1980-1989: Poland Leads Eastern Europe Into the Abyss

The Path of Most Resistance

During the season of its first flower­ing, at the outset of this decade, Halina Bortnowska, one of the foremost theorists of Polish Soli­darity, characterized the move­ment as an expression of the country’s “subjectivity,” by which, she went on to explain, she meant Poland’s renewed ca­pacity for acting “as the subject instead of the object of its history.” The distinc­tion was a fertile one — and perhaps most evocative at a purely grammatical level. Almost continuously for the past two centuries, and certainly throughout the last two generations, Poland, tragically wedged as it was between the German and Russian dynamos, had been forced to receive the actions of other people’s sen­tences, hardly ever being allowed to initi­ate any of her own. Things were done to her, not by her. If, starting in 1980, Po­land recovered her subjectivity, it was precisely through the projections of soli­darity — through the astonishing transfor­mation made possible when 10 million atomized objects began surging as one, demanding as such to be taken into ac­count, indeed to be the ones doing the accounting.

That grammatical formulation in turn helps to clarify what General Jaruzelski and his colleagues were up to with their imposition of martial law, back in De­cember 1981 — they were trying to turn all those pesky renascent subjects back into good little objects once again, just so many passive bricks ready for slotting back into The Wall. The drama of much of Polish history during the rest of the decade came to reside in the contest be­tween those two opposed ambitions: the regime’s relentless repression and civil society’s stubborn resistance. To varying degrees, speeded-up versions of this same drama have been taking place all over Eastern Europe the past few months. If I choose to focus on Poland in these re­marks, it is in part because I know Po­land best, and in part because Poland is out in front, leading the other countries, encountering the difficult and perplexing ironies of victory first. And, indeed, it is one of the most perplexing ironies of Pol­ish society’s recent triumph that that vic­tory may now be opening onto a new atomization, a new objectification.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721398″ /]

WHILE SOLIDARITY, in its first flower, was a decidedly egalitarian phenome­non — its very name tapped into a centu­ry-old reservoir of socialist rhetoric, re­claiming it as its own, demanding in fact that it be made real — the Solidarity that emerged from the half decade of repres­sion is much less selfless, much less com­munitarian, much more individualistic, much more in thrall to the romance of the free market.

In part this transformation is one of desperation — the economic situation, al­ready dire at the outset of this decade, has been rendered all the more calami­tous by the hapless paralysis of the last several years. The zloty is plummeting in value, the country sits poised on the verge of a terrifying hyperinflation. Something drastic clearly has to be done, and classic communistic central planning, as it has been practiced everywhere in Eastern Europe over the past 40 years, has proved itself utterly incapable of fac­ing the challenge; it has caused the chal­lenge; the old model is obviously bank­rupt. Meanwhile, Solidarity’s onetime socialist theoreticians no longer feel they can afford to experiment with such un­proven approaches as worker self-man­agement or decentralized community control. Over and over again, they’ve tak­en to explaining how they feel they have to go with the one system that’s been tested and proven, and that’s the wide-­open free market.

As a result, ironically, Solidarity’s lead­ers are about to launch the country into perhaps the most harrowing macroeco­nomic experiment ever attempted by anyone — a virtually immediate, wholesale shock transition from a centrally planned economy to a vigorously open market. Even the optimists are anticipating at least momentary dislocations for upward of 30 per cent of the country’s workforce, as inefficient, once heavily subsidized in­dustrial behemoths are forced to shut down: the optimists insist that most of those suddenly unemployed will quickly find other, more sensible and more pro­ductive, work. The pessimists aren’t so sure: they anticipate an explosion of worker unrest, the sort of thing they’re seeing over in Bolivia these days.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721487″ /]

THE CRASH PLAN Solidarity will be at­tempting to force through in the weeks ahead is a variation on one first proposed this past summer by Jeffrey Sachs, a bril­liant young Harvard economist who first introduced himself to Solidarity’s parlia­mentarians as, among other things, the man who a few years ago helped bring an end to Bolivia’s horrendous hyperinfla­tion, virtually overnight, through the ap­plication of a similar sort of radical ac­tion plan — combining sudden cutbacks in government subsidies, a balanced budget, stabilization of the currency, privatiza­tion of government-owned monopolies (and, incidentally, suspension of payment on the foreign debt, a twist that has hard­ly endeared Sachs to Western bankers).

