Interrogation (Przesluchanie) Review

Poland, 1951. Tonia (Krystyna Janda) is a cabaret singer. One night she gets very drunk and wakes up in a prison cell. She is asked to give evidence against a former lover. She refuses, and the authorities try to break her through a long process of brutality and intimidation.

Interrogation (Przeschulanie) is one of the most harrowing films you’re likely to see. Considering that this is a film openly critical of State oppression during the Stalinist era made in a Communist country, it’s not surprising that it was banned for eight years. It’s even more surprising that it was ever put into production, but at the time (1982), the Polish authorities were preoccupied with the forthcoming imposition of martial law and the script was passed for approval. The film was shot in the summer and autumn of that year, with director Ryszard Bugajski running out of 35mm film stock at one point and having to ask colleagues in Western Europe and the USA to send him enough to complete the film. The film finished shooting in December, days before martial law was declared in December, and had to be hidden until Bugajski felt safe enough to edit it. However, the film was banned by the authorities (Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blind Chance was another one), though clandestine copies circulated on videotape. Bugajski left the country to pursue a film and TV career in Canada. Following the return of democracy in 1989, Interrogation had its long-delayed premiere, being the last film to have its ban lifted. It was entered into competition at the following year’s Cannes festival, and won a much-deserved Best Actress award for Krystyna Janda. The film had a limited cinema release in the UK, followed by a showing on BBC2 which I saw.

Janda was and is a distinguished actress best known in the West for her leading roles in Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble and Kieslowski’s Dekalog Two. (She’s also second-billed in Istvan Szabo’s Mephisto, but as that film is so dominated by one of the great leading performances of the last half-century, from Klaus Maria Brandauer, it’s not her fault that you can forget that Janda is in it.) But if she’s given a finer performance than the one she gives in Interrogation, then I’d certainly like to see it. Tonia seems at first a carefree, frivolous party girl, but as days of imprisonment become months, an inner steel becomes more and more obvious. This is a very demanding part, physically as well as emotionally, but Janda carries it off perfectly. At her lowest ebb, in a scene that’s hard to watch, she tries to kill herself by biting the veins in her wrist.

Although ultimately everything else in Interrogation is there to support the central extraordinary performance, all the supporting roles are well played. Writer-director Agnieszka Holland makes a rare appearance in front of the camera as a fellow prisoner. Bugajski and his DP Jacek Petrycki make good use of light. In the opening shot (on a train), the sunlight gives a warm glow, which fades as the film progresses. Blues and greys dominate as Tonia’s hope fades…but at the end of the film the sun comes out again and warm colours return. The film also makes good use of the soundtrack, which I will discuss further below.

Interrogation isn’t a subtle film, and it’s fair comment to say that after nearly two hours you might feel you’ve been worked over by a blunt instrument. It’s certainly unrelenting, but you sense an anger fuelling it. It’s a film that had urgent things to say about a then-vital and still relevant issue, and it says it very well. Not an easy film to forget.

Second Run’s DVD of Interrogation has no indication of any region coding on the disc or the packaging. Some sites list this as Region 0, but in fact it’s encoded for Regions 2 and 4 only.

Interrogation is presented in 4:3, full frame. That appears to be the intended aspect ratio: Eastern Europe, and especially the Soviet Union, continued to use Academy Ratio (1.37:1) well into the 1980s, after it had been abandoned in favour of one or other widescreen ratio in the West. There’s nothing wrong with the DVD transfer, which is director-approved: it copes well with the brighter colours earlier on and the darker hues later. There’s a little grain in some scenes, but nothing untoward. Shadow detail is fine, though in many scenes you’re not meant to see anything in the darker areas of the screen.

The soundtrack is surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0. This is apparently the original sound mix, which was news to me. For a moment I did wonder if Second Run were going down the Anchor Bay route of pointless multi-channel remixes of mono soundtracks – though as this mix is director-approved we’ll have to go with it. Dolby Stereo had certainly not reached the Eastern Bloc by 1982, though it is possible that a multi-track magnetic soundtrack was created for this film. I’m willing to bet that it has only played in mono in the UK before this. Bugajski and his sound mixer do make good use of the possibilities of directional sound, with offscreen noises such as screams and doors slamming making their presence felt in left, right or surround. The dialogue is always clear, if a little quietly mixed - you may have to turn the volume up higher than usual. The English subtitles can be switched off if you are fluent in Polish. There are twelve chapter stops.

There’s only one extra on the disc itself, but it’s a substantial one. It calls itself an “introduction”, but as the film clips include some major spoilers it’s best watched after you’ve seen the film. Ryszard Bugajski talks to camera – in English, though subtitles are unfortunately unavailable – about the making of the film, its banning and its reprieve. Along with clips from Interrogation itself, this featurette includes footage from the 1989 premiere, which was introduced by Andrzej Wajda, whose company had made the film. This featurette runs 30:35 and is presented in 4:3.

The DVD package contains a booklet that comprises an article by Andy Townsend and a longer essay by Michael Szporer which forms the introduction to Bugajski’s novel version of the story. The booklet also includes a brief list of cast and credits and reproductions of some of Bugajski’s storyboards. Second Run’s Interrogation web page for the film has links to further material which may be of interest: a Filmkultura article on Polish film in the 1990s, a KinoEye interview with Krystyna Janda, a 1982 New York Times article in PDF format on the repression of Polish film, and a PDF-format transcript of the Polish Culture Committee’s consideration of Interrogation, recorded in its entirety by a smuggled-in tape recorder.

Interrogation is by no means light entertainment, but it contains a great leading performance and tells us a lot about a particularly dark period of recent history. Second Run are, once again, to be commended for putting this film out on DVD at an affordable price.

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