A Polish War Drama Reinterpreted

in 39th Montreal World Film Festival

by Malwina Grochowska

The historical drama is a genre popular among Polish filmmakers and decision-makers. Therefore the audience is being served a relatively high-budget cinematic presentations of events from the past more often than it seems to be necessary, with World War II being the period of choice. But this does not signify that there is a deliberate attempt underway to retell historical events by offering critical or alternative interpretations, challenging the popular ones. Most of these films are convenient tools for shaping a conservative politics of memory – they help oversimplify history, are dominated by male perspective, and invariably represent Poles as innocent victims. It goes without saying that the political agenda behind these projects could not possibly sustain original artistic qualities.            

Yet it looks like there is a wave of more ambitious period pieces rising in Polish cinema. There was of course the Oscar winner Ida directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, preceded by Wojciech Smarzowski’s Rose (Róza). Naturally, Summer Solstice (Letnie przesilenie), written and directed by Michal Rogalski, which premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival, is different from them in many ways – as they differ from each other – but all three films have an important thing in common – they demonstrate that the history of WWII can still be seen anew on the big screen and could make for modern, innovative cinema.          

Summer Solstice, which won the Best Script Award at the Montreal World Film Festival, opens with the figure of a golden-haired, innocent looking Polish boy Romek (Filip Piotrowicz), who looks not much different from all the other golden-haired, blue-eyed and dying-young boys, populating Polish historical dramas of late. Soon Franka, an equally beautiful Polish village girl, flaunting a traditional braid (Urszula Bogucka), emerges next to him. The boy works on the railway, which in the establishing shots looks pretty spectacular with steam picturesquely rising from under the wagons, and the dirt on his attractive face betrays stereotypical pleasure in hard manual work.          

If the director deliberately wanted to be as conventional as possible in his casting and in some elements of the set design, his irony remains difficult to read. The film rather invokes the look of the popular Polish television series Time of Honor – many episodes of which Rogalski directed – with its romanticized and rather traditional interpretation of war youth’s heroism.          

Soon enough, however, the story of Sumer Solstice takes a sharp turn into an unexpected direction. The second primary character approaches: he is a good-looking German military policeman, and we are abruptly reminded what the Polish railway network was used for in AD 1943, no matter how romantic the old locomotives might look. Suddenly we see the terror of war everywhere: a railway worker happily removes the name of a Polish Jew from the schedule, leaving no doubt where his colleague has been dispatched to. And even more dauntingly, we see Romek making his way to the dead end of the tracks, where trains that have just returned from the camps, are being disinfected.            

Romek however does not evolve into a typical war hero as the convention dictates. Instead, taking a cue from his superior – who is also his mother’s lover – he tries to take hold of whatever the rushed Jews have left behind: mostly clothes, but also a gramophone with a collection of records, stashed in a suitcase still marked with its owner’s name. Thus the red looted blouse Romek’s mother is wearing makes for a strong symbol of evil, permeating seemingly unimportant gestures. Through such cinematic devices, fresh enough to terrify and yet avoiding Hollywood-like staging of Jews being exterminated en masse, Rogalski manages to imply the terror of war and touch emotionally the viewer.                

Summer Solstice can be seen as a coming-of-age drama in times of war. It finishes with Romek changed, but leaves us with a glimmer of hope that he would keep some of his innocence and not become like the characters Claude Lanzmann interviewed for his 1985 documentary Shoah. The young Pole is however not the only one undergoing a life-changing experience here. The same goes for the German boy. And for the Jewish girl, who is introduced in the second half of the film (Franka, the fourth young personage, is unfortunately the least convincing). They do not act like stereotypical representatives of their respective nations and ethnicities, but like real people, who have found themselves in extreme situation. It might not seem like a revolutionary approach, but provides a very refreshing perspective on the often times ugly sides of the day to day survival during war.

This is not to say Summer Solstice is taking its subject lightly. The mood of the film remains solemn even when young people are trying to dance, or find love and romance. Still, Romek brings to mind Andrzej Munk’s partially comedic, accidental heroes from Eroica or Bad Luck (Zezowate szczescie) – maybe mostly because such imperfect characters, who are just trying to get through alive, remain a rarity on screen, flooded by larger than life war heroes and villains.        

Edited by Christina Stojanova