomes a Communist Party fanatic in the aftermath of the Posnan June uprising of 1956. It features a great performance from Tomasz Hudziec as Tomek and some oneiric imagery that is narratively anchored yet as lustrous as anything in Tarkovsky.
Tomek is sent to a prestigious communist youth camp after his father is arrested by the secret police. There he encounters both other hormonal boys and an alluring older woman.
Shivers is the most accessible of the three films in the collection – it ticks many of the boxes audiences will expect from a good Eastern European film of the period: it looks great, the bildungsroman aspect is inherently dramatic; and the film’s depiction of Tomek’s ‘sentimental education’ as an erotically charged politicization … well, that mixes sex, sexual rivalry and politics to great effect.
It is almost incomprehensible that Shivers hasn’t been available in the UK before – it appears not to have been released here at cinemas. So, this is your opportunity to see a truly forgotten piece of classic Polish cinema.
The nice thing about this collection is that it offers a range of experiences for the open-minded viewer, from dramas of fascination and propagandist indoctrination to an exploration of conflicting ethical concepts and sledge-hammer satire.
Review by Colin Dibben
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Polish Cinema Classics Volume 3 is out on DVD on 25 May 2015.