A few weeks ago, the Bolivian govern­ment, responding to the growing labor unrest that plan has in the meantime engendered, ended up having to declare a state of siege, and incarcerated over 3000 labor leaders. I called Sachs to ask him what happened. He reminded me that even when he’d first proposed his Boliv­ian plan, he’d told the Bolivians that they lived in an appallingly poor, atrociously unlucky country, one which was further afflicted by hyperinflation, and that all he could promise them was that after they’d instituted his plan, they’d live in an appallingly poor, atrociously unlucky coun­try, one no longer afflicted by hyperinfla­tion. If anything, he went on, their luck had proved even more appalling during the last few years than ever before.

But Poland was different, Sachs as­sured me, Poland had possibilities — if only it could move quickly to stabilize its economy, as difficult as that process might initially be. And how, I asked him, did things seem to be going over there in that regard? “Well,” he said, “they’re inching their way closer and closer to the edge of the diving board, and their knees are trembling.”

The question that comes to mind, of course, is: Is… there… any… water… in the pool? And the answer, frankly, is that no, there is none, at least not at the moment. Even the plan’s proponents in Poland admit as much. They assure their countrymen, however, that the mo­ment they leap, water will start flooding in — that it won’t start flooding in until they do leap, that in effect it will be the leap itself that will provoke the flooding, but that there will be just enough water in the pool by the time they reach the surface to cushion their fall.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714924″ /]

Thus, for example, as quickly as possi­ble, Poland intends to create a stable currency at a unified rate. Today, while it’s true that the average wage in Poland is the equivalent of about $25 a month, it’s also true that subsidies and various currency deformations result in the avail­ability of such things as energy, housing, transportation, and food staples, for zlo­ties (granted, often at the end of long lines), for a fraction of their Western cost. That’s how people survive. Those deformations, however, all but cripple the possibility of profitability for any indige­nous entrepreneurs, let alone for foreign investors. Get rid of those deformations, immediately, and while it is true that coal will suddenly cost the same in Poland as it does in West Germany and Polish sala­ries will not have risen anywhere near enough to make up the difference — still, it can be hoped that the new economic conditions will foster a sudden upsurge in entrepreneurial spirit, both domestic and foreign, and that within a few months, in the nick of time, salaries will start rising fast enough to make it possible for people to live.

That’s the idea. That’s the wager. That’s the experiment. “But really,” Ha­lina Bortnowska, the Solidarity theorist who coined the subject-object distinction almost a decade ago, told me last summer as these ideas were just starting to be bandied about, “we’re not laboratory rats here, and really we’ve had enough of grand experiments.”

But actually Poland is indeed about to revert to being an object once again — this time, the object of a grand economic ex­periment. (“Really,” another theorist commented to me, “economists are too much to the fore these days. It’s like the rabbi and the chicken farmer. You know the story? Chicken farmer goes to the rabbi and says, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi, my chick­ens are all sick,’ and the rabbi says, no problem, just do such and such. Guy comes back the next day and says, ‘Rab­bi, I did exactly like what you said, and, Rabbi, two of the chickens died!’ Oh, says the rabbi, in that case you’d better do this and that. Next day, the guy comes back and five of them have died. Rabbi says, oh, in that case you’d better do this that and the other. Next day the guy comes back and 11 of them have died, so the rabbi offers yet another variation. The next day the guy comes back and says, ‘Rabbi, I did exactly what you said, every single detail, and Rabbi, they’re all dead.’ The rabbi is flabbergasted: ‘All of them?’ he stammers. ‘All of them? Ach, and I had so many more solutions.’ ”)

The point about this specific experi­ment — even assuming it does work — is that it requires that the Poles abandon their earlier solidarity, that they start be­having as atomized, ruthlessly self-inter­ested free-marketeers: each workplace squared off against the next, each indi­vidual squared off against his neighbor, as little government intervention as pos­sible — survival of the fittest. “The Tri­umph of Capitalism.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721349″ /]

THERE IS NO doubt that some Poles will do well under the new system — perhaps many Poles will. Assuming the experi­ment works, a great deal more wealth will be generated (the old system, in any case, proved woefully incapable of generating any wealth whatsoever). The trouble is, the distribution of wealth across society will become more and more polarized, and many Poles will fall ever farther be­hind. (In capitalism, only the wealthy get to be subjects.)

