Polish Cinema Classics Volume III Review

In a most welcome (now-annual?) tradition Second Run DVD is bringing out its latest volume of Polish Cinema Classics with three varied examples of the country's film heritage. This third visit to the well collects the 1970 surreal comedy The Cruise (Rejs), Krzysztof Zanussi's 1977 film Camouflage (Barwy ochronne) and Wojciech Marczewski's Silver Bear winner Shivers (Dreszcze). All are worthy additions more than deserving of the attention being given here. The seemingly endless supply of quality Polish cinema waiting for Second Run hasn't waned one bit. All of those unenlightened eyes gradually opening around the English-speaking world could not be more thankful.

If you find The Cruise (Rejs) to be pretty much nuts then you wouldn't be alone. It certainly is nuts, and in a magnificently unabashed way. The film begins with audio from a public address system at the beach. Among the warnings for beach goers is a heed to stay away from unguarded areas because there wouldn't be anyone around to see you drown. From there we see two men use their wits to get aboard the cruise ship of the title without tickets. One even manages to eventually advance to head of the specially created Cruise Council.

Directed by Marek Piwowski, who's apparently only made two subsequent features, the 1970 film is something of a rarity in Polish cinema in that it's a comedy, and an absurdist/satirical one at that. As the included booklet notes, the closest cinematic relative that immediately comes to mind might be Milos Forman's The Fireman's Ball, though that picture enjoys a bit more of a plot than Piwowski's ever attempts. The viewer generally witnesses a group of characters, including those who've made themselves members of the Cruise Council, act in ridiculous ways. Two such men literally spank each other on their respective behinds repeatedly. Another has a monologue on his distaste for Polish cinema. This rather memorable speech is made far more effective by the total self-awareness on the part of the filmmakers.

The writing in the booklet also makes the point that The Cruise is so verbally deft that it maybe struggles to entirely register for those who don't speak Polish. As fair a point as that is (and it's a common issue when viewing subtitled films), the craziness of Piwowski's movie nonetheless comes across with vigor here. There's a clear sense that what's being seen and heard carries a deeper meaning than just superficial sight gags or wordplay. The frequent inability to ever accomplish anything of importance or use even a hint of common sense carries an intent to parallel the contemporary Communist system in Poland. By making fun of this constant barrier to progress the film hits a sore spot. It comes across as a stinging indictment of society masquerading as a crazy comedy.

Camouflage (Barwy ochronne) may very well be the most acclaimed film of the set. Directed by Krzysztof Zanussi, who also made the intellectually exhilarating Illumination (which is a part of Polish Cinema Classics Vol. II and later received an individual release), the 1977 picture carries with it a deep sense of a society stifled by corruption. From the splendid animation of the opening titles onward, there's just a very smothering feel to much of what takes place for one of its protagonists, Jarek (played by Piotr Garlicki).

He's a university professor at a summer linguistics camp where the students alternate between outrage and flirtatious abandon. One, a bilingual Brit with Polish parents, takes particular interest in Jarek as the idealistic teacher only occasionally recognizes the ethical concerns at play. Unhelpful in such moral dilemmas yet invaluable in showing him the harsh realities which unfold during the session is middle-aged professor Jakub (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz). The complicated, often tenuous relationship between the two men forms the thematic backbone of the film. Jarek's hesitant dealings with Jakub seem to contain the lasting moral of Zanussi's story.

When Jakub makes an effort to befriend Jarek we're unsure of his intentions. Most everything he says comes across as designed to quell the younger man's enthusiasm and hope. The heavily jaded character of Jakub tries to guide Jarek through a reality which is brimming with almost needless favoritism. One university official accepts crates of apples as a bribe. A swimming pool is cleaned by the students for the express reason of letting the heavyset chancellor use it. These relatively minor favors are brazen not so much because of their lasting impact but as examples of a society broken enough to accept them.

