Strictly speaking, is it even possible to be “paranoid” when living under an oppressive government? If you think the system is out to get you, eventually you’re always going to be right. Polish foreign correspondent Jerzy Michalowski comes to understand that only too well. When the protagonist of Andrzej Wajda’s Rough Treatment, written Agnieszka Holland, suddenly finds himself beset with personal and professional setbacks, it is surely no coincidence. Screening tonight as part of the MoMA’s Holland retrospective, Treatment (a.k.a. Without Anesthesia) dramatizes the Kafkaesque persecutions that were the modus operandi of the Communist Party during the Gierek years (1970-1980).
Michalowski enjoys being a public intellectual. Loosely inspired by Ryszard Kapuściński, Treatment’s protagonist has travelled the world, reporting extensively from Third World trouble spots. As played by Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Michalowski is gregarious and smugly satisfied with own success. If arrogance is too strong a term for him, he is certainly blessed with self-confidence of a magnitude that sets him up for a downfall worthy of Greek Tragedy.
Given his prestige, Michalowski is chosen as the first guest of new primetime interview show. Relishing the attention, he lets his enthusiasm carry him away, questioning how well “the mass media serves the purpose of truthful information.” This of course, is a bad career move.
After the interview no one will say anything to Michalowski directly, but subtle losses in privileges start to mount. Fully aware of the importance of each apparently minor slight, like being dropped from the circ list for American newsweeklies, the reporter protests to his network patron. However, he is unable to focus his undivided attention on his professional predicament, because of trouble on the home front. He is simultaneously challenging divorce proceedings initiated by his wife Ewa.
It is no coincidence that everything is happening at once to Michalowski. He is paying a price for his candor, slowly becoming professionally and socially persona non grata through a cold-blooded process Wajda himself closely observed when it was applied to his own professional acquaintances. Following Man of Marble during Wajda’s consciously political period of filmmaking, Treatment is clearly a protest film. Although Michalowski’s offending words are kept deliberately vague, there is no mistaking their thinly veiled meaning or the dire repercussions which they cause. On screening Treatment, it is clear why Holland and Wajda eventually found it necessary to seek employment outside of the Communist Era Poland.
Zapasiewicz gives a great performance, fully capturing both the bluster and pathos of Michalowski. Wajda and Holland depict his personal tragedy in cold, unsentimental terms. Far from hysterical, it was a lucid indictment of the then reality of Communist Poland. The state built him up, and then with little warning, the state tore him down. Although Michalowski and Treatment might be hard to love, they are unquestionably compelling to watch. A historically important film in both the Wajda and Holland canons, it screens tonight at MoMA.