It is one of the ironies of our age that capitalism appears to be “triumphing” al­most everywhere in the world at the very moment when most of those living under its purview are witnessing, for the first time in several generations, a distinct shrinkage in their own standards of living. Some are getting much richer, but the middle class is being whittled away, and the poor are falling ever farther be­hind. And that’s in the “successful” capi­talisms — Reagan’s America, Thatcher’s Britain. As for the Third World, go ask Brazil or the Philippines or Mexico about the Triumph of Capitalism.

During the past several years it has become fashionable to speak of “real so­cialism” — socialism as it really came to be lived in the world as opposed to how it was supposed to be lived in some ideal­ized simulacrum. But in exactly the same way as one should consider the opera­tions of “real socialism,” one ought to consider those of “real capitalism.” And real capitalism — as a world system — con­sists not just of Germany and Sweden and Japan and the boutiques along Madi­son Avenue; it also consists of Mexico and Brazil and the Philippines and the homeless along Madison Avenue. The latter make the former possible.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713118″ /]

I say this not out of ideological petu­lance. Rather, the question the Poles should be asking themselves at this juncture is what role international capitalism has in mind for them. Are they going to be Sweden (as they so fondly imagine, as they are being invited to imagine), or are they going to be Mexico (a continuous source of cheap labor for the emerging Western European powerhouse, a handy threat that its capitalists will be able to use whenever they need to bludgeon their own uppity workers back into line­ — “Watch out, because we can always just pick up and move our operations to Po­land”)? It might even be better to be Mexico than to be Poland mired in con­tinuing “real socialist” stagnation; cer­tainly it will be for many people. There may, if necessary, be fresh ways of bat­tling out of the terrible contradictions of Third World–style polarization and ex­ploitation — and if there are, the remark­able Poles, if anyone, show promise of finding their way clear to them.

But those are the sorts of issues that lie ahead. (And now, with the simultaneous “openings” in all the other Eastern Euro­pean countries, international capitalism is going to start playing each of them against the others — not only telling indi­vidual Polish workers to accept substan­dard wages and working conditions or else accept unemployment, but also tell­ing all of Poland to accept such ground rules or else Czechoslovakia or Bulgaria or Romania — or the Philippines or Mexi­co or Brazil — certainly will.)

And I just end up wondering how con­cerned Western media are going to be, five years down the line, about the plight of Polish workers laboring, for example, in West German plants in Gdynia or British-owned factories in Lodz, or for indigenous millionaires in Wroclaw and Poznan. What will become of that romance? ■


Strange Angels Flying Into the Next Century
By Laurie Anderson

Datebook Living Museums & Galleries NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To


In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first free parliamentary elections in Poland, the Museum of the Moving Image’s all-digital series Ways to Freedom: Polish Film and the Rise of Democracy offers a program of over a dozen films (some of them shorts) that doubles as an in-depth account of recent Polish history. Andrzej Wajda, perhaps the country’s preeminent filmmaker, is represented here with a screening of his 1981 Man of Iron (November 16); another highlight is Ryszard Bugajski’s 1989 Interrogation (November 14), which attacks Poland’s Stalin years so frankly that it was banned from public viewing for nearly a decade. Tonight’s opening-night event, meanwhile, enticingly pairs a showing of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s towering Blind Chance (1987) with an introduction from Kieslowski scholar Annette Insdorf (author of Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski).

