Tag Archives: Polish

CAPSULE: THE MAN WITH THE MAGIC BOX (2017)

Czlowiek z magicznym pudelkiem

DIRECTED BY: Bodo Kox

FEATURING: Piotr Polak, Olga Boladz, Sebastian Stankiewicz

PLOT: In Warsaw in the near future, an amnesiac man (whose memory may have been wiped by the government) goes to work as a janitor and falls in love with a superior, but the past inevitably catches up to him.

Still from The Man with the Magic Box (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has a record player that plays postcards, a radio that tunes itself to the self-hypnosis channel, and a government that’s possibly putting hallucinogenic drugs in the water supply, it’s not quite strange enough for us. It is well outside the boundaries of what an average person expects to find in a low budget dystopian sci-fi thriller, however.

COMMENTS: Specialty distributor Artsploitation fulfills a crucial film niche by taking chances on arty, low-budget genre fare from (mostly) outside the English-speaking world. I’m discovering a pattern, however: always skip their horror offerings, and take a flier on their weird fantasy or sci-fi offerings. You may find a hit or two. The Man with the Magic Box fits that general strategy, and although it’s not a breakout film for the distributor, it is an interesting one.

Magic Box takes place a mere 13 years in the future. Its dystopian aspirations echo Brazil and Blade Runner, it name checks Men in Black, and it pays direct homage to a scene in Fight Club, but despite all the tributes to his influences, Bodo Kox’s film does become its own thing. If you can swallow the big, implausible plot twist, your hundred minutes in Warsaw, 2030 will be well-spent.

This future society feels more advanced than a single decade forward in time; but at the same time it’s a cinematically familiar future, and one that’s anxious to create a deliberate link to Poland’s Communist past. At first, placing amnesiac Adam in a pre-WWII-era flat seems like a cost-cutting measure to save precious prop money that might be spent on futuristic doo-dads, but it turns out there is a purpose behind the setting—it allows Adam to find the titular “magic box.” The film alternates between scenes set in 2033 and in the past, with a few set entirely in the “superconsciousness” or in a virtual reality “Alice in Wonderland” themed park. The World of Tomorrow utilizes an antiseptic silver-blue metallic color scheme, while a grungy sepia-brown denotes the past. Secret police roam both landscapes. The future is full of cost-conscious innovations like cybernetic eyes, invisible cell phones, pets that resemble robotic vacuum cleaners, talking mailboxes, and limited Internet access, along with a few big effects like a terrorist attack that levels a skyscraper. The film uses its limited CGI budget with considerable economy to create a universe that feels fairly real.

Piotr Polak’s Adam is a bit of a blank slate. He’s an awkward weirdo, but he doesn’t attract too much attention because everyone in the future is a self-absorbed weirdo, oblivious to other people’s eccentricities. The closest thing Adam finds to a friend is Sebastian, the autistic janitor who trains him for his new minimum wage job and who lives in a closet. But it’s Adam’s fast-talking, model-skinny love interest Gloria (Olga Boladz), a hot-to-trot executive at the miscellaneous firm where Adam is sent to clean, who makes the biggest impression. She’s odd even by this world’s standards, addicted to slumming it with attractive custodians in a world where any interest in sex appears to be fairly taboo. And, she can really pull off an optical illusion hoop skirt. Gloria starts at the periphery but moves towards the center as the film progresses.

In true 1984 fashion, the apparatchiks of The Man in the Magic Box try to stamp out romantic love as the final obstacle to complete loyalty to the State. As previously mentioned, the film explicitly draws parallels between Communist Poland and the world of the near future it prophesies. The depressing implication is that totalitarianism is the natural state of Poland (and possibly of humanity), and any other system is a temporary aberration.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…stylish and eccentric, but… also disciplined and coherent…”-Ola Salwa, Cineuropa (festival screening)

305. THE LURE (2015)

Córki Dancingu

“Our mermaids don’t look like sweet mermaids from Disney. We wanted to kill Disney.” –Agnieszka Smoczyńska

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska, Kinga Preis, Jakub Gierszal

PLOT: Two mermaid sisters, Silver and Golden, wash up on the shores of Warsaw. They hook up with a family synth-pop band, joining their act in a seedy nightclub. Their voices bewitch everyone around them, but Golden’s carnivorous appetite and Silver’s infatuation with a young bass player lead to horror and heartbreak.

