Suspense and Suspicion By Bettina Schuler

in 18th Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Bettina Schuler

Imagine that the most important person in your life becomes suddenly your biggest enemy. This is what happens to Jadwiga (Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieslak). On her birthday she receives a videotape, featuring statements of a historian who accuses her husband Jan (Krzysztof Stroinski) of spying on her family. And although the historian cannot prove his accusations, the uncertainty remains. So Jadwiga begins to distance herself from her husband in ways that become more and more bizarre…

Scratch (Rysa, 2008) by polish director Michal Rosa, tells the story of how fast trust and intimacy disappear. For his work he received the award for best script at the Cottbus film festival of Eastern European film.

Scratch shows clearly how political dictatorships permeate everyday life and even closed family circles, creating a poisonous atmosphere of distrust and suspicion. Jadwiga cannot fight her suspicion and does not trust her husband any more, although they have been married for over 40 years and he swears to his innocence. But the seed of suspicion has been sown.

The turbulences of Jadwiga’s mind are shown by Rosa in several ways. On story level, she loses her sense of smell. On visual level, she is seen only in extreme close ups thus forcing the viewer to witness her despair and disgust for the potential traitor. So strong is her revulsion that she cannot help but vomit in Jan’s presence. The close quarters of the couple’s house enforce additionally this tormenting atmosphere and Michal Rosa does not need extensive discussions between his protagonists to show that a severe breach of trust has taken place.

On metaphorical level, the director is apparently influenced by what Sigmund Freud calls the Unheimlich (the uncanny): a situation, where something or someone close (heimlich, i.e. homely) is seen in a different, estranging light. The things and people once close to the protagonist now look frightening, and in the light of suspicion, the husband is seen as even more uncanny because he once was so close.

In a way, the narrative dynamics in Scratch bears strong resemblance to Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), where Lina (Joan Fontaine) catches her husband Johnnie (Cary Grant) lying and works herself up to the conviction that he is planning to have her killed. But Johnnie could prove himself not guilty by simply talking to his wife. A path that is closed for Jan because Jadwiga, in her desperate effort to regain her certainty and identity, chooses to take on another woman’s personality just like a snake who, after shedding her old skin, reveals a new one underneath. The loss and search for home, and how devastating this could be for our souls, rests at the core of Michal Rosa’s film. A theme, quite common at the Cottbus film festival, where two other films, the Hungarian Delta and the Kazakh Tulpan deal with similar subject matter. Surprisingly, all three films feature a turtle as a symbol of this painful quest for home! Probably because the turtle wears his home on his back and loses it only when he dies…