Nov. 13-23, 7 p.m., 2014


Archival Reels Capture Life During Wartime in Warsaw Uprising

In August of 1944, the Soviets halted their march to Warsaw. Residents were up in arms within the walls of Poland’s German-occupied capital city, fighting to liberate their home. The insurgents had timed the revolt to coincide with the arrival of the Red Army, hoping that the ensuing chaos would work to their advantage, but instead found themselves spending 63 days under siege, and ended up in defeat.

Those days are the focus of the new film Warsaw Uprising by Jan Komasa. All footage in the film comes from original archival reels made by reporters and documentarians during the uprising. Colorized and tinted toward realism, backed by dialogue derived from expert lip-reading, and voiced-over with commentary from fictitious U.S. airmen and reporters, Warsaw Uprising quickly becomes hyper-real, a fast-moving photograph of idyllic street scenes — pinkened lips, sepia stone — that turn to rubble.

The end of the film — and of the uprising — is no surprise. What is: The lovers giggling and teasing one another while discussing the war with a reporter is not staged, demonstrating that life continues despite war and deprivation, that it includes these things. Despite its context in a global conflict, Uprising is a strangely intimate film.

The imposed commentary by reporters and airmen, though occasionally stagey and self-conscious about the idea of film and documentation, is also messy and tender. This film is an important reminder for us to remain so.


Ashes and Diamonds

Dir. Andrzej Wajda (1958). Inaugurating the return of its excellent “See It Big” series, MOMI revisits Andrzej Wajda’s tense, gripping drama of a political assassination in Poland on the last day of World War II. Scorsese and Coppola both count it among the ten best films of all time, and they aren’t being contrarian.

Sun., Oct. 14, 2 p.m., 2012


Holiday Guide: Heat-Seeking Victuals

“One must have a mind of winter,” as the poet Wallace Stevens famously said, “to regard the frost and the boughs of the pine-trees crusted with snow.” And such a mind-set is also required for us to appreciate and even crave the foods of winter. Because who wants to dine on meal-size salads, lightly sauced pastas, and cold sandwiches as the snowflakes swirl? Accordingly, here find our dining suggestions as the holiday season approaches, ushering in three months—at least—of coldness and crystallized precipitation.

Go for the meat stews. There’s nothing that satisfies as much as a big bowl of chunky flesh crammed with herbs in a broth that almost qualifies as gravy. Served on a bed of homemade noodles, the beef brisket hu mei at He Nan Flavor (68B Forsyth Street, 212-625-8299) is like a mash-up of Eastern and Western flavors, perfect fusion food festooned with huge chunks of meat, fat-rimmed and tender. Polish food, too, seems made for winter, with its heavy component of meat and starch and plain savory flavors. Hell, even the vegetable tour de force borscht often has a beef broth underlying it. But for Poland’s most notorious multi-meat manifestation, seek out bigos, a stew that once supposedly greeted hunters returning from their forays. Polonica (7214 Third Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-630-5805) offers a bang-up version of this kielbasa-and-pork assemblage, varying the terrain with strands of sauerkraut, and so does Little Poland (200 Second Avenue, 212-777-9728), a hopelessly old-fashioned (and cheap) East Village spot.

Curries are stews, right? Also featuring pork, the celebrated black curry of Sri Lanka deploys darkly toasted spices and a surfeit of coconut milk for about the richest meal in a bowl you’ve ever tasted. Find it at Banana Leaf (227 West 28th Street, 212-494-0000), where you can choose from an odd collection of starches to go with it, including bowl-shaped pancakes called hoppers. Sigiri (91 First Avenue, 212-614-9333) offers an equally delectable version. One of the best ways to enjoy curry is wrapped up in a Guyanese, Trinidadian, or Jamaican roti, which makes it possible to dine while maneuvering down a crowded street—of course, there might be an accident or two and the consequent necessity of paying a stranger’s cleaning bill. With no seating at Terry’s Gourmet Deli (575 Sixth Avenue, 212-206-0170), you’ll have to eat the chicken curry roti that way. (Or wait till you get home.)

