Andrzej Munk’s Eroica (1958) was made just before Bad Luck (which I discussed in a previous post). It’s less ambitious than that later film, but displays a similar anti-heroic and myth-deflating sensibility, as it reflects on the calamities of Poland’s 20th-century history.
Eroica is composed of two separate episodes (each about 40 minutes long) set near the end of World War II. In the first episode, “Scherzo alla Polacca,” a small-time opportunist, who dislikes the thought of doing arduous work or taking risks, nonetheless finds himself having to cross the German/Polish frontlines several times, in order to deliver messages vital to the Resistance. In the second, “Ostinato Lugubre,” a bunch of captured Polish officers fail to escape from a German POW camp, in which most of them have been interned for the entire duration of the War.
In “Scherzo alla Polacca,” the protagonist Dzidzius (Edward Dziewonski) is farcically anti-heroic. He drifts into Resistance work almost by accident; he finds his wife cavorting with a handsome Hungarian officer, and wants to get out of town. He learns from the officer that the Hungarian military unit occupying the town would like to change sides, abandoning the Nazis (who are clearly losing the war by this point) and giving their weapons to the Resistance, in return for favorable treatment from the Soviet Army whenever it arrives. Dzidzius has to deliver messages back and forth across the frontlines in order to help negotiate the terms of this exchange. He makes his way, confronted both by Nazis who find him suspicious, or Resistance people who worry he is a spy, first through bribery — until he runs out of money — and then by grovelling and play-acting. Since he’s easily distracted from his mission — getting drunk on vintage wine he loots from a half-destroyed house, and getting it on with a woman he knows in the Resistance — he really only completes his task by accident. But it turns out at the end that the entire exercise was useless: the Resistance and the Hungarians cannot come to an agreement.
The most famous shot in the movie (sorry I am not including it here, but I returned the DVD before I got a chance to scan it) shows Dzidzius sitting on a riverbank, getting drunk, and not even seeing a German tank that approaches him from behind. When he finally notices the tank, he convinces the Germans not to kill him by rolling around on the ground, making a big spectacle of his drunkenness, and wailing, in broken German, about his aged and infirm mother (this latter part seems to be pure fabrication). We hear laughter from inside the tank, which then turns and rolls away, instead of shooting Dzidzius.
“Ostinato Lububre” takes place entirely within the perimeter of a POW camp, near the end of the war (probably in late 1944). Two new officers, just captured and interned, meet their bunkmates who, it turns out, have all been there ever since surrendering right at the start of the War, in September 1939. Their life as prisoners — governed scrupulously by the Geneva Convention — is relatively sheltered, peaceful, and comfortable, compared to the lot of anybody who is actually out there back in Poland, suffering under the Nazi occupation. Since they have almost nothing to do, they spend their time in petty squabbles and stupid games. They endlessly bemoan the impossibility of escaping — but it is clear that they don’t really want to. The one exception is Lieutenant Zak (Jozef Kostecki), who hates them all and wishes only to be placed in solitary confinement so he can be free of them; Zak, as a sort of demonstration, easily slips through the camp’s barbed wire and out to “freedom,” only to let himself be recaptured, a minute later, by two peasant women out for a stroll. Even this stunt fails to get him placed in solitary — he is just returned to the same barracks as the others.
The prisoners comfort and coddle themselves in their inactivity by frequently recalling the almost mythical exploit of the only one of their number who escaped, Lieutenant Zawistowski (Tadeusz Lomnicki). But it turns out that Zawistowski never actually did get out — he is simply hiding in a crawl space in the barracks, fed by the few fellow prisoners who are in on the secret. Not only does the myth of heroisim serve as an alibi for stupidity and inaction; it isn’t even based on anything true in the first place.
Both episodes work to deflate and demystify national myths, of heroism and patriotism and resistance. Munk excels at a kind of comical emptying-out: not only of the false ideals he seeks to satirize, but of the very notion of a cinema of action. His farcical incidents all occur in a void: they are what happens, you might say, when nothing is happening, when there are no real Events. I’m reminded a bit of Howard Hawk’s semi-absurdist John Wayne/Dean Martin Western, Rio Bravo, made around the same time (1959). In Rio Bravo , too, nothing happens for most of the movie: the protagonists just sit around having aimless conversations while they wait for an event that takes its good time, before arriving. But of course, Hawks’ film does culminate in a real Event — the final gunfight — and thereby it does affirm, if not the full myth of Heroism, then at least its Hawksian mutation into a seasoned, committed professionalism, which emerges as a source of both pride and redemption. In contrast, Munk offers the viewer no such outlet, no such conclusion. We are left stranded, instead, with the sense that you can never be on the right side of History, but only make more or less cowardly, more or less stupid, more or less dishonorable, accomodations to its unavoidable weight.