Bez konca – No End

Poland, 1985

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

With Grazyna Szapolowska (Urszula Zyro), Jerzy Radziwilowicz (Antek Zyro), Krzysztof Krzeminski (Jacek Zyro), Marek Kondrat (Tomek), Maria Pakulnis (Joanna Stach), Artur Barcis (Darek Stach), Aleksander Bardini (Mieczyslaw Labrador), Michal Bajor (Miecio)

The man roving in an apartment, lightly stroking the hair of a sleeping boy, watching tenderly a woman who is also asleep, takes a chair, sits down, and starts talking to the camera, explaining that he is dead. So he is a ghost, still wandering through real life, yet this is not really a ghost story. The character of Antek Zyro matters more for the confused feelings and troubled situations he left in his wake after he suffered a heart attack than for what he was or what he can see and do in his peculiar state. He does not appear often, his thoughts are rarely recorded, he rarely interferes with the reality. Speaking in the film’s beginning, he mainly evokes his last moments; appearing later, he just highlights the tension that upsets the film’s two lead characters who must grapple with his absence, with a difference: in one case, the other character, who is bequeathed with his professional files, does not realize what is going on, while in the other case, the character does see him, at a key moment of her search for a way to carry on with life.

Dealing with grief and all that was left behind: Grazyna Szapolowska (left) and Aleksander Bardini

Lawyer Mieczyslaw Labrador had Antek Zyro as a trainee, but that was long ago; and it was even longer since he dared to help suspects embroiled in political affairs. But he is contacted by the stubborn wife of a worker who is in jail for organizing a trade union, a sensitive political case that caught the attention of Antek Zyro. Joanna Stach first tried to get the files from the hand of the lawyer’s widow, Urszula Zyro, who would rather hand it over to another professional, and stumbled across the name of Mieczyslaw Labrador as she was looking for a name her late husband could have pronounced. The old lawyer is fairly reluctant but then, when he learns he would be sent into retirement soon, changes his mind. With the help of a new trainee, Miecio, he reckons how to free Darek Stach and even spare him a long term.

Urszula Zyro only pays a limited attention to the case, even if she starts hobnobbing with the brave milieu of dissidents meeting at the apartment of Joanna Stach, whom she also awkwardly befriends. The case is only one path to remember and understand who Antek Zyro was and what their life as a couple did mean to her. The weeks that the story lasts are a deeply unsettling, taxing, and confusing period, and the film is a sober and sad chronicle of a woman at a loss, rocked by grief, wondering whether she made the right choice and what new choices are to make. She can still rely on the love, intelligence, and kindness of the son she had with Antek Zyro, Jacek Zyro, and on an old friend of the couple who shows up, ready to give a helping hand, to give information, and, if she only wanted so, to give love, Tomek.

“I have crossed to the other side”, Mieczyslaw Labrador says at the end of the trial, which he handsomely won, alluding not so much to his retirement than to his de facto alliance with fierce opponents to the regime. Moving away from what he has been doing for years, moving back to his early career, the lawyer has taken sides, risks too, but can be proud, even as Miecio is far more dubious and cautious. Yet, there is something deeply unsatisfactory in the outcome: it is startling than the brief, and suspended, jail sentence rather dismays, disheartens, displeases Darek Stach and his wife. The rebellious trade unionist has been manipulated by his cunning lawyer and forced to compromise. After first arguing in vain for his viewpoint, he had to give up on his hunger strike and condoned the endorsement of a new, but government-approved trade union. Freedom has a price: prevailing in court means and struggle looks suddenly too hard, even idle.

At the very end of the film, Urszula Zyro crosses to another side, too. For most of the time, she wailed, rummaged through mementos and others’ memories, slept with an American tourist, sought the help of a hypnotist, wondered if her life had been a success and could be. She tried to relate with the political plight the death of Antek Zyro has forced her to grapple with, but as Joanna Stach noted, she could not really care about the dissidents. Even her son did not seem to be enough of a motivation to keep living, at the end of the day. Suicide is her terrible, radical conclusion to the emotional journey she has made: to be reunited with Antek Zyro away from the depressing and hostile world of the living and of ideology is the best choice she eventually could make. Even if, scandalously, it implies to abandon a child.

The ghost of Antek Zyro lurks in the courtroom as the verdict is pronounced, and stands ready to embrace the soul of his widow. Things seems to come to full circle and the death of Antek Zyro, which caused so much stress and agitation, a tragedy pervading so intensely life and events (and death is often in attendance in this narrative, be it a horrific car crash witnessed by Urszula Zyro, or her casual, shocking discovery that a dissident she liked died swiftly from his cancer) now sounds eerily like an opportunity for a decent, honest, loving man to escape a difficult situation and another opportunity for others to make the tough choices that the period demands.

Shot in a remarkably bleak cinematography, “Bez konca – No End” may lack coherence, as even the director acknowledged. It remains, shot in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s native land little more than three years after the December 1981 coup, and set deliberately in the 1982 Poland then under martial law, a courageous and bold political film, going farther – could it be said, crossing to another side more clearly? – than his previous films. Unsurprisingly, it irked the authorities. Unsurprisingly, it stands as a morally complex and formidable narrative, a poignant view on what both love and struggle can be worth and can mean, revolving on a grief which is impossible to overcome and on a resistance which, in parallel, does not know how to prevail. And unsurprisingly the film features many elements that are awesome, penetrating, fascinating, from the vibrant performances of the lead actress, Grazyna Szapolowska, and actors Aleksander Bardini, Artur Barcis, and Jerzy Radziwilowicz, to the haunting score composed by Zbigniew Preisner.

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