In Andrzej Munk’s Bad Luck (1959), the tragic history of 20th-century Poland is repeated as farce. The main character, Piszcyck, is a sort of hapless Everyman who stumbles through two decades of war, revolution, and political infighting without ever understanding what is going on, or why his life has taken the turns that it does. Piszcyck is played by Bogumil Kobiela, who (as my students noted) had already played a similar role in Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, where he provided a buffoonish counterpoint to the tragic ambivalences of the main plot. Here Kobiela dominates the movie, walking idiotically through history in a manner that prefigures Woody Allen’s Zelig and Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump.
Bad Luck is, however, a considerably harsher and more sardonic film than either Zelig or Gump. Piszczyk displays a boundless desire to conform, to fit in, to do what everyone else is doing; but he remains utterly unconscious of the moral and political stakes of everything he does. Before the War, he manages to be beaten up, both by fascist thugs who mistake him for a Jew, and by cops who misidentify him as one of those fascist thugs. During the War, he finds himself successively as a collaborator with the Nazis, as a black marketeer making money off people’s misfortunes, and as a courier for the Resistance. After the War, he works both as a fake lawyer engaging in shady, dubious deals, and as an enthusiastic bureaucrat helping to build the glorious Communist society of the future.
Actually, this is only a partial list; Piszczyk’s story, which he narrates in a series of flashbacks, is incredibly convoluted and self-contradictory. The only constant elements are: Piszczyk’s boundless enthusiasm and good faith (no matter what he is doing); his disposition to take credit for — and to recklessly exaggerate — whatever good or creditable thing happens to him, while at the same time disavowing as “bad luck” whatever disasters he brings upon himself; his inability to comprehend (thanks to his childish narcissism) either the motives and feelings of people around him, or the larger social significance of whatever situation he is in; and his rather endearing ability to shrug off one disaster after another, since of course everything he tries to do ends badly. A weathervane never changes; only the wind does (as Daniel Singer once wrote of Philippe Sollers).
Munk’s mise en scene is clearly influenced by silent film comedy. Indeed, scenes from Piszczyk’s childhood are played like a silent film (or, more accurately, like the way silent film is typically perceived in the sound era) with generic music, exaggerated gestures, no dialogue, and the film speeded up to reflect the experience of watching a silent film shot at 18fps, but seen at the sound speed of 24fps. The rest of the film unfolds with normal dialog and pacing, but the influence of the cinematic imaginary on Piszczyk’s sensibility is indicated at least once, when he goes to the movies and sees some sort of exaggeratedly romantic melodrama, which helps to fuel the fantasies that drive him. He’s always particularly deluded about women, and many of his more idiotic moves are made in order to impress them, or as a result of his failing to understand their lack of interest in him.
There are several scenes that wonderfully epitomize the many levels of irony at work her. In one (set in pre-War times) Piszczyk finds himself sandwiched in between two political rallies: a pro-government one ahead of him, and a fascist one behind him. He doesn’t quite know what to do, so he shouts slogans of both groups alternately.
The other scene is set right at the start of the War. Piszczyk is in a cabbage field, when German airplanes fly overhead. At the first pass, he naively waves at them. The planes return, and start bombing the field; Piszczyk runs away from them in a zigzag, continually changing direction in order to avoid the explosions. It’s sort of like a Keystone Kops mishap, but with considerably higher stakes.
Piszczyk’s idiocy, or innocence (the two here are synonymous) does several things. In the first place, it clearly works (as critics have noted) as a critique of Romantic nationalist myths, which portray the Polish people as unfailingly noble, heroic, and courageous. It’s possible to see Piszczyk as, in spite of everything, a survivor, who manages to muddle through everything thanks to his weird combination of infinite adaptibility and an (unjustifiably) clear conscience. His pathetric delusions and stupidities are perhaps to be preferred to those grandiose ones which have led the nation to catastrophe time and again.
It’s revealed at the end of the film that Piszczyk has been telling his story to the warden of a prison from which he is about to be released — Piszczyk is begging to be allowed to stay in jail, because this is the one place where he is told precisely what he has to do, and therefore he is able to avoid the “bad luck” that inexorably awaits him in the world outside. I don’t know whether Munk and Wajda were carrying on a sort of argument by means of their films dealing with World War II; but the ironies of Bad Luck‘s comedic situation are as dizzying, and as deep, as the ironies of the tragic, existential situations of Wajda’s contemporary films Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds.
But there’s something more. Piszczyk is always characterized, as I have already mentioned, by his optimism and sincere good faith, his boundless enthusiasm for whatever enterprise he is involved in, no matter how this contradicts what he was doing, and what he ostensibly believed in, before. This comes out especially in the last long sequence of the film, when he is working as a socialist bureaucrat in the government statistics office. Not only is he enraptured by the vast quantities of data he is collecting (and for which there doesn’t seem to be any further use), he is also thrilled to be able to inform his superior about the bad (and implicitly anti-Party) behavior of one of his co-workers. The superior carefully writes down all the information Piszczyk gives him; but he also voices suspicion of Piszczyk himself on several occasions, because Piszczyk strikes him as being just too enthusiastic to be believable. He feels all his suspicions confirmed when the co-worker frames Piszczyk for similar anti-authority behavior, and gets him fired and jailed.
Now, numerous accounts of life under state socialism have emphasized that there was enormous pressure both to inform on others, and to express boundless enthusiasm for the state’s vacuous and deeply flawed and failing projects. The result was a kind of universal cynicism: everyone was complicit in the ostentatious public affirmation of ideals and rituals which they all privately knew to be hollow and false. Everybody goes through the motions; and everybody “knows better.” Piszczyk’s true “failing” is that he entirely lacks this cynicism and hypocrisy: this is precisely why his Party superior finds his enthusiasm suspect. How can anyone truly serve the Party, if he fails to be aware that everything the Party stands for is a sham?
This is something like what Zizek calls “overidentification” (see the discussions of this concept here and here). Only where Zizek praises (deliberate) overidentification as a subversive and critical strategy, Munk presents it entirely immanently: Piszczyk doesn’t intend, and is entirely unaware of, the potentially subversive implications of what he does. And even leaving aside questions of intent and awareness, Munk is far more pessimistic than Zizek, as he doesn’t see overidentification as having any power to disrupt the system, to gum up the works. (To use Zizek’s own Hegelian vocabulary, Munk suggests — contra Zizek — that, not only are Piszczyk’s actions not liberating “for themselves,” they are not even liberating “in themselves” or “for us”).
There are two points that arise for me, out of this comparison between Munk and Zizek. First: overidentification is one of those concepts that arose in the context of “really existing socialism” — where it is quite appropriate — but that Zizek brings over into his analysis of postmodern capitalism as well, where it is arguably far less relevant (because consumer capitalism’s ability to appropriate and co-opt is far greater than the ability to appropriate and co-opt that was possessed by socialist cynicism and hypocrisy). Second: overidentification doesn’t have the political efficacy Zizek would like to endow it with; it is only relevant contemplatively or aesthetically (which is not a problem in any way for me, as a self-proclaimed aesthete — but which is a problem for Zizek). Part of Munk’s genius is that he was able to see all this so clearly, a generation before Zizek and NSK.