There is No Good Without Evil

in 39th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Mariola Wiktor

Konrad Niewolski’s film Symmetry is not only a story about prison. Although the main character Lukasz ends up being arrested for assaulting an old lady, an offence which he did not commit, the ensuing enforced solitary confinement is a kind of metaphor. A prison is a place that forces one into self-assessment and thus into an extreme position. Contradictory to a life of freedom, where everyone can pretend to others and assume various disguises – behind bars there is no space for nonsense. White is white and black is black.

Lukasz purposely chooses a cell for “kite shooters”, that is old timers and the prison’s “elite” at the same time. He quickly realises that on his own he does not mean a thing. He is helpless. After all, he ended up in prison only because he had no alibi. During the assault he was in a cinema, but who is going to believe a lone spectator? Neither did the justice system help Lukasz. He already knows that to survive behind bars, group support is essential. The old timers give that support. But in return, they demand their own kind of solidarity. Lukasz, aware of delaying his release, joins in the group killing of a paedophile. This place is governed by different laws. The main character’s innocence eventually finds its counterpart. The Good sees itself in the reflection of the Evil, which explains the title of the film. Lukasz is also driven into participating in a crime by his elementary feeling for justice, which often clashes with the official interpretation of the law. In this case, the paedophile’s lawyer is preparing documentation, with the help of which his client will be released shortly.

Many critics consider that Niewolski’s film lacks the symmetry between the Ten Commandments and law, and the feeling of justice. This is another possible interpretation of the film’s title, both bitter and ironic at the same time. In the conversation with David, a prisoner sentenced for killing his wife’s rapist, one of the commandments being, “Honour your father and your mother” is now questioned. David asks: “And what about a father, who raped his own daughter?” In a world where everything becomes relative and which has lost its sense, one must give it a sense oneself. Such is the “bitter lesson” of survival given to Lukasz by David.

Symmetry with its expressive performances by Arkadiusz Detmer (Lukasz), Andrzej Chyra (David), Mariusz Jakus (Kosior), Borys Szoc (Albert), the stirring music by Michal Lorenc and suggestive cinematography by Arkadiusz Tomiak also disclose the film’s weaker points. At times the spectator is irritated by the journalistic literalness, for example the too conventional criticism of the Polish Judicial System. The character of the paedophile also seems too schematic and sketchy. One could also have some doubts about the opening of the film, which contained some scenes relating to the paedophile’s story. The story itself actually appears at the end. Lack of context and references to the past disorientate the spectator. The specific prison lingo may also create a barrier and not only for foreigners (Poles also do not use Kosior’s or Albert’s vocabulary on a daily basis). Admittedly, without it, the reality of the situation would be difficult to imagine but regardless of nationality, anyone who lacks prison experience (which is the case with the majority of the audience) cannot read the dialogue correctly without the help of a glossary. This is even more pronounced when coupled with an English translation. Even the best translation cannot reflect all the puns.

However, this, most certainly, is not a conventional and emotionless film and that was a view, which, beside many positive ones, I heard in Karlovy Vary. For the Polish audience, the main character of Symmetry, 26-year-old Lukasz, an unemployed university graduate who gets wrongly arrested, is an everyday person with whom they can easily identify. This bizarre, almost Kafkaesque situation, can be shared by anybody sitting in the audience at any time. The Polish spectator is convinced of Lukasz’s innocence (although this may not be necessarily so obvious to a foreign audience) and by identifying with him, the spectator gets locked in the cell like him. It is not an accident that we look at everything that happens behind the prison walls from Lukasz ‘s point of view. Through his eyes.

There is something else that lets us look at Symmetry differently. It will not be a gross mis-statement if I say, that in Poland, this film is seen as a specific continuation of the cinema tradition of moarl concern of the second half of the 70’s. The artistic contestation trend, which exposed the discrepancies between the officially proclaimed theories of the socialist system and the practice of everyday life, (distinguished by such directors as Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrzej Wajda, Janusz Kijowski, Krzysztof Zanussi or Agnieszka Holland) seems extremely inspiring, especially for the young Polish filmmakers. Prior to Niewolski, I could name especially, though not only, the directors of the Generation 2000 project: Lukasz Barczyk, Maciej Pieprzyca as well as many others. They, like their famous masters, pose difficult and inconvenient questions and query canons and general beliefs.

However, paradoxically, whereas 30 years ago the communist system was seen as the main enemy, the source of all Evil, today, seems to be… the lack of values. It is not even the system’s acceleration but the consequences of the economic transformation, which have not led to a transformation of mentality and failed to produce new personal idols or value systems.