Sunday, November 26, 2023

EU Film Fest (Vancouver) ’23: Leave No Traces

In the West, we prosecute police brutality. In Communist nations, it was protected. Usually, it was part of a concerted campaign to harass and torture dissidents. In the case of Grzegorz Przemyk, it was force of habit, but the Communist Party reflexively shielded the perpetrators just the same. Years later, the trauma of the case still haunts Poland. Jan P. Matuszynski breaks down the Jaruzelski regime’s operation to discredit witnesses and compromise the investigation of Przemyk’s murder, step-by-agonizing-step, in Leave No Traces, which screens tomorrow as part of the European Union Film Festivalin Vancouver.

Przemyk and his friend Jurek Popiel (a composite) were celebrating their college entrance exams, when the local police arrested them, suspecting they were the scruffy Solidarity supporters they looked like (as indeed they were). Since Przemyk was the daughter of Barbara Sadowska, a poet and member of the Solidarity defense committee, he had a good idea of what his rights were, as a suspect under arrest. Tragically, asserting his rights prompts Przemyk’s fatal beating. Popiel witnessed it all, including the senior officer, who instructed the militia men to kick Przemyk in the stomach, so it would “leave no traces.”

Initially, cooler-headed apparatchiks like Kowalczyk, mindful of the Pope’s imminent visit, want to treat the matter like an isolated criminal matter. However, Kiszczak, the interior minister, insists on launching a full cover-up. As the disgusted chief prosecutor Fraciszek Rusak eventually notes, Kiszczak’s heavy-headed response, elevates the murder of Przemyk into an international incident. Although he dutifully prosecuted dissent during martial law, Rusak appoints a prosecutor consider sympathetic to the opposition, so Kiszczak will devise ways to undermine and replace her, while directly attacking Sadowska, Popiel, and his family.

Matuszynski has a background in documentary filmmaking that serves him well in
Leave No Traces, but it never feels academic or scholarly. Instead, his meticulous recreation of the Party’s machinations builds into an extraordinary level of tension. Frankly, it is hard to even breathe during the two-and-a-half-hours-plus of Leave No Traces, because you can see how they deliberately and ruthlessly went about breaking people. It is chilling to watch.

This is a stunning indictment of a corrupt and oppressive regime, deeply rooted in a toxic ideology that had no value for the individual. The chief witness is probably Sandra Korzeniak, who is absolutely devastating as Sadowska, the heartbroken mother. This is not an obnoxiously flashy look-at-me-I’m-Meryl-Streep kind of performance. Instead, Korzeniak shows us how the Communist regime slowly hollowed out Sadowska inside and eventually killed her. It is a pity that
Leave No Traces was not nominated for an international Oscar last year, but it is a sin that her performance has not had the recognition it deserves.

Tomasz Zietek is also excellent as Popiel. Instead of a hero or a martyr, he plays Popiel like the kid he was, scared and confused to suddenly find himself facing the full fury of the Polish Communist Party. Jacek Braciak is also hard to shake for his incredibly complex performance as Popiel’s father, a minor Party member, who pretty much does everything wrong, from just about everyone’s perspective. Also, look out for the great Tomasz Kot (
Cold War) as the detached and cerebral Kowalczyk.

Leave No Traces
is a great film, but it is very definitely a tragedy, not a thriller. As of 2023, Przemyk’s killers have still not yet been brought to justice (despite periodic attempts). Watching Matuszynski will make you mad, but viewers will also feel a profound wave of compassion for Sadowska. Very highly recommended, Leave No Traces screens tomorrow (11/27) at the Cinematheque in Vancouver (and it streams on Freevee and Tubi).