BARRIER (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1966)

Forty-six years ago, young Polish writer-director Jerzy Skolimowski made Bariera, a film so dazzlingly inventive that nearly every shot surprises and is its own set-piece. Indeed, each sharply cut jewel of a shot here is a metaphor for life in Communist Poland; it is a subversive film then. Stylistically, it reminds me of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) with its magical shifts in (in Keaton’s case, back-projected) setting, only less exhilarating than Keaton’s silent comedy because cynical, harsh, to accommodate Skolimowski’s portrait of Warsaw youth bedecked with worries that their bleak Communist nation offers them little hope for the future. Climbing the treacherous front of a high-rise building, a pre-medical student reaches for the rooftop, along which way are bird-prizes hanging down from window sills, but he fails to grab any and feels he has no place substantial to go. In one of the film’s most glorious shots, a number of public trams head out from the station, forward, the middle one of these providing a camera’s-eye view of the departure. Withering irony undercuts the illusion of manifold possibilities, for, in context, the routes of all these trams are drearily similar. Each is going nowhere.

It is symptomatic of his generation’s existential malaise, with life’s limited prospects, that this young man—one of the film’s two joint protagonists—remains nameless. Such is also the case with the other lead character, the girl he may or may not fall in love with, a public tram operator. The film’s finish, with the student clinging to the front of the tram that the girl is driving, is gripping rather than slick, unlike the “Now what?” resolution of the following year’s The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967).

Jan Laskowski exquisitely lenses the hallucinatory black-and-white imagery that Skolimowski has brilliantly devised. Disappearing into a whitening-out fog, and emerging, a crowd in the streets runs identically—same direction, same pace—until a traffic light momentarily halts each and every person on a dime: an eerily haunting visual refrain evoking a charmless regulated existence. What a knockout this movie is—for Skolimowski, the best film prize winner at Bergamo.

 

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