Thursday, February 04, 2010

Storm Warnings: Without Anesthesia

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 journalist suddenly finds himself beset with personal and professional setbacks, it is surely no coincidence in Andrzej Wajda’s Without Anesthesia (a.k.a. Rough Treatment), which screens this Monday as part of Storm Warnings, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s retrospective of Polish Solidarity era cinema.

Michalowski enjoys being a public intellectual. Loosely inspired by Ryszard Kapuściński, Anesthesia’s protagonist has traveled 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,” if at all. 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 circulation list for American newsweeklies (back when they actually mattered), he protests to his network patron. However, the reporter 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.

Caught up in the Kafkaesque “rough treatment” that was the modus operandi of the Communist Party during the Gierek years (1970-1980), Michalowski is paying a price for his accidental candor, slowly becoming professionally and socially persona non grata. It was a cold-blooded process Wajda himself closely observed when it was applied to his own professional acquaintances. Following Man of Marble, which inaugurated Wajda’s turn to consciously political filmmaking, Anesthesia’s 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 Anesthesia, it is clear why Wajda and screenwriter Agnieszka Holland (who would become an internationally celebrated director for Europa, Europa and her work on HBO’s The Wire eventually found it necessary to seek employment outside of the Communist Era Poland.

Zbigniew Zapasiewicz gives a great performance, fully capturing both the bluster and pathos of Michalowski. Wajda depicts his personal tragedy in cold, unsentimental terms, but not without some measure of sympathy. Far from hysterical, it was a lucid and restrained 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 Anesthesia might be hard to love, they are unquestionably compelling to watch. A historically important film in both the Wajda and Holland canons, it screens Monday (2/8) at the Walter Reade Theater.