Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Kawalerowicz’s Shadow

Directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz
Polart Films

When a film uses the word “kulak” (rich peasant) in a derogatory way, it is a safe bet it was produced during the Soviet era. Throughout his fifty year career, Jerzy Kawalerowicz ranked as one of Poland’s top directors. He was so well regarded, Kawalerowicz’s career (just barely) survived the fall of Communism, even though he publicly condemned his colleagues Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi when they embraced the Solidarity movement. Though never critical of the Communist system, some of Kawalerowicz’s earlier films, like Shadow (recently released on DVD), offer interesting grist for deconstructive criticism.

As Shadow opens, a man has fallen from a speeding train, mangling his face beyond all hope of recognition. Wearing an overcoat, but no jacket, the mystery man dies on the operating table before he can reveal his identity. The junior officer investigating the case is confident the truth will out, predicting: “Find the shadow, and you’ll find the man.” Dr. Knyszyn (played Zygmunt Kestowicz in the film’s standout performance) is not so sure. As a case study in uncertainty, he relates an incident from 1943, when he was a member of the Polish underground, and naturally a good Communist by virtue of being an anti-Fascist. Somehow, Knyszyn’s cell is manipulated into armed conflict with another loyal cell. Despite the future doctor’s efforts, he never learns the identity of the mastermind behind those deadly machinations.

In an apparent coincidence, a name Knyszyn mentions in passing sparks another story from Captain Karpowski, the senior officer in charge of the investigation. He relates an incident from his military service in 1946, fighting armed bandits sheltered by the deceitful kulaks. Karpowski and a comrade infiltrate a gang of brigands led by the mysterious “Dwarf,” but again, the operation is nearly sabotaged by a mysterious betrayal.

As suspicions mount regarding the unknown train passenger, police at the next station apprehend a man with the dead man’s jacket. Under a little sweating his confesses his story, involving an incident of industrial sabotage earlier that day.

With a title like Shadow, one would expect some dramatic black-and-white cinematography. If not on the level of The Third Man, cinematographer Jerzy Lipman’s work does indeed have an appealing film noir look, particularly in Knyszyn’s story. The film has the right film noir feel, as well. Despite its scrupulously correct political content, there is an aura of paranoia that pervades each flashback. Duplicity is expected, but never explained. Agent provocateurs sabotage and destroy simply out of an evil counter-revolutionary impulse.

Though often compared to Roshomon, Shadow is more closely akin to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Darkness, both thematically and stylistically. Its vision of mystery and betrayal remains compelling, despite the ideology it accepts.