Bright Lights Film Journal

Death and Rebirth: Revisiting Ryszard Bugajski’s Masterpiece Interrogation (Poland, 1982)

One member of the meeting, Bohdan Poremba, called Interrogation a “premeditated lie” and, in perhaps the strangest criticism of the film, expressed his disappointment that it only showed a few of the “twenty-seven known methods of interrogation.”

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Throughout my life and most of the lives of global citizens under the age of 45, the Polish cultural scene has been thriving. The country’s economy has held strong even as much of Europe has plunged into recession. Its cities – in particular, Warsaw, with its hip, youthful atmosphere and café life – mountains, lakes and seaside resorts have become international tourist destinations. Many national debates have been centered on art and culture, such as the relevance of a rainbow installation sculpture in the center of the capital, the role of gender in society, and the international popularity of Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film last year. In particular, a supportive government and growing economy encouraged filmmakers, who felt relatively free to express themselves in their work.

These heady days of post-1989 youthful exuberance in the realms of art and culture ended abruptly with the election of a right-wing government several months ago. The newly elected ruling party, the Law and Justice Party, has forged ahead with controversial judicial reforms and oppression of the media, and in the film world, has proposed a presumably one-sided plan to team up with Hollywood to film a revisionist epic on the nation’s history. A core tenet of the Law and Justice Party’s nationalist platform is the suspicion that certain people in the government are responsible for the nation’s worst tragedy since World War II, the 2010 airplane crash that killed the country’s president (who was the identical twin brother of the current party leader) and all 95 other people on board in Smolensk, Russia. The Party has not accepted the official reports that the crash was an accident caused by pilot error, and, considering the totality of the devastation, the details they seek about it might never come to light. Trials of those accused of contributing to the crash are being prepared. It is impossible to know what the next couple of years will bring in the smoldering aftermath of this national disaster.

It is also not clear how the many talented, well-educated, boundary-pushing young filmmakers in Poland will fare under the new regime, considering that most filmmakers in Poland rely on substantial funding from a government agency to create and promote their films. Aside from the remarkable success of Ida abroad, young Polish filmmakers have garnered quite a bit of attention in the past couple of years. I joked that the red carpet was red and white last year when Pawlikowski’s masterpiece was one of three Polish films, including Joanna by Aneta Kopacz and Our Curse by Tomasz Śliwiński, to be nominated for an Academy Award. Already in the first month of 2016, Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s fantastical feature The Lure and Michał Marczak’s documentary All These Sleepless Nights, made waves and won awards at Sundance. With Polish film festivals in small and large cities across the United States and Europe, Polish cinema has been celebrated widely of late.

It seems time to remind ourselves that Polish filmmakers have always risen to their political challenges and to revisit a film so terrifying, so complexly political, so impossible to categorize that it slips through the cracks of world film history. Interrogation, the 1982 film directed by Ryszard Bugajski, is about the mechanisms of authoritarianism and the torturous methods used to break down prisoners during investigations under the Soviet regime. The story begins on the 34th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1951 and ends five years later, 1956, during the period of the Thaw that followed Stalin’s death in 1953.  When we first meet the heroine, Antonina (Tonia) Dziwisz, she is spiritedly performing in a cabaret and hysterically accusing her husband of flirting with her best friend.  Introducing themselves as the singer’s fans, two secret policemen take her for a drink or twenty to celebrate her performance, but instead of taking her home afterwards, they take her to prison. When she awakes from her drunken state and takes in her surroundings, she insists that a mistake has been made, that she’s been confused with someone else, and that she is innocent of any crime.

What is this crime of moral turpitude for which the apolitical Tonia will spend the rest of the film being interrogated and tortured? We never completely find out, and neither does she. Her interrogation, which her security officer likens to a confession, mainly concerns her love life, and in particular, her romantic connections to an acquaintance that the police want her to incriminate for treason. When she refuses to sign the interrogation report, her jailors torture her in numerous ways, immersing her to her head in water and threatening her with execution. They degrade her and attempt to humiliate her sexually, but to their frustration, the idea that she should feel ashamed of her past romantic encounters bewilders her. After all, to her, in light of the horrors that they had all endured during World War II, isn’t a little romantic caprice a virtue and a triumph?

Interrogation is based on the experiences of an acquaintance of the director, who was detained for an unexplained crime in the early 1950s. Antonina Dziwisz’s story, of course, is part of a particularly dark moment in the history of postwar Poland: Her imprisonment is related to the so-called “Trial of the Generals,” which took place in the summer of 1951. This was a show trial put on by the Soviet regime in order to cleanse the new, pro-Soviet Polish army of older officers who had served in the Polish army during the independent, interwar years and against the Nazis during the war. In these and subsequent “splinter trials,” nearly 100 officers were executed, tortured, or imprisoned by the secret police. Those who survived were set free in 1956, after it had become common knowledge that the charges against them had been fabricated.