Still from The Lure (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Screenwriter Robert Bolesto was inspired by his friends Zuzia and Basia Wrońska and their childhood growing up around a nightclub in the 1980s. Director Agnieszka Smoczyńska had had a similar childhood experience, and decided to create a horror-fantasy allegory with that setting. The script was initially conceived as a straightforward biography of the sisters, but both the Wrońskas and Smoczyńska felt it was too personal, so the characters were changed to mermaids. Because mermaids are known for singing and the setting was a nightclub, the film easily evolved into a musical.
  • The Wrońska sisters form the Polish-language synth pop band Ballady i Romanse. They composed the music for The Lure. They appear at the end of the film in the wedding scene.
  • Much of the visual style pulls from the art of Aleksandra Waliszewska, who paints twisted, adult fairy tale scenes, as well as photographer Nan Goldin, known for her seedy images of the New York club scene and queer subculture in the 80s.
  • Though it was praised at its Sundance debut, in its native Poland the film received a mixed response. According to Smoczyńska, Poland doesn’t have a tradition of musicals (The Lure has been called Poland’s first musical) or horror. Those elements weren’t advertised at all, so incoming audiences did not realize what they were in for.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Smoczyńsky addresses the reality of mer-people anatomy by showing a mermaid-human transplant. Shot from above, a mermaid lies on ice in a long metal gurney and sings sadly, while a surgeon saws through her torso and then stitches on a pair of human legs (taken from an anonymous woman lying on ice next to her). It is at once clinical, tragic, and sweet, made all the more memorable for being part of a low-key musical number.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Merman punk rocker; breastfeeding mermaids; fish labia

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though working with some familiar source material, the film manages to feel fresh and strange. The visceral effects and gore matched against the upbeat synth tunes; the fantasy characters in a grimy, all-too-real world; the loss of chronology in the narrative; the sense that nothing is quite what it seems, that there is something under the surface of it all: no single element makes it weird, but rather a host of assorted factors.


Brief musical scene from The Lure

COMMENTS: A simple description of The Lure seems impossible. It’s Continue reading 305. THE LURE (2015)

271. THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

Sanatorium pod Klepsydra; AKA The Sandglass

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. “–Hamlet, Act III, Sc. 1

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: As the film opens, Józef is on a train headed to a sanatorium where his dead father is being kept. When he arrives, the grounds are deserted and decrepit, but eventually he finds a doctor who leads him to his now-sleeping father’s room and explains the patient’s comatose-but-alive status: “the trick is that we moved back time… we reactivate past time with all its possibilities.” Józef then wanders through the sanatorium’s grounds, meeting his mother, a collector of automatons, a parade of men dressed in bird costumes, the Three Wise Men, and other strange characters.

Still from The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was primarily based on Polish Surrealist author Bruno Schultz’s short-story collection “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass,” although it included ideas from some of the author’s other short stories. (A Schulz story was also the inspiration for the ‘ stop-animation nightmare “The Street of Crocodiles“).
  • Wojciech Has worked on this project for five years.
  • The Hourglass Sanatorium did not receive the blessing of the Polish censors and was banned. Has had copies smuggled to the Cannes Film Festival, where it tied for the jury prize (at that time, essentially third place). In apparent retaliation for his insubordination, the Communist Party did not approve any of Has’ new film projects for the next ten years.
  • In Poland, an hourglass is a symbol of death.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oddly enough, especially given how visually sumptuous The Hourglass Sanatorium is, the image which best evokes the movie isn’t even in it. I speak of the famous theatrical release poster by Polish artist Franciszek Starowieyski, which depicts a giant orange eyeball perched on a jawbone, with a grill of teeth through which a worm crawls (a limbless woman’s torso is also stuck between its molars), while numbers and arrows illustrate features of bone anatomy like occult footnotes. The poster seizes upon the film’s major theme of death; Starowieyski was also picking up on the repeated motif of eyeballs which occurs throughout the Sanatorium, from the train conductor’s blind stare to the cobweb-covered eyeball collection Józef finds under the bed. To illustrate the film, we ultimately chose the image of a toppled wax automaton with his eye-socket popped open to reveal the gears inside—but when I think of The Hourglass Sanatorium, I always think of that poster first.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crow frozen in flight; Józef spying on Józef; eyeballs under the bed

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Hourglass Sanatorium is a rare work of genuine Surrealism. Seldom has any film ever captured the free-falling feeling of being lost in a dream so well: the portentous but inexplicable visions; the tenuous, tantalizing connections between ideas; the smooth and continuous shifting of realities. Let a blind conductor be your guide inside a crumbling hospital whose rooms hold wonder after wonder.


