Friday, December 07, 2007

Eroica (1958)* * *

Eroica (link to DVD at Amazon)
The very title of this film, Eroica (English title: Heroism), seems to be a sarcastic play on the meaning of heroism. The protagonists in the two short stories in this film are hardly what one would call heroes. The two stories are set during WWII. The movie was made in 1957, so just after Stalin died but Poland was still in the grips of communist censorship. The director is Andrzej Munk, who is apparently one of the Polish great directors although I don't know his work and he died in 1961. The film was meant to be a trilogy but ended up as a bilogy.

The first film (Scherzo alla Polacca) tells the story of a self-centered man who gets disenchanted with the idea of being a volunteer soldier in the Warsaw Uprising against the Germans in 1944. He sneaks off during basic training and goes back to his wife -- who it turns out has taken in a Hungarian officer as a lover. Ah so much for the myth of the brave partisan and his steadfast girl waiting for him at home. He is a coward, but perhaps that is sign of his sanity. Unwillingly, he is pressed into being a courier between a Hungarian brigade that wants to sneak weapons to the Polish partisans. Ultimately, the effort is futile. Unfortunately at the very end of the movie, the man makes a sappy turn-around in character and abandons his self-centered ways and goes to help the the uprising. It would have been more in character with the movie if the man remained cynical and flipped his finger at the uprising. I got the feeling that a censor prohibited such a cynical ending.

The second film (Ostinato Lugubre) tells the story of a group of Polish Officers who
are prisoners of war in a German camp. Most of them have been there about 5 years and they are all now missing a few marbles. The are treated well and eat enough, but the constant confinement, lack of privacy, and resulting "submarine fever" lead to depression and other mental illnesses. One man can no longer deal with the lack of privacy and "escapes" -- into some ductwork above the toilets. The others think he has really escaped and he becomes a symbol of hope and pride for the entire camp. Two men who know of it steal food for him and protect his secret, a secret that must be kept for the sake of the morale of the camp. All the while the escapee is slowly sinking into complete depression and insanity in his little hole. There is something deeply cynical and bitter about this story and I wonder if it was not meant as an allegory for life in communist Poland in the 1950s. This was the Stalinist period and life was very hard. People were not starving, but rather they were in a prison of the mind not unlike that in the POW camp depicted here.

This movie features prominently in The Red and the White: The Cinema of People’s Poland by Paul Coates, a book on the post-war cinema in Poland.

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