Monday, January 05, 2009

Holland at MoMA: The Interrogation

Considering how many of her films challenged the authoritarian rule of Poland’s Communist government, it is a near miracle the great Polish actress Krystyna Janda was allowed any career at all. She would indeed appear in several films which ran afoul of state censors, including Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble, and Rough Treatment, written by Agnieszka Holland. Janda also co-starred with Holland in Ryszard Bugajski’s The Interrogation, which explains its inclusion in MoMA’s retrospective of Holland’s films, now in its closing days.

In Stalinist Poland, even if you tried to avoid politics, political troubles found you. Based on the actual experiences of two Polish women, Janda’s Tonia Dziwisz is a case in point. After a fight with her husband, Dziwisz allows two supposed fans to take her out on the town. However, after plying her with alcohol, they take the oblivious Dziwisz to the secret police headquarters.

As she comes to, Dziwisz assumes she was arrested by mistake, having never shown an interest in politics. However, during her initial interrogation sessions, she quickly figures out she is there as a pawn in a wider campaign to discredit her former lover, the unseen Col. Olcha, a military officer who has clearly fallen out of favor. Despite signing an ill-advised confession in hopes of a quick release, she refuses to implicate her ex-flame, setting the stage for years of mental and physical torture.

Interrogation proceeds to give a literal blow-by-blow of the secret police’s process for humiliating and breaking their subjects. It is not a pretty sight. At first, Dziwisz seems to get better treatment from the punctilious Major Zawada in charge of her case than from his contemptuous Lieutenant Morawski. However, Morawski’s ideals are shaken by Dziwisz’s ordeal. Having survived a concentration camp, he now finds himself in the role of state tormentor. In an admittedly credibility challenged plot turn, he and Dziwisz even become furtive lovers.

As for Holland, she plays that dreaded individual, the ideological fanatic. When not snitching on her cell-mates, she defends their unjust imprisonment, including her own, as a sacrifice on behalf of Communism. Holland spent most of her career behind the camera, not in front of it, but she is scarily believable as the ice-cold true believer.

Completed mere days before martial law was declared in Poland, Interrogation was duly banned shortly thereafter. It is not an easy film to watch, but it is a powerful viewing experience. Anchored by Janda’s harrowing performance (probably her best screen work), Interrogation is an intense indictment of the Communist system, particularly of the Stalinist era, but also of its own time, by clear implication. It screens again tonight at the MoMA.