Brief clip from The Hourglass Sanatorium (in Polish)

COMMENTS: Sanatorium pod Klepsydra opens on the silhouette of a Continue reading 271. THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

265. THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

Rekopis Znaleziony w Saragossie

“Simultaneously erotic, horrific and funny… This is one mother of a film.”– on The Saragossa Manuscript

Must See

 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Zbigniew Cybulski

PLOT: During a battle in Saragossa during the Napoleonic Wars, a soldier wanders into a house and discovers a large book which enthralls him (and his captor). In it, he reads the story of the Walloon captain Alfons Van Worden, who meets, and is seduced by, two princesses while sleeping at a haunted inn, only to wake up under a gallows between two hanged men. Van Worden’s further adventures include meeting a hermit, a cabalist, a gypsy leader, and other colorful characters, each of whom have tales to tell—often leading to stories inside of stories.

Still from The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Saragossa Manuscript is a mostly faithful, if necessarily abridged, adaptation of Jan Potocki’s massive 19th-century novel “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa” (occasionally translated as “The Saragossa Manuscript: A Collection of Weird Tales”). Potcoki was a fascinating character, worthy of his own novel. A Count, adventurer (he was the first Pole to fly in a hot air balloon) and polymath, he published The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in fragments during his life. Legends revolve around his spectacular 1815 suicide: he shot himself with a silver bullet he made himself, and which he had blessed by his castle chaplain beforehand.
  • Noted fans of the film include and David Lynch.
  • The restoration, which included the addition of about an hour’s worth of material cut from previous prints, was initially financed by The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, who died before it was completed in 2001. Filmmakers  and (who included it in his series “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema”) took up the cause after Garcia’s demise.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Near the film’s climax, Van Worden stares out through an gap in a castle wall and sees a vision of himself receding into the distance with the two princesses, headed towards a poster bed standing alone in the middle of a desert. The only other features in the landscape are a cow’s skull and a dead crow half buried in the sand. There’s a wonderful trick to the shot, indicative of the film’s obsession with misdirection and game playing.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Between hanged men; incestuous Islamic princesses; five levels of flashbacks

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Saragossa Manuscript winds through a Gothic journey replete with gallows, ghostly seductresses, duels, occult symbols, Inquisitors in bondage gear, and more, an epic tale told in the ever-receding stories-inside-of-stories style that Guy Maddin would later adopt (in a more fetishistic fashion) for The Forbidden Room. Wojciech Has’ 3-hour adaptation of Jan Potocki’s grandiose novel is storytelling in its purest form; it’s a world cinema classic that has been unfairly neglected, out-of-print in the USA for far too long. The film’s design unfolds slowly, wandering through a disorienting labyrinth of stories that eventually resolve, only to dissolve again in a mystical finale in the Spanish desert.


Re-release trailer for The Saragossa Manuscript

COMMENTS: “All that has made me confused,” complains Captain Continue reading 265. THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

LIST CANDIDATE: ON THE SILVER GLOBE (1977/1988)

Na Srebrnym Globie

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jerzy Trela, Andrzej Seweryn, Iwona Bielska, Grazyna Dylaq, Jerzy Gralek, Krystyna Janda, Elizabeth Karkoszka, Maciej Goraj, Leszek Dlugosz, Jan Frycz

PLOT: An expedition crash lands on a planet, and the surviving astronauts establish a tribe and a religion explaining their origins. After a recording of the crash is found, another astronaut, Marek, is sent to investigate and is received as a messiah whose arrival has been prophesied. He becomes involved in a struggle against the planet’s original inhabitants, a birdlike race called the Sherms.

Still from On the Silver Globe

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: One of the few science-fiction adaptations that can earn the adjective of “epic,” and not only in terms of not dumbing down its ideas in favor of effects. The Polish government attempted to kill it, and end its director’s career. Despite it being only 80% of a finished film, there are images that will remain in the mind long after.

COMMENTS: In the best of all possible worlds, On the Silver Globe would be more widely known for the epic saga it is intended to be rather than as an unfinished curiosity, and it would’ve been the blueprint for science-fiction cinema to follow, rather than George Lucas’ Star Wars. Or possibly not. After all, its source material, “The Lunar Trilogy” written by Jerzy Zulawski (Andrzej’s great-uncle), which Stanislaw Lem acknowledged as an influence on his own writing, STILL has never gotten an English translation, making it unknown in the U.S. and other English speaking countries. This is one of the few films where its backstory is as fascinating as the actual film.

