Poland, 1981, 1987
Directed by Krzysztof Kiewslowski
With Boguslaw Linda (Witek Dlugoz), Tadeusz Lomnicki (Werner), Zbigniew Zapasiewicz (Adam), Boguslawa Pawelec (Czuszka), Jacek Borkowski (Marek), Adam Ferency (Father Stefan), Jacek Sas-Uhrynowski (Daniel), Marzena Trybala (Werka), Monika Gozdzik (Olga), Zygmunt Hübner (Dziekan)
A fast-paced, chaotic, tragic collection of pictures welcomes the audience as the film begins, bits of a puzzle hard to understand, maelstrom of memories and emotions. This is not the clearest, more reassuring way to introduce a lead character, but it is through fragments that Witek Dlugoz slowly emerges, as a young man living in Lodz, whose mother died when giving birth to him in the bloody mayhem of a Poznan hospital overwhelmed by the victims of a police crackdown, whose father was the only parent available to raise him, without always much enthusiasm it seems, whose school years had ups and downs and were marred by the sudden departure of a best friend, Daniel, and whose student life was dedicated to medicine. But when his father dies suddenly, Witek Dlugoz must reckon what to do next in his life.
He dashes through the streets and the railway station to get on a Warsaw-bound train. He seems it is about to miss it despite his record-breaking running, but eventually hops inside the last coach in the nick of time. He strikes up a friendship there with an old man, Werner. Werner is a Communist activist who yet got in the past embroiled in bitter fights and political repression. He is on the fringe now, looking more like a dissident than a stalwart. But he introduces Witek Dlugoz to Adam, a comrade who had his share of problems and who has married Werner’s wife. Adam is still a Communist Party member, with some influence, and the hope he could help reform it. Under Adam’s guidance, Witek Dlugoz becomes a political operator, and even a troubleshooter for a rising star of the party. By chance the young man stumbles on the first woman he loved, Czuszka. They sleep together.
Witek Dlugoz thinks he has got what could be the best. But Czuszka has dissidents as friends, and she does not support the ruling regime. And Adam finds about it, and so does the secret police – the film does not make plain the politician passed on the confidence made by his young favorite, but it is what Witek Dlugoz thinks and this is why he beats his patron and vows to quit politics. He does not only lose a job but also his lover, as Czuszka, for her part, reckons he is the one who spilled the beans. Witek Dlugoz tries then to go to France, on an official trip that has already been planned, but it sounds like he has fallen in a trap.
But has he reached the Polish capital? The film cuts into the same high-octane rush through the streets and the railway station, a long, carefully crafted sequence shot painstakingly and precisely, and this time Witek Dlugoz cannot get on the train. He picks a fight with a train conductor: he is tried and sentenced to do some work for the community. It proves the opportunity to meet Marek. The young man is a dissident, and finds it easy to rally the disgruntled former medicine student. Witek Dlugoz then meets a more senior figure, Father Stefan, and gets seriously involved in printing critical papers and books and hosting secret meetings where folks in the know can get in touch with a political counter-culture. One evening, he runs into Daniel, who has been living in Denmark and came to bury his mother. He is introduced to Daniel’s sister, Werka. Soon both are romantically involved but fail to get along. This is not his only fiasco: he has been watched by the secret police, and if he did not get arrested, some of his companions were, raising the suspicion he is a traitor. Still, he remains as opposed to the regime as ever, clinging to the Christian faith a fellow dissident presented to him as essential, and welcoming the news that workers are up in arms across Poland.
But has he ever fought the regime? Once again the film cuts into this run through streets and the Lodz railway station, once again there is the suspense about getting on the train or not, once again there is a clear outcome: he misses the train. What stands next is a beautiful blonde, a medicine student who did not give up, and who digs him. In this shortest of the three segments, things are simple and move swiftly: he sleeps with Olga, goes back to the university, convincing his professor Dziekan to take him back in the school of medicine, marries Olga, is graduated, begins a successful career. Despite pressure from both sides of the political divide, Witek Dlugoz refuses to take sides: he does not become a member of the Communist Party and does not sign petitions. However, the son of Dziekan is arrested for political reasons: the old man tries to fix up the problem, painfully aware that the incident would cost his job. He must give up on a trip to Libya and asks Witek Dlugoz to fly away, to deliver the lectures Dziekan was to give. Witek Dlugoz accepts, despite the fact it means he helps a politically tainted, toxic personality. But it is a bad idea: the plane explodes soon after taking off.
In this third part, third possible future for Witek Dlugoz, he gets a fairly ordinary, quiet, and blissful life, with a good job, a successful marriage, and no big fuss to handle. He steers clear of politics, and would make a favor to Dziekan only out of loyalty and respect for the old physician and lecturer. But death is unimpressed, to say the least: his life is brutally cut short while in the two other alternate destinies he still has time on his hand, most probably a tough and unpredictable future, but still a life to enjoy even as he has been far less luckier in his political and romantic commitment.
This may be the harshest lesson, the most terribly clear-sighted view that could be drawn from this riveting examination of what blind chance can cause, this practical exercise in designing a narrative arc for a fictional character, this fine play with the elements of editing, casting, and storytelling. Abraham Lincoln once said we cannot escape history – it seems to director Krzysztof Kiewslowski that there are conspicuous moments when the individual cannot avoid making political choices. Even if one refuses taking a stance, it is hard to skip the consequences of others’ political choices as the third Witek Dlugoz must face – though he tries not to articulate what it is about. Happiness remains elusive in a world where ideologies and principles clash in a matter of life and death, of dignity and slavery too. The great question is thus what choice one is ready to make: the two other Witek Dlugoz took radically different courses, each clinically and lucidly analyzed, each leading to a dead end, but it can be felt there is something more rewarding, dignified in going for rebellion than in sticking with the powers that be.
The film has two dates. The first, 1981, is the year when the film was shot, testing times for a Communist regime under assault from workers seeking a better life and more liberties, a political challenge that has been rambling on for a decade and would lead in December 1981 to a military-led, rearguard coup d’état. The film was not released in theaters, right away censored by the government, so obvious and blunt was the political contents, so vigorous and poignant was the observation that the state of the nation required to speak out and fight on, with no illusion wasted on the possibility of reform or the hope of avoiding the worst – and the worst had always been hanging around the Poles, as pointed out by the bloodbath that welcomed Witek Dlugoz when he was born in 1956, a daring reference to the time and tested ability of the Communist Party to crush demonstrators. The second date, 1987, is a time when the regime tried to loosen its grip and moved closer to the population; two years later, it would commit suicide by allowing opponents to have a share in the political institutions. The film was more acceptable, but it remained incomplete: still missing was the graphic depiction of the way police clobbered the lead character at the beginning of his second possible future. But it was plain how justified Kiewslowski was in his views.
The most political and ideological film he made is also a remarkable effort at observing coincidences and chances, an astute choreography of events that get repeated with sometimes a small twist smartly changing part of the picture, though with little consequences, and of characters that move from one part to another with various impact on the lead character (and even inside the same part, as it is the case of a drug addict in the first possible future for Witek Dlugoz). Life is always streaming one way or another even if it is trapped in a small world: chance would always play a part, but so would what people do with what they get, or lose. The human experience still boils down to the attitudes that are taken, the choices that are made, the kind of connection to the society and the life that is chosen.