Black Thursday (Czarny Czwartek) is a profoundly touching docudrama about state violence, showing the contradictions between the essential values of human life and the inhuman aspect of totalitarian state mechanism. The film is based on the strike in Gdynia shipyard which cost the lives of 45 Polish workers and wounded more than 1600 of them, on 17th December 1970, a date remembered as Black Thursday…
Veteran Polish director Antoni Krauze masterfully uses all the virtues of a documentary drama to reconstruct this event, that ignited the Solidarity movement, on screen. Excellent cinematography by Jacek Petrycki and computer generated images combine with the archive films of the actual event to create Black Thursday. Fiction and documentary are perfectly integrated in this both visually and dramaturgically meticulous work. The pale colour palette helps the viewer to keep close to the black and white archive material and some scenes are shot as if they were the continuation of the documentary.
The story evolves around the life of the Drywa family. Brunon Drywa is an unfortunate victim of the Black Thursday attack. He is not even a protester, he simply abides the call of the government on the radio to restart work without knowing that it is a set up. The film introduces him to us as a hopeful, young family man. He and his wife are very happy to gain the right to a new apartment. They invite their family to spend Christmas Eve with them.
Ten days before Christmas Eve, the Polish government raises the prices so high that the workers in Gdansk begin a strike which ends up in violence. The Communist Party headquarters in the city is set on fire. The government, fearing that the USSR will invade Poland just like in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring, do not listen to the demands of the workers. The strikes and protests spread over to Gdynia. In order to supress the uprising and prevent a nationwide movement, the Polish government orders the army and the police to act brutally. Authorities censor and manipulate the news and then provoke workers to gather in Gdynia shipyard. As soon as they come out of train at the station they are fired at.
Scenes showing the ineptness of the politicians and the violence of the police create a great contrast to the scenes that show the tenderness of the family life and friendship among the Polish citizens in their daily routine. Krauze recreates the environment in which the Solidarity was established. Black Thursday claims that the representatives do not represent the people anymore and they don’t even emphatize with their demand of “bread”. Although they are not demonized in the film, they are portrayed as inept, coward and yet greedy… Black Thursday makes it clear that the government had already collapsed from the inside.
Antoni Krauze has definitely a historical mission in telling the audience the story behind this massacre. But the veteran director never forgets the motivation for making a film. He carefully balances the political and emotional aspects. Some anecdotal scenes give out a very rich and strong cinematic feeling: In one scene the victim Janek Wisniewski, shot at the Gdynia shipyard train station, is carried on shoulders lying on a door… In another scene a Polish flag with a huge blood stain is held by the marching protesters.
Probably the most effective sequence of the film is where the deceased Drywa’s family is dragged out of their beds at midnight for his funeral! The Kafkaesque bureaucrats give them “only half an hour” for the burial, with a priest if they want! Brunon Drywa is not a father, not a husband, not a brother to them; he is just a body to be buried in the dark so that he will be forgotten.
But here comes a film that commemorates him and other victims sharing the same fate, here is a film based on so many written and oral testimonies that will from now on become a part of every spectator’s memory.
This is what cinema is capable of when a film is made by a dedicated director who is the master of his art.
Edited by Steven Yates
© FIPRESCI 2011