DVD Review Of A Generation
Copyright © by Dan
Sometimes films get reputations way out of proportion with their artistic merit simply because they expound a point of view that the public, or critics, like or agree with. Such is the case with the first feature length film from Polish film legend Andrzej Wajda. Released in 1955, the 87 minute long black and white film A Generation (Pokolenie), is not a particularly good film. No, it’s not a bad film, but it visually resembles a mediocre 1940s film noir admixed with a touch of Italian Neo-Realism from its blighted and impoverished landscapes. Its characters, such as they are, are not realistic, and merely one dimensional tools for the agitprop that is at the heart of the film.
Yes, one must realize that the film needed to be green lighted by Polish censors, but unlike the ways a more mature Wajda, and later filmmakers like Roman Polanski (who has a small acting role in the film) and Krzysztof Kieslowski (called the Polish School), would, A Generation plays out more like a Primer for Communism. It became part of a de facto War Trilogy of films made about Poland’s World War Two Experience, and it is packaged by The Criterion Collection as part of a Three War Films collection, along with Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół I Diament). Hopefully the two later films provide more true cinema to be savored.
But, if the film is no great success technically- the attempts to show real gunfire are especially lame (even when one considers they used real bullets, not blanks), then the screenplay by Bohdan Czeszko, based upon his same title novel, is truly lame, and the acting, mostly by non-professionals shows through. One can get away with non-professionalism in certain roles, especially if the tyro is surrounded by pros and the character is not asked to do much. But in ensemble pieces like this, to go amateur it beg for a mercy killing.
A précis of the film’s tale would read like this: In Nazi occupied
Poland in 1943, the Communists were bravely organizing resistance and setting
the stage for the liberation of Poland- which in reality enslaved that nation
for ten times as long as the Nazis did. They fought the good fight for the Jews
during the Warsaw Uprising- well, only in this film, not in reality. No one but
the Jews, really, stood up for the Jews. Even the Communists’ rivals, the
nationalistic and anti-Communist Home Army, did little for the Jews, although
they did much more for the Poles. And the Communists were also prone to
soliloquizing on the raptures of equality for all- and it was especially
effective when the local shill for the Party was a sexy blond. This last fact
may or may not be true, but most of the rest of the film is such blatant
agitprop that the only saving grace for the film could be if there was enough
action or depth to counterbalance the propagandizing. There is not.
The film follows an anomic wannabe criminal and/or apprentice at a factory named Stach Mazur (Tadeusz Lomnicki), who lives in the suburban slums of Warsaw, and putatively narrates the film. He is the typical disaffected youth who becomes enamored of Communist principles after getting a hardon when he spies the aforementioned sexy blond proselytizing at the local school he attends. While trying to steal coal from a passing Nazi train, he is wounded and a friend shot dead (with a VERY unconvincing special effects and death scene). He escapes into the sewers where he meets the man who will shepherd him first to the factory, and then into the Party. This is Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz, who may have been the only professional actor in the cast, for his performance towers above the rest, even if it is nothing for the history books), and he is a somewhat mysterious figure.
The beautiful blond Resistance fighter is named Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), whose real name we later find out is Eve- a tactic that protects the Resistance fighters from ever knowing too much if caught. She gives Stach the name Bartek, and the inevitable happens. They fall in love, he gets involved in some intrigue that ends with some Nazis being killed, and he gets hunted down, along with his Resistance Fighter pals. One of them- Jasio Krone (Tadeusz Janczar), a reluctant joiner of the Party, is killed, but Stach survives, only to find that the Gestapo has captured Dorota at her apartment. Stach can do nothing as they haul her away to execution. The film ends, however, with Stach being queried by password (‘Do you sell down feathers?) by an even younger wannabe Resistance Fighter for the Party. Despite his grief, Stach goes on, and embraces the younger children and rebels he will lead into the glorious Red future- which, of course, in many ways, was as bad and worse than what the Nazis provided.
Neither Modrzynska nor Lomnicki, as the two idealistic lovers, provides any real sparks, although Modrzynska could have become a major film starlet in America. Janczar, as Jasio, however, is a far more rich and ambiguous character than the two leads. He is the closest to a James Dean like character in the film, who feels a disgust after he kills a Nazi with braggadocio, and loathes both the Nazis and Communists equally. Not surprisingly, it was Janczar who became a major Piolish film star, and immediately went to work on the later two films in the trilogy. Of course, as this film was pure propaganda, he must die for disbelieving in the virtues of the Party, Thankfully, he dies a spectacular death, chased up a tenement, and then swan diving down several flights of spiral stairs to his death. One wonders if Alfred Hitchcock ever watched this scene and used it in his famed scene, of a similar nature, in Vertigo? Of course, like much in this film- from the pro-Commie speechifying (where those who advocate real democracy are seen as worse than the Nazis) to the heavyhanded symbolism, the death scene is meant to show Jasio in the role of Poland- or more accurately, its youthful generation, with nowhere to turn, and giving up the ghost.
The DVD features are sparse. There is no audio commentary, no trailer, and just a meager insert essay on the film, by film scholar Ewa Mazierska. There are some publicity stills on the disk, and two real extras. One is Wajda’s first documentary film short, 1951’s Ceramics From Ilza (Ceramika Ilzecka), and a 34 minute long interview with director and film critic Jerzy Plazewski called Andrzej Wajda: On Becoming A Filmmaker. It’s informative, but rather rote.
The cinematography by Jerzy Lipman is solid but unspectacular, and the scoring not even up to Hollywood B film melodrama standards. Often, mediocre films like this are defended by acolytes on grounds that its visuals are ‘pure cinema,’ or some such. Well, this one’s are not, but even were the mise-en-scene great, it would not make up for the leaden acting, dull script, and agitprop galore. Given that an average feature film will have dozens to hundreds of framed shots, the laws of average, and random chance, will demand that a few will be well-composed. So? It’s whether or not a far greater number than average are which matters. Or whether or not the few that are are super-poetic, or the like. Then, one might have an argument over the visual elements raising up the bar for the film. A Generation lacks that, all of that.
Similarly, although it is reasonable to argue that the Marxist references in the film were intended, at the time, as a sly backhanded critique of the system, none of that matters now, as it is simply blatant agitprop. Great art rises above such strictures, and the idiocies of would be censors. Minor anachronisms- such as a racist caricature of a black man on a cuckoo clock, are not as egregious, since it is emblemic of the times and its attitudes. Overall, A Generation does show some promise, especially in the Jasio Krone character, and a few scenes of realistic interplay, such as when Dorota and Stach first have sex, because she refuses to let him leave after the Nazi curfew has come. But, these are few. Wajda may have gone on to become a great filmmaker, but that grace is not evident here. Perhaps that is another legacy of art in totalitarian states, inside or outside a celluloid frame.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
Return to Bylines