Warsaw during World War II. The day promises to be wonderful. Together with her mom, little Róza celebrates her eighth birthday in a café. A stranger comes along and insists on having a serious word with the mother, and the girl is told to leave and wait in front of the nearby church. But mother and daughter never see again. All of a sudden, the Gestapo raid the street and many Jews are arrested. Róza manages to escape, hiding in the church. Her mother however disappears and so she is left all on her own, hungry and almost frozen to death. But there is blessing in disguise: A woman, called Joanna (Urszula Grabowska was awarded the prize for best leading actress in recognition of her sensitive presentation) finds her, takes care of her, and hides her in her big flat, substituting for her mother as best as she could. But this is not all: Joanna is checking up on the girl’s mother and even asks her sister for old toys, pretending to collect them for an orphanage. When Róza falls ill with influenza, she also provides her with sparse medicaments. Meanwhile, uninvited visitors like the distrustful landlady or a curious neighbour make the flat into an increasingly dangerous place for both of them. The situation becomes even more threatening when Róza is spotted at the window by a neighbour’s boy. Soon afterwards, SS men raid the flat but as by a miracle they do not find the girl’s hiding place. Surprisingly, the francophile NS officer withdraws his orders when he discovers Stendhal’s novel “Le Rouge et Le Noir” on a shelf. And it is not his last visit. Next time, he would rush in with a bottle of wine…
In an emotionally intimate and highly sympathetic, yet unsentimental way, the Polish director Feliks Falk tells this very touching story about an unselfish woman of strong personality who — unlike the girl — is rather privileged at the beginning but loses everything at the end. In a way, the main characters mirror each other while changing roles. When Joanna is wrongly accused of collaboration with the Germans, feeling debased and losing her hold, Róza looks after her affectionately.
Falk is one of the great protagonists of Polish cinema, on a par with Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski and Krysztof Kieslowski. The Intimacy of acting and the sparingly used music emphasise the heroine’s growing internal restlessness and contribute to the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere.
In an interview, Feliks Falk very openly addressed the problem of his film’s reception. When preparing the project, American critics expressed reservations with regard to its subject. And while there are indeed a vast number of productions dealing with the Holocaust, and sometimes one might feel rather overwhelmed, this film has its unique place. Falk abstains from accusations and develops his characters in a most sophisticated way. Particularly the German SS-man, who in his complexity is a contradiction to well-known stereotypes, thus reminding of Polanski’s drama The Pianist.
Above all, the stirring impact of Joanna comes from its characters with whom Falk closely identifies. He explores them with remarkable psychological subtlety, yet avoids emotional excess even in the most dramatic scenes. Thus although related to the Holocaust, the story transcends its historical background and, thanks to Falk’s artistry and his first-class actors, Joanna is a true masterpiece of timeless validity.
© FIPRESCI 2011