Monday, November 12, 2012

The Totentanz. Scenes from the Warsaw Uprising (orig. Taniec śmierci. Sceny z powstania warszawskiego)[2012]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis 4 Stars listing

The Totentanz. Scenes from the Warsaw Uprising (orig. Taniec śmierci. Sceny z powstania warszawskiego) []* [2012] is an excellent historical film that writer/director Leszek Wosiewicz [IMDb] []*) has been taking to various international festivals over the past several years and the writer/director is still tweaking.  He came to the 24th Polish Film Festival in America/Chicago with two versions.  The version that I saw was the one that he took to the 16th Annual Shanghai International Film Festival, which he told us was more technique driven.  A second more character driven version was to be shown here later in the week.

Growing up, I always associated Polish cinema with basically the war, the war being World War II.  And since it took until the fall of Communism in 1989 to begin telling the stories of the war period (and of the subsequent Communist era) in freedom, it was perhaps inevitable that the stories of the past would finally have to come out and explode onscreen in the years following.

So even today it's almost impossible for me to imagine a festival like the 24th Polish Film Festival in America/Chicago to arrive here without a substantial number of films shown still dealing with various aspects of World War II or the subsequent Communist era.  This would seem to me to be simply inevitable, cathartic and over time redemptive.  Life across Eastern Europe (and then Poland in a special way) was simply awful (approaching the very border of "unbearable") from onset of World War II in 1939 (which began with the Nazi _and_ Soviet invasion of Poland) to the fall of Communist totalitarianism fifty years later.

Then among the various massacres, betrayals and tragedies that occurred over the course of those years, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 led by the non-Communist/British leaning Polish "Home Army" of partisans and the subsequent Nazi leveling of the city to cruelly beat down the Poles _one last time_ while the British/Americans found that they could do next to nothing and the Soviet army resting (after a major offensive) on the other side of Vistula River from Warsaw (and thus could have done something) _chose_ to do next to nothing, was a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions.

It is in the truly Apocalypse in the making rubble strewn streets and gutted buildings of Warsaw during the uprising that Leszek Wosiewicz [IMDb] []* tells his story.  And he doesn't pull any punches.  The overwhelming message of this film would seem to be that in wartime "moral clarity" is for simpletons and idiots.  The story is told entirely from the perspectives of the terrified and often pragmatic/scheming civilians hunkering down in the tunnels and basements of Warsaw while the uprising that _they_ didn't call for (but was now being viciously put down) took place all around them.

At the beginning of the film, the 30-something mother of one of the film's principal protagonists declares to the others hiding around her in some basement somewhere in Warsaw that "raped or not raped" she's going to flee the city.  And put the exclamation point on her declaration: "And if you think I'm going to resist (being raped) no I'm not.  For what?  Just to get a bullet in my head?"  Yet, there's her 14-15 year old son Marek (played by Rafał Fudalej []*).  What to do with him?

She tries to dress him as a woman but realizes that this will be hopeless.  The two part with Marek deciding that he's going to try to find his dad who's something of a "big shot" among the resistance leaders somewhere in the center of town.  Trying to reach him is something of a suicide mission, but Marek's mother (played by Małgorzata Sadowska []*) knows that _she can't save him_.  Perhaps (if he can get to him) his father can.  So he and another adolescent boy Tomek, a boy scout (scouts like Tomek had been used by the resistance leaders as message couriers during the uprising) set out to reach the resistance headquarters in the center of town, while Marek's mom sets out to flee the city.

In the course of their journey through mountains of rubble and crushed / gutted buildings with occasional German Stukas bombing overhead, they come across a young woman named Irena (played by Magdalena Cielecka []*) who's about to be hung by a group of terrified Polish civilians who are convinced that she's a German spy.  "Wherever you arrive, the bombs arrive soon afterwards," an angry/terrified middle aged woman in a torn, mud-covered frock accuses her.  The others already have a noose aaround her neck when Marek steps forward and declares that he knows her and that she's innocent.  Actually, he didn't know her at all, but even in the chaos he apparently couldn't bear to watch a small mob of terrified civilians put a young woman to death.

And it turns out that Irena isn't all that innocent.  A lifelong resident of Warsaw, she's nevertheless ethnic German.  But she's looking for her 10 year old half-Polish/half-German son, who apparently is running around as a courier for the resistance as well.  This is because his step-father, lifelong Warsawite and ETHNIC GERMAN AS WELL who Irena had married "to make her son 100% German" ACTUALLY CHOSE TO SIDE WITH THE POLES in the war and as a (now underground) officer in the Polish Army was again a significant member of the resistance.  (Who would have imagined...?)

So she is walking among the rubble-strewn streets and gutted basements of Warsaw looking for her son _playing everybody_ trying to find him and then hoping also to get out of the city (in her case presumably with the German army to whom she feels closer).  It is her "playing" (or "dancing with") everybody (saying what she has to say, doing what she has to do) gives the film its name "Totentanz" / "Taniec śmierty" ("Death Dance").

Much obviously ensues.  How does it turn out?  Well ... guess.

I found the film both jarring and brave and then a reminder that "from a distance" on a nice neat map somewhere war perhaps can make sense.  However from the level at which this film was made, from the perspectives of the civilians trapped in the horror, it honestly made no sense at all. 

* At the time of the writing of this review, machine translation of the text on links given above appears to work best using the Chrome browser rather than Firefox or MS Explorer.

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