Polish Cinema from the Perspective of... a Beaver

in 47th Karlovy Vary Film Festival

by Lukasz Maciejewski

To Kill a Beaver (Zabij bobra) is a stylistic turning point in the career of Jan Jakub Kolski, one of the most prominent Polish film directors. It is also an example of formally innovative Polish cinema.

This year’s film festival had a strong line-up of Polish titles. A pacifist manifesto, a feminist moral play, a slice of life movie, a drama, a comedy: Polish cinema, after dealing with the problem of defining its identity, now focuses on a diversity of genres. In the section Forum of Independents, a film that gathered superb reviews despite its low budget was In the Bedroom by Tomasz Wasilewski, a film which has interesting correspondences with the work of Ozon and Almodóvar. In the East of the West competition, there were two other acclaimed Polish films: Shameless by Filip Marczewski and Yuma by Piotr Mularuk. Polish cinema could be also seen in the documentary competition. Poland was a co-producer of several titles, including the comedy Polski Film by Marek Najbrt.

To Kill a Beaver, which won a festival prize for the performance of lead actor Eryk Lubos, is a revealing example of the quest for diversity in Polish cinema. Kolski, a respected director who has previously presented films at Cannes and Venice, has changed his style radically here.

Up to now, Kolski’s movies have been associated with poetic ballads and magical realism. Kolski (also a writer and pedagogue) has applied the strategies of Latin American cinema to Polish film. His best-known films — Jancio Wodnik, Pograbek and Wenecja — are set in Polish provinces, but their message is a universal one based on Marquez: wonders happen everywhere, and it is worth believing in the power of love.

To Kill a Beaver marks a change in tone. Instead of meticulous takes and a poetic vision of the world, what we get is a brutal picture of human downfall. Lubos plays an ex-soldier of a military special forces unit stationed in Afghanistan, who is afflicted with mental illness after returning from a mission. Kolski blends realistic scenes with the world of the protagonist’s illusions. It is hard to tell what is real and what is created by the unstable soldier’s tormented mind.

Some of the surreal scenes show the strong influence of David Lynch’s late works, particularly Inland Empire. However, in the bold presentation of filmic eroticism we may find some references to radicals such as Gaspar Noé or Ulrich Seidl.

As far as the emotional sphere is concerned, To Kill a Beaver is the first Polish movie to deal with the psychological consequences of the participation of Polish soldiers in foreign military missions. In Karlovy Vary, Kolski said, “My cinema is very personal. I stand behind the camera when something interests me intellectually, which appeals to my emotions. Here, I have reached to the very bottom of my self to see who I am and how much fear is inside me.”

I like the determination with which Kolski has revalued his works. However, I must be critical of the script and its many logical inconsistencies. I am also disappointed in the director’s misogyny. The woman in To Kill a Beaver is reduced to a mere thing, serving only as an object of sexual fetishism. It is really sad.

Nevertheless, the film will be remembered not only as a turning point in Kolski’s filmography, but for its breathtaking performance by Eryk Lubos. To Kill a Beaver actually serves as a monodrama for this amazing actor, who is absolutely distinguished in Polish cinema. Onscreen, Lubos stands out with his charisma, his brutality juxtaposed with hidden sensitivity, and his internal anxiety. The award for lead actor, which Lubos got ex aequo with Henrik Rafaelson (The Almost Man), may well be the ticket to an international career.