The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Written by Jerzy Stefan Stawiński, directed by Andrzej Munk, Heroism consists of two parts. This external form—the yoking together of two World War II “short stories”—is correlative to the film’s “split” attitude, its ambiguity and skepticism. Ultimately, Stawinski and Munk prick the concept of wartime heroism in order to deflate the whole idea of war.
The first part suggests Falstaff’s “better part of valour.” Gorkiewicz skips training for the Warsaw Uprising, the Polish resistance. But when a Hungarian officer engages him in wartime opportunism by employing him as a black marketeer selling armaments to Poles, Gorkiewicz becomes embroiled in the war, shaking off his indifference to his nation’s fate. A comical figure, Gorkiewicz is Everyman. Ordered to carry an elderly woman’s sack of belongings during the evacuation, he stumbles and falls under its weight. (Later he stumbles drunk fleeing a German assault and peeing—the stream of urine is a visual parody of the shooting and bombing!—behind a tree.) Gorkiewicz now engages the struggle, now tries escaping it. The “hero” is a coward is a hero, shirking responsibility yet affirming life amidst war’s death and insanity. In a stunning shot, Gorkiewicz, barefooted by a stream, polishes off a bottle as a German tank slowly comes up behind him. The upshot, hilarious, leaves Gorkiewicz shaking but intact.
The second part, grimmer, more sardonic, details life in a German P.O.W. camp. It might have been subtitled “Hell Is Other Polish Officers,” as the close confinement takes its toll, redefining freedom and impelling one prisoner, Lieutenant Zawistowski, to escape. Or did he? Those left behind are united by his inspiring example. Reality or legend? Eventually we learn the truth, that the one good thing about the war experience shared by these comrades is a lie.
And so it goes.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.