The most famous purveyor of rotis in town is Ali’s Trinidad Roti Shop (1267 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-783-0316), where you can score a goat, conch, or shrimp roti. But really, just walk down Flatbush Avenue anywhere around Church Avenue in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, and you’ll find plenty of examples. In Queens, head for Richie’s Roti Shop (formerly Singh’s, 11806 Liberty Avenue, 718-835-7255) in Ozone Park. Note that at nearly every roti purveyor, a vegetarian version featuring potatoes and chickpeas is also available, and it’s nearly as rib-sticking. To further warm yourself, ask that Scotch Bonnet hot sauce (often homemade) be added to your roti as it’s wrapped up.

For similarly solid winter fare, one is well-advised to seek out baked pastas, which are often denser and more delicious than their wimpy, lightly sauced summer counterparts. Southern Italian restaurants often have a tremendous advantage in this regard. Try the lasagna at Sicilian newcomer Catania (193 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-522-2880), where not only will you find the usual layered noodles, cheese, and zippy tomato sauce, but also slices of prosciutto. The steaming rectangle arrives wearing a basil leaf on its breast like a medal from the Pope himself. For the city’s most delicate version, check out chef Cesare Casella’s at Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto (283 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-877-4801). For a really old-school Italian-American rendition, head over to Colandrea New Corner Restaurant (7201 Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-833-0800), where the inside of the baked assemblage not only incorporates oodles of sausage and cheese, but also sports an extra layer of ground meat.

Colandrea also has several other oven-roasted pastas, including a wonderful baked ziti with eggplant (a Sicilian passion!) and big, oozy globs of fresh mozzarella, for one of the city’s best wintry vegetarian entrées. The same pasta recurs in equally good form at Frost (193 Frost Street, Brooklyn, 718-389-3347). Although the restaurant is named after the street it’s on rather than a seasonal manifestation of the weather, this Williamsburg old-timer could be your new winter destination. Among other things worth considering, there is a chili-laced Sicilian chicken that will burn your pants off, spice-wise, while providing enough poultry for four diners. Make sure you order the bone-in version.

Of course, we have not yet enumerated the best places to get that soul food and Anglo-American staple mac and cheese. The best encounter lately occurred at a strange mini-restaurant called Earl’s Beer and Cheese (1259 Park Avenue, 212-289-1581), located where the Metro-North Railroad emerges from the ground. There the pasta is groovy rigatoni and the sauce white and on the light side. For the denser and more multifarious mac and cheese you might dream about, hit up Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster (310 Malcolm X Boulevard, 212-792-9001), where the noodles are orecchiette and the cheeses Gouda, Comté, and New York State Cheddar. (Yay!) Sending the dish spinning in a Latin direction, Coppelia (207 West 14th Street, 212-858-5001) regales its mac and cheese with fried pigskin and lardons.

Speaking of Latin-American food, there’s much of a substantial nature in that arena to soothe frostbite. Start with a luscious serving of the garlicky, crackling-skinned pork roast called pernil, from La Isla Cuchifritos (1439 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-417-0668), where, despite the grab-and-go nature of most cuchifrito joints, there is ample seating. Even better is the product at El Nuevo Bohio (791 East Tremont Avenue, the Bronx, 718-299-4218), where dining on pig parts constitutes a sort of communal celebration. Once you’re there, don’t miss the blood sausage as well. Really, there’s nothing quite like blood sausage to get yours flowing again.

But why challenge yourself when all you really want is a good roast chicken? Sure, you could pick one up at Gourmet Garage, brush off some of the excess rosemary, and eat it in the privacy of your home. But why not chow down instead at Barbuto (775 Washington Street, 212-924-9700), named after a beloved hound? Rub elbows with Meatpacking habitués and models as you fork down the signature roast chicken of the locale, via celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman. It’s served with Italian salsa verde, and we guarantee you’ve never had a better—or more comforting—bird.


The People in the Picture—That’s Shoah Biz!

The Holocaust and the Broadway musical make such a terrible marriage of subject and form that on some artists their Strindbergian coupling must exert an almost magnetic attraction. Maybe librettist Iris Rainer Dart and co-composers Mike Stoller and Artie Butler, creators of the new musical, The People in the Picture (Roundabout Studio 54), thought they could make the impossible wedlock succeed, for once, by adding a catalytic third element: Poland’s Yiddish-theater tradition. But if that’s a secret ingredient, I’m Isaac Bashevis Singer. The resulting mess is, if anything, even more unhappily muddled than is usual on such occasions.

