Sunday, 17 February 2013
I am a fan of the Polish Director Krysztof Kieslowski and so watched this - his feature debut - with interest. Made in 1976 it chronicles, in a docudrama kind of way, the decision to build a massive synthetic fertiliser factory in the forgotten and underdeveloped old town of Olecko close to the Russian border. The film offers an insight into Polish socialism of the Soviet era which is grittily realistic and which should serve as a stark warning to anyone who thinks this style of social ordering will be Utopian. I found the images and themes resonant with distant memories of my teens - part of the soundtrack I grew up with.
The film's story is sandwiched between two important political events 20 years apart. In 1976 Bednarz' wife was a local party official who, in firing a teacher unleashed an undefined scandal in a period when social unrest was challenging the status quo. Now 20 year's later, Bednarz has been chosen by the Party to be the Director of a massive new factory and the the new town that will be built to house its workforce and their families. Bednarz' wife refuses to return to the town with him and remains in Silesia. Their daughter still lives in Olecko but has little direct contact with her parents preferring to live a life of freedom and seeming promiscuity.
This is social engineering on a massive scale. It is clear that the local party officials want the plant at any cost and decide that it will occupy the site of an ancient forest. The locals protest and are overruled. The local leader angles for the Directorship of the project and is spurned by the national heavy-weights who want to install their own man and loyal party member - Bednarz. Not only is the project ill-conceived - it's location is poor, the tainting of ancient Olecko sets the locals against the project, the pollution the factory emits is widespread and highly toxic, the factory is poorly built and soon begins to crumble - it mirrors the development of Bednarz' own life and his deteriorating relationships with his wife and daughter. In this respect, the film is well titled.
In Poland, 1976 was an important year as it saw the first protests by workers which went on to become the fore-runner of the Solidarity movement born in the shipyards of Gdansk in 1980, which in turn pushed the country slowly and inexorably towards its break with Soviet Russia. It seems Bednarz' conscience is pricked by the way the Party planning process imposed the factory on the local community and the way it treats the locals. He bravely goes out to address the striking throng at the end of the film and offers them his support. Perhaps this is genuine or perhaps he is glad of the chance to make amends for his failure to more fully back the 1976 uprising 20 years earlier and so vindicate his wife.
Overall this is a bleak film. Most of the time the colours a bleached and there is very little warmth in any of the characters - the Party machine trundles on deploying a multiplicity of hierarchies who convene in endless cycles of meetings to discuss workers' ideologies and production targets. The new housing and other social provision is not seen as advancement by the residents of this previously primitive and underdeveloped town as economic refugees flock to the town looking for work and accommodation. The story is punctuated by slowly panned shots of the bleak landscape accompanied by the soundtrack of industrial machinery which is both visually and aurally jarring in a 1970's avant-garde kind-of-way.
The real casualties are the people. The local residents, the workers, the party activists seeking status and advancement, Bednarz, his wife and daughter. There are no human winners here. The film presents a human-less machine called the Party which imposes its will unthinkingly and arbitrarily on the citizens and comrades of Poland. This is a brave film - particularly when we note that it was made in 1976 whilst Poland was still in the grip of its Soviet neighbour. Kieslowski's first feature laid a solid foundation for the films that were to follow - films that explore what it is be, find meaning in life and enjoy fruitful relationships. It is good to be reminded periodically of a world that existed not so long ago - just in case we might ever be tempted by the kind of Utopia it pretended to offer. I'll give it 7/10.