Interrogation is essential viewing as part of the Polish film movement known as the Cinema of Moral Anxiety. The details of its production and distribution are extraordinary. It was directed by Ryszard Bugajski, then a novice filmmaker, from a screenplay written by Bugajski and Janusz Dymek. It was produced by Andrzej Wajda’s Studio X, the prolific and inventive collaborative that, for the decade or so of its existence, was responsible for several dozen films including Wajda’s The Promised Land, Man of Marble, and Man of Iron, as well as the early films of Andrzej Zulawski, Agnieszka Holland, Feliks Falk, and Janusz Zaorski. To play the part of Tonia, Bugajski chose Krystyna Janda, a young actress known for portraying brave, capricious, and truth-seeking characters in Wajda’s films, and whose importance to postwar Polish theater and film cannot be overestimated. For her role as the spunky, clear-headed Tonia, Janda would win the award for best actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990.

After years in development, Bugajski finally began shooting Interrogation in late 1981. On December 13 of that year, martial law was declared in Poland. It was under martial law, with military tanks parked outside the studio, that some of the most frightening scenes were shot, including one in which the main character is submerged in water in a cell and surrounded by rats. They completed the filming soon after, edited it, and, as was mandatory, gave it to the censors. Interrogation was reviewed at a famous censorship board meeting at the Ministry of Arts and Culture in April 1982, rejected after heated debate, and subsequently shelved. In the published transcript of the meeting, it is revealed that the film was called, at turns, a misleading, deceptive portrait of the 1950s; an important starting point for political and artistic discussion; a piece of propaganda; and a realistic portrayal of one woman’s experiences during the splinter trials. One member of the meeting, Bohdan Poremba, called Interrogation a “premeditated lie” and, in perhaps the strangest criticism of the film, expressed his disappointment that it only showed a few of the “twenty-seven known methods of interrogation.”

After Interrogation, Bugajski was forbidden from making films in Poland.  But before this could happen, he rescued it from oblivion. Foreseeing the film’s ban, Bugajski quietly made a 35mm copy, which he hid. He later made primitive video copies, which he distributed through an underground publisher for private screenings in homes and church basements. In 1985, Bugajski and his wife emigrated to Canada, where he worked as a director in film and television for a decade before returning to Poland.

Seven years later in an independent Poland, the film was finally shown openly to audiences in the country and around the world. English-speaking cinephiles had eagerly awaited the film ever since The New Criterion had published a translated transcript of the censorship board meeting in 1982. In addition to Janda’s win at Cannes, the film won several awards at the Gdynia Film Festival in 1990 and was shown throughout the United States.  Western reviewers, however, were not of one mind on the success or meaning of the film. Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times called Janda’s performance an “exhausting star turn” in her 1990 review. Also in 1990, Janet Maslin’s sardonic review in the New York Times concludes that Interrogation has “at least three more melodramatic endings than it actually needs.”

Why the cold reception? Why did so many, in the East and in the West, dislike the film? Poremba, the censorship board member who lamented the limited use of torture techniques in Interrogation, and who also called the character of Antonina Dziwisz a “whore” and the entire film a “fairy tale for well-behaved children,” actually made a different point in the board deliberations that is worth considering. He decried “the scheme of one magnificent human being who is immersed in a sea of dirt, ugliness, sadism, hideousness” in Polish film. But is this a characteristic of Polish film, or is it a characteristic of Hollywood films, particularly Hollywood films about World War II, where so many characters have survived, alone, through sheer willpower and good intentions? Where revisionist histories in cinema abound and are regularly consumed long past their expiration dates? Was this where the dog was buried, as the Polish saying goes? Or was there simply no room yet for Polish melodrama in 1990, the salad days of a democratic Poland, when the film screened across the United States?

Then an eighteen-year-old college student in Pennsylvania, I personally remember the collapse of the Soviet Union as a big party on the front pages of American newspapers rather than the frightening, but hopeful, time that it was. We had swaddled the changes in velvet and, for a time, rejoiced.  In cinema, it was a time momentarily devoid of the horrors of Stalinism. The Polish film industry of the 1990s looked toward Hollywood for inspiration as it churned out genre films, but this would not last. Over the long term, Polish filmmakers have rarely glossed over their national tragedies or shied away from difficult topics. Interrogation is a film that reminds me of their courageousness and resolve. As contemporary film festival jurors cast excited glances at the new crop of films emerging from Poland, they can also hope that Polish filmmakers will fare well in the new political reality of the country and continue to push every boundary.

References

Benson, Sheila, “Interrogation: Janda’s Arresting Performance,” Los Angeles Times (September 26, 1990). Available online: http://articles.latimes.com/1990-09-26/entertainment/ca-912_1_krystyna-janda.

Maslin, Janet, “Interrogation: Singer Jailed in Poland. Ouch!” New York Times (September 19, 1990). Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CEEDE133AF93AA2575AC0A966958260.

Warman, Jerzy, “The Interrogation interrogated: The Fate of a Polish Film,” The New Criterion (October 1982). Reprinted online: http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/-The-Interrogation–interrogated–the-fate-of-a-Polish-film-6527.