The Dark House (Dom ZÅ‚y)
Dir. Wojcieh Smarzowski, Poland 2009
What the Inuit language is to snow, Polish is to varieties of squalor and mess. Take melina, an alcoholic’s den, lined with old newspapers, empty bottles, cigarette butts, and plates of half-eaten food. Syf – the stinking pile of vegetable scraps behind the chicken coop or in the courtyard dump. Burdel – a general domestic disorder or filth which resists any human agency to set it right. Also, a brothel. Finally, baÅ‚agan – a deeper, more general chaos, bordering on moral corruption, which can be limited to a single house or pervade an entire society. A term with nearly spiritual overtones; when God spoke over the waters he was putting to rest a terrible baÅ‚agan.
All these forms of disarray, moral and otherwise, are amply present in Wojciech Smarzowski’s The Dark House (Dom ZÅ‚y ), one of the best Polish films to come out in the last five years. This is no accident; the film is set in a time – the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s – when Poland’s socialist economy reached its lowest ebb, and all the aspirations and ingenuity of society got channeled into underground enterprises and black-market schemes (not that the Communist authorities were too lazy on this front either). Early in the film, its feckless protagonist, Edward Åšrodon, describes a petty con he hatched with his mates: they imported cheap eggs from Germany, sprinkled them with chicken shit to make them seem to come from a Polish farm, and sold them at a profit. By the end of the film, we have seen so much brutality and corruption to make this scheme seem almost charming – a quaint example of the naiveté of limited horizons.
The title building (a closer translation would be ‘bad,’ or ‘evil’ instead of the less menacing ‘dark’) is a farmhouse on a lonely stretch of road in the remote Bieszczady Mountains, in the far south-east of Poland. Nearly all of the film takes place within its four walls or its sodden yard, over the course of two days four years apart.
In the first timeline, set in 1978, Åšrodon arrives at the house late on a stormy autumn night, pursued by a dog. He carries his life savings and all his possessions with him in a suitcase. Not too long ago, he was as a zoo-technician near Szczecin. His wife dies suddenly of a stroke; he collapses into an alcoholic stupor. Eventually he shakes himself out of it and takes the only job he can find, at a state farm in the far-southeast of the country.
At first he is received coldly by the house’s owners, Å»disÅ‚aw and BoÅ¼ena Dziabas. Å»disÅ‚aw, played with phlegmatic menace by Marian Dziedziel, seems especially hostile, while his much younger and obviously harassed wife remains in the background. Eventually, with the help of copious amounts of moonshine, the men begin to exchange pleasantries, which lead to confidences. Å»disÅ‚aw and BoÅ¼ena tell Åšrodon about the suspicious disappearance of the previous zoo-technician at his state farm. Å»disÅ‚aw takes the newcomer to the barn for a tour of the family still, and the two men hatch a larger scheme. As the night deepens they drink more and more and their plans grow increasingly grandiose, while behind closed doors seductions begin.
In the second timeline, the house is a burnt-down shell covered in snow. It is 1982, and we are watching the unfolding of a criminal investigation in which Åšrodon, the main suspect, is giving his account of the events of that night. Smarzowski generates a great deal of narrative tension by toggling between the two times. But while things seem to be heading towards a set conclusion in the first timeline, strange things are happening in the investigation itself, beyond the fact that half of the policemen are drunk on their feet. Evidence goes missing, witnesses don’t want to speak up, the local party boss keeps dropping by in his chauffeured Volga. One of the militia officers, MrÃ³z (the excellent BartÅ‚omiej Topa, in a squirely moustache) realizes that some things in Åšrodon’s story indicate bigger goings on. Soon he is talking in hushed tones with the village priest and passing out cigarettes in line at the state store. Corruption reaches deep in the mountains; someone has been cooking the books at the big state farm, and everyone has a stake in keeping up appearances. This is the world of ukÅ‚ad, the bargain or system, which governed the shadow economy and which whistle blowers or police investigators exposed at their peril.
Åšrodon, played Arkadiusz Jakubik, stands out amidst a number of strong performances. At once a depressed widower and a shameless lout, Jakubik plays him with a virtuosic mix of boorishness, melancholy and drunken élan. In 1978, he sports a bald spot surrounded by an aureole of long wavy hair, sideburns and a wide, louche goatee, a combination which makes him look like a groovy combination of Marx and Engels. In 1982 he is completely shorn, and his fleshy face looks as nude and exposed as a freshly plucked chicken.
The movie, which is playing in the Brooklyn Film Festival this weekend, has drawn comparisons to the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, thanks in part to a few glimpses of a pregnant police officer in the snow. That’s not entirely off the mark; both movies share out-of-the-way locations and a black sense of humor – it’s difficult to convey just how funny Dom ZÅ‚y is, easily the equal of Raising Arizona or Miller’s Crossing.
But it would be easy to push the parallel too far. The Coen Brothers build their narratives around a steady accumulation of hayseed grotesques and out-size eccentrics. Wojciech Smarzowski’s characters are warped by more commonplace sins – sloth, greed, lust – and they are forced by circumstance to pin huge desires on humble ends. He is a native of this part of Poland – he set his first film Wesele, or The Wedding, there, a wild farce featuring most of the same ensemble as The Dark House – and has an acute feeling for its language and tastes in vice. Watch for a television advertisement of the first Fiat Polonez, a two-door semi capable of arousing desires as primal as Kim Novak’s tightly wrapped bun in Vertigo and as deadly as the mother lode in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Polish film can often feel burdened by the need to squeeze too much history into each frame. This tendency was seen most recently in evidence in Andrzej Wajda’s KatyÅ„, where no single character arc or narrative thread could be sustained out of a need to rehearse a different facet of Poland’s historical martyrdom. By contrast, Dom ZÅ‚y proves that as much historical truth can be contained in the burning taste of freshly distilled moonshine or in a sprinkling of chicken shit.