Donna Murphy, infinitely hardworking, unleashes all the artillery stockpiled in her enchantress department to animate the central role of Raisel Rabinowitz, who spends the krechts-laden evening switching endlessly back and forth from the comic-ingenue star of a raffish 1930s shtetl-touring troupe to a kvetchy 1970s granny laboring to teach her half-goyish granddaughter about wonders like a song-and-dance version of The Dybbuk. Anyone who desperately wants Encores! to revive Molly Picon’s 1959 Off-Broadway triumph, The Kosher Widow, need look no further for a suitable star.

The Roundabout has given Murphy’s fervent efforts plenty of backup: Nicole Parker, forcefully moving, plays Raisel’s alienated, sitcom-writing daughter; the ghosts of Raisel’s vanished fellow troupers are incarnated by a clutch of notables that includes, outstandingly, Christopher Innvar, Lewis J. Stadlen, Joyce Van Patten, and Chip Zien. Their efforts don’t help, because everything in the writing, and in Leonard Foglia’s effortful staging, seems committed to cluttering or confusing effects rather than making them.

Actors constantly drift back and forth, in a blue haze, behind whoever happens to be in the spotlight; world-shaking historical events, like the Nazi invasion of Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, seem to rate only passing mention. Riccardo Hernandez’s set, a barrage of interlocking, ornate, giant gilt picture frames, suggests nothing except maybe Cubism gone haywire at the Frick. Matters of plot and motive, dumped into the last 20 minutes of an already overlong show, leave behind only puzzlement. Frustratingly, these obviously sincere, well-intentioned writers haven’t been able to do more than evoke innumerable other attempts to deal with matters already so well chronicled that they need dealing with again—pardon the expression—the way a Jewish husband needs an extra mother-in-law.


Sweet Rush

Dir. Andrzej Wajda (2009).
Poland’s greatest film artist was 83 when he made this pastoral melodrama on aging and loss. Set in the early days of Poland’s postwar World War II “rebirth” and reminiscent of the mid ‘60s Bergman-inflected Euro art film, Sweet Rush is galvanized by Krystyna Janda’s glorious performance as a doctor’s wife who falls in love with an avatar of her dead sons.

Mon., May 3, 9:15 p.m., 2010


Katyn’s True Lies

There are directors like John Ford and Alexander Dovzhenko, national bards singing the tales of the tribe, and others like Charles Chaplin and Frank Capra, people’s artists talkin’ straight to the folks. Senegal’s late Ousmane Sembene was both—so is Andrzej Wajda. With his new film Katyn, Poland’s greatest filmmaker caps his career with the story he waited most of his life to tell.

Wajda pointedly titled his first, quasi-autobiographical feature A Generation (1954) and has consistently dramatized critical junctures in 20th-century Polish history, turning them into movies that have aspired to be or—like his masterpieces Kanal (1957), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), and Man of Marble (1977)—actually have been political events. Katyn, which sold millions of tickets and provoked a national debate in Poland, addresses a once-taboo, still-traumatic subject: the 1940 liquidation of some 15,000 Polish military officers, carried out on Stalin’s orders and consequently blamed on the Nazis.

The Katyn massacre was grisly; the cover-up, enforced throughout the Cold War and the life of the Soviet Union, was additionally atrocious in that it founded the new Polish state on an obvious lie. For the 82-year-old director, the bloodbath has an added significance—his father was among the victims. This intense personal investment may account for the movie’s uneven quality: While never less than fascinating, Katyn alternates between scenes of tremendous power and sequences most kindly described as dutiful. It’s as if the artist is never certain whether he is making this movie for himself, his father, or the entire nation.

