This moody sample-platter of Polish movies, all made between 1977 and 1982 as the unionizing Solidarity movement gained ground and power, hone in on the period’s seminal discomfitures, as Polish society became anti-Communist and Communist at the same time, and suffered a kind of political puberty, complete with identity crises, awkward social fissures, and rampaging zits.
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Camera Buff (1978) may be the gritty paradigm, a parable of conflicted modernization in which Jerzy Stuhr’s contented worker-schlub buys an 8mm camera to document his new baby, and eventually gets roped in to commanding his factory’s promotional film unit. Naturally, his growing ambition clashes head-on with the authorities—the artist and the state may agree that image is everything, but who controls the truth?
What the films collectively document is the new sense that rebellion was possible within a Warsaw Pact nation. Kazimierz Kutz’s The Beads of One Rosary (1980) makes no distinction between Communism, capitalism, and unionism—it’s always the individual pitted against the collective power. Here, a cantankerous old man (non-pro Augustyn Halotta), who lives in a squirrelly cottage in a neighborhood being bulldozed for new miners’ housing, refuses to budge, even as bonfires fill the streets and his neighbors leave, weeping for replacement apartments. It’s a familiar setup that would’ve previously led to persecution, but instead, the unbendable coot becomes the tribulation that the “new order” must pass through to gain legitimacy with the people.
As a war of wills among linguistics academics, Krzysztof Zanussi’s Camouflage (1977) echoed Kieslowski’s points about control, communication, and power, but Ryszard Bugajski’s Interrogation (1982) risked a good deal more: Set in the ’50s, as Krystyna Janda’s good-time girl is imprisoned and tortured for fake state crimes but never submits, the movie was a strong enough drink to sit on a censor’s shelf until 1989. But if the dilemma of the moment was unease and ambivalence about what was to come, then Andrzej Wajda’s Without Anesthesia (1978) is its key film. In Wajda’s typical sideways-glance manner, we see the narrative coalesce piecemeal: After a smug TV appearance, a famous war-zone journalist (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz) finds his life mysteriously crumbling. For no reason, his wife leaves him, his classes are canceled, and his job comes under question; mostly, we realize late, it’s a divorce story—and a walking metaphor for living under Communism, where secret decisions could alter your world forever.