Friday, January 14, 2011

NYJFF ‘11: Cabaret Polska

1968 was truly a year of infamy. Perhaps most notorious was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia crushing the brief “Prague Spring” interlude of openness, but that awful year also witnessed the Polish Communists orchestrating an anti-Semitic purge, as a part of a virulent propaganda campaign against Zionism. Essentially it completed the country’s complete disillusionment with its Communist government, leaving a lingering sense of shame and loss that is expressed in unconventional but eloquent terms in Nir David Zats and Zuzanna Solakiewicz’s Cabaret Polska, which has its American premiere this coming Wednesday during the 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Ryszard Wojcik is not Jewish, but the purge cost him many close friends, including Stach and Joasia Gomulka. Hounded into immigrating, the Gomulkas were forced to abandon nearly all their worldly possessions, including a book Wojcik still prizes as a memento of their interrupted friendship. Yet as Joasia Gomulka ironically remembers, many of those persecuting her family were also jealous of them, because at least they were allowed to leave (and the sooner, the better).

Cabaret is not merely an oral history style documentary. As the title indicates, there are several slightly surreal musical interludes, as well as a highly stylized animated sequence incorporating surviving photos of the Gomulkas circa 1968. While it all might sound out of place, those familiar with the absurdist theatrical productions of Grotowski and the dissident Theater of the Eighth Day will recognize and understand Cabaret’s influences. Indeed, it is a fittingly absurd way to address Communism and its institutionalized anti-Semitism.

As one probably gathers, Cabaret veers far and wide, yet it never loses sight of the big picture, delivering a number of heavy moments. At just under an hour’s running time, it is also a manageable excursion into experimental documentary filmmaking. Given the Polish experience in WWII, the 1968 anti-Semitic purges are particularly appalling. Fortunately, Cabaret is part of an organized effort to prevent that difficult episode of Polish history from slipping into the memory hole. Highly recommended to modestly adventurous viewers, Cabaret screens Wednesday (1/19) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of a double bill of long short-form documentaries during this year’s NYJFF.