The titular location of Playground (Plac zabaw) is introduced to us in a joyful scene at the start of Bartosz M. Kowalski’s film, the children of a Polish school happily coming together to celebrate their last day of term. Whether taking photos of each other, laughing and joking, handing out flowers to the teachers, or sitting on the sidelines waiting to speak to a crush, it is a place buzzing with excitement and anticipation for those long summer months ahead. Towards the end of Playground however, this joy is unexpectedly replaced with something more sinister, as it becomes painfully obvious that for Kowalski and our protagonists, this title can also signify something far more disturbing.
That person waiting to speak to their crush is the shy yet determined Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun), the driving force behind the initial, simple premise of Kowalski’s and Stanislaw Warwas’s story. In a brilliantly realised, dialogue-free opening montage, we watch her go about her morning and working up her courage for the day ahead, in a sequence that also perfectly sums up the relatable idea of wanting to be an adult before you are really ready to be one (with Gabrysia trying on lipstick and forcing herself to drink coffee).
Adulthood is a long way off for Szymek (Nicolas Przygoda) and Czarek (Przemyslaw Balinski) as well, the other two main characters of Playground’s tale. Introduced to us in similar montages that show them getting ready for school and how they interact in their own individual family environments, writer-director Kowalski gradually reveals another potent theme to his story: the impetuousness of an angry, directionless youth – a concept that becomes ever relevant as the film continues. It is the slow build up to each of these three main characters, along with the stark onscreen chapter headings that separate their stories, that allows us to better understand their very different backgrounds, and makes what follows all the more devastating.
A great unease is felt even in these opening, seemingly innocuous moments, silence used just as much as ominous music to build the tension and keep the viewer at a constant unease – an uncomfortableness piqued in the first few minutes in no less than two unpredictable moments. The naturalistic performances from each of these main characters is what makes their stories and instances like this both heartbreaking and shocking to watch, as if Kowalski has opened a direct window to their lives and is simply allowing us to witness what happens on an everyday basis.
Yet even this would never allow you to guess, or prepare you, for the other ‘playground’ Kowalski is leading up to with the conclusion of his film, until the title card appears onscreen and a chill runs down your spine at the realisation of what is about to happen. To talk any more about it would lessen the impact of this moment, and of the overall story, yet suffice to say it is one of the most upsetting scenes ever committed to film. A horrific sequence alone because of its content, Kowalski makes it all the more disturbing through the use of unnerving wide shots, keeping the camera at bay to give the illusion that we are indeed witnessing something that we cannot stop. No more detail is shown, no sound heard other than horrific silence as the characters make their way on a journey that has an increasingly inevitable end point.
While nearly everyone will find this hard or perhaps impossible to watch, Kowalski is aiming to make it uncomfortable. Putting the viewer in this uneasy frame of mind makes them instantly question why the incident happens, and what might have been done to prevent it. But Kowalski and Warwas never offer us clear cut answers at any point in their story, both of them suggesting that maybe there simply isn’t any answers to give – a terrifying thought that nonetheless perfectly reflects our own troubled and confusing world.
What begins as a simple idea about the journey to adulthood, soon descends into something altogether darker and unpredictable – a horrifying tale about the aimlessness of youth and nature vs. nurture, made all the more upsetting by its sickening realism. That twist in the narrative is almost disorientating when it occurs, the sudden change in the tale nearly knocking us off our feet as it plays out to an inevitable and shocking conclusion. A deeply affecting tale, Playground is the sort of hard-hitting film that is endlessly admirable for its stark portrayal of a difficult subject, and a film that will stay with you for a long time after watching it.