Not until the end of Gdy spadają anioły, Roman Polanski’s graduation film for Poland’s national film school, do we realize that the aerial-view in on roofs is an angel’s-eye view of Earth. Who doubts that Wim Wenders and Claire Denis, co-directors of Wings of Desire (1987), had seen Polanski’s film, although their film shows Berlin, not Warsaw?
This is one of writer-director Polanski’s most keenly felt works. A woman in her eighties is a public building’s latrine attendant. Her work defines the superficial aspect of her existence. Sitting silently in her corner by the dish into which only a very few patrons drop appreciative coins, she observes. Her eyes, intense, seem to bear a single expression.
Here’s why: her consciousness goes inward. We have already seen her pause to feed pigeons on her way to work. Here is another routine, but one that is her own. While at work, moreover, nearly everything she observes in her black-and-white world triggers a recollection, and these eruptions of memory, which we see after a camera’s going out of focus announces their arrival, are in vivid color. These bits of her past include her romance with a soldier, the child of his she has, his rejection of the package she offers him when, grown up, he also is a soldier off to war, his experiences at war as she imagines them, his death. The war material is bracingly graphic, but it is all sadness to her, what must remain unresolved between a mother and the son she could not bear to see go off to bloody battle.
This anonymous woman (whom Polanski himself, briefly, plays in drag, revealing how fully he feels implicated in her experience) has lived long with her memories. She will not last much longer.
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