Andrzej Munk was among the most gifted avatars of the Polish new wave, which emerged from the ashes of a country laboring under Stalinist occupation, its intellectual elite decimated and its cities in ruins. Though Munk died before he turned 40, this complete retrospective reveals a director with a fully formed vision, whose sense of irony and radical nonconformism belied the confines of his era.
Born in 1921 to a Polish-Jewish family in Kraków, Munk fought in the Polish underground during World War II. Later he attended film school in Lodz and directed documentaries. The Men of the Blue Cross (1955), his first feature, told the true story of a wartime mission to rescue wounded Polish partisans behind enemy lines, high in the Tartar mountains. Bathed in the glow of socialist realism, the grizzled veterans play themselves. The film is remarkable for its daredevil cinematography and for the sense of death that hangs over all the participants.
For Eroica (1958), a two-part black comedy, Munk drew upon his experiences in the doomed Warsaw uprising of 1944 to wreak havoc with ideals of military valor. In the first half, Dzidzius, a sometime patriot and Warsaw con man, makes a deal with his wife’s lover, a Hungarian officer, in a futile effort to save the bombarded city from German invaders. Eroica‘s second half is set in a P.O.W. camp for Polish officers, where the heroic legend of Lieutenant Zawistowski, the sole inmate to escape, helps maintain the prisoners’ morale; only a few know that he’s really hiding in the attic. The dream of liberty is an illusion in this biting satire of life under totalitarianism.
Munk’s critique becomes more explicit in Bad Luck (1960), an absurdist parable about Jan, a spineless schmendrick who does everything wrong in his futile attempts to rise through the ranks of pre- and postwar Polish society. Jan only “looks Jewish” (that’s part of his bad luck), but he’s hounded by an outsider’s desire to assimilate at all costs. From his youth as a failed Boy Scout to his faltering career as a craven Stalinist bureaucrat, his tale reveals a culture of endless accommodation.
In 1961, while shooting The Passenger, Munk was killed in a car crash. His friend Witold Lesiewicz spent two years editing the footage and adding still photography and voice-over narration. A woman returning to Germany after a long absence thinks she recognizes, on the deck of her cruise ship, an inmate from the death camp where she served as an S.S. officer. Strange and fragmentary, The Passenger is a compelling exploration of hangman’s psychology, loaded with unanswered questions about the reliability of memory and the human need for exculpation.