Based on a novel by Andrzej Mularczyk, a veteran screenwriter of Wajda’s generation, Katyn has an anthology quality. The opening scene, set on a Kraków bridge over the Vistula, tops a similar one in Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa (and another in Schindler’s List), with a panicky civilian mob in flight from the German advance running headlong into another crowd fleeing the Russians. As the action moves from bloody field hospital to fetid POW camp to Kraków’s Jagiellonian University (where, in another set piece, the Nazis arrest the entire faculty), the filmmaking is robust. Wajda conducts the masses, orchestrates crane shots, and scatters the landscape with highly charged symbols. No movie has ever made the analogy between Hitlerism and Stalinism so visceral.

Katyn is directed for maximum gravitas, but often trips over the script’s clumsy transitions. Turning from wide-screen spectacle to close-up characterization, the direction falters, despite the facility of the actors. Initially, it seems as if the film’s protagonist will be Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), the willowy, sorrowful wife of a captured Polish officer. Wajda, however, has something more epic in mind. The narrative is complicated and elliptical. Jumping from one historical juncture to the next—the German discovery of the Katyn killing field, the Red Army liberation of Poland, the coalescing of a new Polish state around the insistence that Katyn was a Nazi crime—the movie staggers under its shifting cast of characters, stiffly deployed at key moments. A flurry of reaction shots serves to squander the can’t-miss moment when a young child mistakes a uniformed Katyn survivor for her father.

History is the subject. As in Man of Marble, Wajda is particularly adroit at integrating archival footage. The victorious Soviets produce a propaganda film about Katyn that, complete with exhumed bodies and presiding priests, is virtually identical to the Nazi film made two years before. (Shocking as this is, one has to wonder if Wajda didn’t tweak the newsreels to make them so absolutely alike.) Wajda’s most provocative notion is that Katyn was a process that bore its poison fruit in war’s aftermath—families divided and individuals broken by the new regime’s institutionalized doublethink. In a bit of prophetic direct address early in the movie, a Polish general tells his fellow captives (and the camera) that they must survive: “Without you, there will be no free Poland.”

They didn’t, and there wasn’t. Driven mad by the boisterous Soviet propaganda blasting out of the public address system, a Polish officer who miraculously eluded the massacre walks drunkenly out into the snowy street and shoots himself; a beautiful young partisan turns Antigone, sacrificing her future in a hopeless attempt to have her brother’s tombstone dated “1940” (instead of the Soviet-sanctioned “1941”). Earlier, she had argued with her sister, a newly minted Party member who maintains that resistance is futile and, in another pointed bit of direct address, wrongly informs the world that “there will never be a free Poland.”

Late in Katyn, Anna receives her husband’s diary—a device allowing Wajda to restage the procedure of mass murder in harrowing detail. Although the entire movie is a build-up to this grisly 10-minute sequence, it’s a factor of Wajda’s mastery that nothing really prepares us for its single-minded intensity. It seems remarkably self-reflexive that the filmmaker understands that his oeuvre may culminate in this Guernica set-piece; the movie’s final image is that of a truck not quite pushing the earth over a dead hand entwined in a rosary. Katyn, however, is not a confession.

A teenager in People’s Poland and then the most public of public artists, Wajda had to live with Katyn every day. Albeit indifferently staged and poorly written, the movie’s key postwar scene has a boy, applying for art school, refusing to alter his application so as not to conceal his father’s death at Katyn; the twist is that the stern young administrator urging his accommodation to the new reality herself lost a brother at Katyn. Wajda is both characters. Making Katyn allowed him to imagine his father’s murder without telling us what it was like for him to live with it.


Made in Poland Offers Thugs, Then Hugs

Somewhere in Poland, a kid named Bogus has tattooed the phrase “Fuck Off” on his forehead, because he’s angry at “everybody.” “We need a revolution,” he shouts at his priest. Yelling at a disabled security guard, he claims his anger is “like AIDS.” Bogus’s disillusionment is so absolute and inflexible that he quickly devolves into a caricature of “angry young man,” a dye job away from Vyvyan Basterd of The Young Ones, minus that show’s sense of humor. The usual institutions—religion, education, parenthood—have all failed this nihilistic youth.