Certainly Zanussi's intention here was to create questions about Poland's entire system, of its Communist government. Without any context Camouflage could perhaps function entirely on its face as a richly told examination of the frustrations inherent to the academic world. Zanussi, however, was known as a politically engaged filmmaker who used his medium as something of a platform. The intent, almost certainly, was to subvert. What was happening on screen in this particular story was a widespread issue infecting a nation. That makes it especially interesting that Zanussi's film was chosen over Andrzej Wajda's Man of Marble for the Gdansk Polish Film Festival's top prize because it was apparently seen as the less incendiary of the two. Still, the match was clearly lit with either choice.

Also highly provocative and, indeed, banned in Poland for a few years is Wojciech Marczewski's autobiographical film Shivers (Dreszcze). The title comes from its protagonist's tendency to slightly shake when nervous. The 1981 picture mainly concerns the time 13-year-old Tomek spends at a Stalinist youth camp during the 1950s. The arrest of his father and subsequent difficulties he faces at home with his younger brother and mother are given ample time in the earliest section of the movie, but it's the period spent at the Communism-fueled camp that is especially fascinating to witness. We eventually see Tomek go from quiet outcast to devoted ideologue.

The transition is actually a bit underplayed. It creeps up, as does the even more subtle sexual element. The ferocious pressure to acclimate is where everything sneaks in, and the full brainwashing takes its effect. The viewer can see how circumstances are just small obstacles to making these kids believe in the Communist Party. In one scene Tomek is carrying around a picture of Karl Marx like he was a family member or an athletic idol. The slow burn Marczewski delivers is masterful. By the end it all feels very real and equally frightening.

Though not as spotty in his output as Marek Piwowski, Wojciech Marczewski is another director whose filmography is limited. Since his second full-length picture Shivers he's made only three features, including Escape from the Liberty Cinema which was included in the second volume of Second Run's Polish Cinema Classics. Both of those particular movies are affecting in their own way but Shivers really cuts quite deeply. Its coming-of-age starting point and academic-like setting may seem familiar or tired but the treatment doesn't warrant such hesitations in the slightest. This is a powerful work with more on its mind than just the individual story being told.


The Discs

As with the earlier Polish Cinema Classics sets Volume III has individual keepcases being housed by a Polish flag-inspired slipcover box. The discs here are all region-free and in the PAL format. Cover art is varied, unique, abstract, and striking.

Presented in 1.78:1, The Cruise carries a high-contrast, very bright black and white transfer on a single-layered disc. Damage is absent and detail looks strong. It's also enhanced for widescreen televisions. Grain is most visible during darker scenes.

Camouflage looks generally terrific on the dual-layered disc. It kind of resembles something having been faded slightly by the sun but the overall quality of the transfer remains strong. It shows no damage. The colors just aren't particularly vibrant, though perhaps they are still faithful to the original. It's in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen displays.

Shivers shows nothing in the way of damage or dirt. The transfer has been cleaned up effectively via a recent restoration. Sharpness and overall detail are good but there's still a slight softness at times here. The film's use of red registers especially well here as the color nearly pops off the screen. It's also in the highly unusual 1.42:1 aspect ratio and contained on a dual-layered disc.

Audio for all three films is available in either original Polish mono or 5.1 Dolby Surround. The listening experience is pleasant throughout each of the movies, with nothing in the way of hiss or drop-outs being apparent. Instances like the birds in Camouflage really stand out in the mix. Music in all three, frequently utilizing odd, high-pitched strings, also makes a strong impact. English subtitles are optional for each film.

The Cruise carries with it no on-disc features but there's a 12-page booklet inside the case with a very loose writing which apparently "emerged from the conversations accompanying the revision of" the film's subtitles. It feels (intentionally?) unfinished but still contains some good thoughts and helpful analysis.

An exclusive interview (20:31) with director Krzysztof Zanussi was made for this release and it finds the filmmaker in professorial mode. It's a fine addition to the Camouflage disc. An included 12-page booklet has an essay by Michal Oleszczyk on the movie and touches briefly on the Cinema of Moral Anxiety movement which was in bloom at the time of its release.

There's a new interview (22:32) with Shivers director Wojciech Marczewski on that film's disc. The piece has him talking about how his similar experiences would become the basis for the movie. He also goes on to talk about the reception the film had including its being banned before release by Polish authorities. Inside the case is a 16-page booklet with an essay on the picture and its director by Michael Brooke.


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