Monday, January 16, 2012

NYJFF ’12: Daas

“Daas” was a term used to signify a utopian ideal in the teachings of Jakob Frank, a self-proclaimed Judaic messiah who built a fiercely loyal following during the eighteenth century. The vagueness of its meaning is surely intentional. While obviously a charlatan, Frank had protectors highly placed in the court of the Austrian Emperor, who perniciously complicate the investigation of a crusading imperial attorney in screenwriter-director Adrian Panek’s Daas (trailer here), which has its American premiere at the 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Frankists were expected to convert to Catholicism (but not observe its tenets), participate in sexualized rituals, and seek healing through faith rather than medicine. Jakob Goliński used to be part of the flock, but the death of his daughter, despite all his fervent prayers, profoundly disillusioned him. However, his wife stayed with Frank. Not kindly disposed to apostates, the Frankists set out to ruin Goliński. Spurned by his former royal patron, the Frankist defector sends an appeal to the Imperial court, where it eventually comes to the attention of junior clerk (think prosecuting inspector) Henryk Klein.

Though ambitious, the clerk is rigidly principled. Nor has his wife’s recent incapacitating stroke dulled his commitment to justice. However, it certainly exacerbates his feeling of isolation when Frankists within the court conspire against his investigation.

The well produced Daas might be aesthetically conventional, but thematically it is a decidedly idiosyncratic costume drama. The narrative center of the film is preoccupied with the Frankist conspiracy, presented as a secret history in the Dan Brown tradition. Yet, it ultimately subverts its own subversion. Oddly, Panek seems decidedly uninterested in the mysticism and false prophesies that would seem to lie at the film’s core. Viewers who really want to understand Frankist doctrine, especially in the context of the widespread anti-Semitism faced by Continental Jewry in the 1700’s, will find it all rather obscure.

As the tortured (literally and figuratively) Goliński, Andrzej Chyra (so memorable in the Solidarity-era drama All That I Love) is a forcefully compelling everyman. Mariusz Bonaszewski is steely enough as Klein (though his fainting is less than convincing), but Olgierd Łukaszewicz’s Frank lacks an appropriately malevolent presence. He also vaguely resembles Chyra, like an older relation, which might confuse international audiences who will not necessarily recognize the two actors.

Throughout Daas, Panek tries to have his enlightenment and eat his mysticism too, deliberately muddying the waters of ostensive reality with several ambiguous scenes. Still, he packs in an eccentric hodge-podge of fascinating historical detail. There are insights to be found, including the noteworthy use of the American New World as a recurring motif. Panek makes it clear the Old World power structure was definitely on edge and it was largely our fault.

An ambitious oddity, the strangely dispassionate film has its moments, but what they add up to, viewers must tabulate for themselves. Considering nearly every Jewish character is a convert to the Frankist cult, it is more than a bit of a ringer at this year’s NYJFF. The flawed but undeniably intelligent Daas screens this Saturday (1/21) and the following Thursday (1/26) at the Walter Reade Theater.