Przemyslaw Wojcieszek’s Made in Poland wants to make sure you understand whose fault it is, mainly by bashing it into your head. Wojcieszek had only written films before penning this script in 2004—and it shows. Though this Play Company offering headlines 59E59’s festival of new Polish works, its awkwardly cinematic story is staler than last year’s kielbasa. Bogus, sporting skinhead attire and carrying a length of pipe, gets overexcited one night and vandalizes a car. But the vehicle turns out to belong to a local thug. The thug’s gang finds Bogus out and demands to be repaid $20,000 immediately, or they’ll kill him. But even this thin movie plot point languishes in underdevelopment. The thugs aren’t particularly threatening, and, like nearly everyone in the play, they get sidetracked by their sentimental devotion to Krzysztof Krawczyk, a tacky pop star and folk hero.

When the thugs finally catch up to Bogus, the priest begs them off with $5,000. In the next moment, Bogus finds religion and decides he wants to marry Monica, a girl he has practically harassed into having a relationship—a turn that doesn’t come off as character development, but rather like the cast skipped 10 pages of the script. The wedding follows immediately. One is left with the horrible urge to stereotype whichever Polish people chose this unfortunate drama to represent them.


Andrzej Wajda at Walter Reade, Plus Red Art

Andrzej Wajda is not only Poland’s greatest filmmaker but one who, throughout his long career, has demonstrated a remarkable knack for making movies that double as political events. He’s a people’s artist in a way perhaps unanticipated by the Communist regime that trained and ambivalently supported him.

The Walter Reade’s “Truth or Dare: The Films of Andrzej Wajda” is the most complete retrospective an American institution has ever given the 82-year-old director. It opens with characteristic Wajda brio: First day’s screenings include Wajda’s 1954 debut, provocatively titled A Generation; his 1958 triumph Ashes and Diamonds (the greatest of all “youth films,” a game-changer not only for Polish cinema but for national film industries throughout Eastern Europe); and, following the self-consciously Chekhovian change-of-pace pastoral The Young Girls of Wilko (1979), his controversial national epic The Promised Land (1975) in which Germans, Jews, and Poles join forces to industrialize Lódz.

Actually, the national epic may be Wajda’s preferred mode. Having inaugurated his career with five consecutive World War II films, covering both the Warsaw and Warsaw Ghetto uprisings, he has ranged throughout 19th- and 20th-century Polish history. The Wedding (1973), from Stanislaw Wyspianski’s verse drama, is one astonishing evocation of Poland’s past; Man of Marble (1977), which rivals Ashes and Diamonds as Wajda’s most powerful film, was the first Soviet bloc movie to address head-on the failures and hypocrisies of a ruling Communist Party. The director’s most recent film Katyn (2007) is a story he’s waited his entire life to make, concerning as it does the most notorious cover-up in Polish history—the 1940 Red Army massacre of some 15,000 Polish army officers, among them the filmmaker’s father.

As a supplement to the Walter Reade retrospective, Anthology Film Archives will be sampling Wajda’s television work—giving American premieres to six of his TV productions, including his 1969 Macbeth, 1991 Hamlet, and a 1987 adaptation of Crime and Punishment, starring the two leading actors of the period, Jerzy Radzilowicz and Jerzy Stuhr. October 17 through November 13, Walter Reade Theater

Also: More Communist culture: DV documentary Red Art accompanies and also explicates the Asia Society’s current comprehensive survey of Maoist socialist realism, “Art and China’s Revolution.” Independent filmmaker Hu Jie and his associate, feminist theorist Ai Xiaoming, interview a number of once-official artists and garner some horrendous accounts of Cultural Revolution suffering, but this straightforward talking-head doc turns truly fantastic with images of giant propaganda posters as action-packed as Jack Kirby splash panels. Proof of China’s state capitalist present: The posters are now fantastically collectible.

The excerpts from filmed revolutionary operas like The Red Detachment of Women may be familiar; less so is the newsreel footage of various parades and pageants, as well as the amateur factory-courtyard performances that praise Chairman Mao and excoriate various running dogs, poisonous weeds, and capitalist-roaders. Even more remarkable are scenes of kindergarten children acting out agit-prop plays or singing propaganda anthems. October 18, Asia Society