To wit: after the success of The Most Important Thing Is to Love, the exiled Zulawski was allowed to return to Poland to work. It was at this time that his marriage collapsed and his wife left (we’ll get to that later on…), and he chose to adapt his great uncle’s trilogy. Two years of work went into the enterprise, with most of the shooting done in 1976 and 1977, until the Deputy Minister of Culture and Art, Janusz Wilhelmi, saw some of the footage and in June 1977, ordered the production to shut down. Props, scenery and costumes were warehoused and/or destroyed; Zulawski was once again persona non grata in Poland, couldn’t get any work, and was again forced to leave home. (Out of this experience came the cult favorite Possession). Wilhelmi died in a plane crash the following year (1978), but despite several attempts to resurrect the project, authorities refused to release the existing material; some of the crew members managed to save what they could, but to no avail. By 1986, the regime in Poland had collapsed, but it was too late—too much material had been lost, several actors had died, and cinematic sci-fi was by then firmly caught in the throes of Star Wars‘s aftermath. However, what was left of the film could indeed be presented in some Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ON THE SILVER GLOBE (1977/1988)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANGELUS (2000)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jan Siodlaczek, Pawel Steinert, Daniel Skowronek, Tadeusz Plawecki

PLOT: Just before dying, the Rosicrucian master of a cult of painters in the Polish mining town of Katowice predicts WWII, Stalinism, the atom bomb, and the end of the world via a death ray shot from Saturn.

Still from Angelus (2000)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Lech Majewski seems like the kind of aggressively surreal filmmaker who should be represented with a spot somewhere on the List, and with its mix of Eastern European mysticism and historical absurdism, Angelus is likely the top candidate in his oeuvre—so far, at least.

COMMENTS: Composed of a series of snapshots rather than a typical flowing narrative, Angelus features an extensive gallery of nearly-static tableaux, accompanied by voiceover narration. Many of the compositions, especially those shot outdoors, recall the meticulous constructions of (including the use of splice-editing to cause objects to suddenly materialize on screen). Scenes like the one where a young boy stands eating a roll in the foreground while seven painters stand stock-still in the background, flanking a nude woman who sits on an improvised stage draped in red velvet as the sun rises over a hilltop, inevitably evoke the adjective “painterly.”

As a historical allegory on the fate of post-war Poland, the movie ridicules the absurdities of both Nazism (Hitler is seen soaking his feet in a swastika-bottomed basin) and, for most of its running time, of Stalinism. The cult members (who can actually perform small-scale miracles) hold to their apocalyptic faith in the face of persecution, and guardian angels wander through the landscape offering advice and consolation. Angelus starts off very strong, introducing us to a series of quirky cultists in a highly peculiar situation, but by the time Stalin arrives, it loses much of its narrative momentum, sinking into relatively mundane subplots about life under the Communist regime. One of the cultists has an insatiable sexual appetite, another is an aspiring alchemist sworn to celibacy and who calls his girlfriend “man,” there are dances, the young narrator falls in love with the only pretty maiden in the village, and there is a half-hearted plan to build a modern version of Noah’s Ark. Much of the middle section of the film gets lost in these digressions, which sometimes seem like they would be at home in a more naturalistic-minded film, until we finally circle back to the death-ray-from-Saturn plot. It all ends in an unusually abrupt fashion.

Billed as a “komedia metafizyczna,” the film’s main purpose is to demonstrate the resilience of man’s spiritual nature under even the most repressive social orders. The cult’s beliefs may be ludicrous, but they are soulful, and despite their oddities their dogmas are far preferable to the equally absurd ideologies designed by cynical dictators as tools of subjugation.

Angelus is available in a region-free DVD with English subtitles, although the menus are exclusively in Polish. The seller I bought it from included a handy “cheat sheet” with Polish-to-English translations to help with navigation. This article from a Polish culture website describes the historical Silesian cult that inspired Majewski’s story.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A comical, artistic, absurd and surreal portrait of a cult/communal culture in historial Silesia of the 20th Century… A unique experience…”–Zev Toledano, “The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre” (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by NGBoo, who called it a “mix of unorthodox comedy, absurd drama & fantastic mystery,” and who got tired of waiting for our review and wrote it up himself [in Serbo-Croatian, unfortunately]. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)