Ryszard Bugajski’s Przesluchanie (Interrogation) is a powerful movie about a certain time in Polish history, that was marked by censorship and oppression and this is where Antonina ‘Tonia’ Dziwisz is caught up in. Played by one of Poland’s most remarkable actresses, Krystyna Janda, it is her that along with the wonderful cinematography work and realistic portrayal of prison conditions makes this movie so incredible. It is through her eyes that we see the story unfold and the suffering of her and her prison inmates (with some great co-acting by the likes of Agnieszka Holland). This is along with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s and Andrzej Wajda’s finest work one of the defining moments of Polish cinema, and beyond that. Certainly one of the most powerful prison movies ever made in my book, not just within the perspective of Polish or European cinema as such. And in the wake of events like Guantanamo bay or Abu Ghraib it still is as fresh and important with the covered subject as it was when it was made, reminding us how things could go horribly wrong within a judicial and in the end prison system. Due to it’s critical stance at the time of making, it was banned by the local government for 7 years, until the Soviet bloc broke up. An extremely powerful reminder of that time.
In the early 1980s, film director Rsyzard Bugajski worked under Andrzej Wajda at the Polish film studio Film Unit X. Bugajski had been developing a script about repression and brutality in Poland in the 1950s under Stalinist rule. As the studio was run by the communist state, all film scripts had to be approved by the Culture Committee before a film could go into production. A script such as Interrogation, that was openly critical of the State, stood little chance of approval. However, at the time Interrogation went through the system in 1982, the authorities were preoccupied with preparations for the forthcoming imposition of martial law and it somehow slipped through the net. Interrogation was passed for production.
Interrogation was shot over the summer/autumn of 1982. The nature of the film made for a particularly intense shoot. This was not helped by the problems faced by directors working within a communist system at that time. At one point, Bugajski realised that there was not enough 35mm film available to complete the production. Being a communist country he could not just go and buy more and there was no more in Poland at that time. He contacted a number of friends and colleagues in Western Europe and the USA who clubbed together enough money to buy 30,000ft of film, which they then shipped to Bugajski in Poland thereby allowing him to finish shooting. The film wrapped only days before martial law was imposed in December 1982.
The morning of the announcement of martial law, Bugajski was woken by his Assistant Director urging him to come to the studio. They realised that they would have to hide the film if it were to survive. They eventually managed to take the rushes of the film and bury them under tarpaulin, bricks and snow in a remote part of the studio lot. Once the initial period of martial law had passed, Bugajski realised he was not going to be arrested and so started to edit the film.
On completion, the film had to be approved for release by the Polish Government’s Culture Committee; a dictaphone was somehow smuggled into the meeting which considered Interrogation and the proceedings were recorded in their entirety. The transcript is a fascinating window into the inner workings of an oppressive State.
Unsurprisingly the film was banned. Bugajski realised that the film could be ‘lost’ or destroyed and so, risking imprisonment at the very least, he surreptitiously made a copy on tape given to him by an American film crew. In what seems like a scene from a Cold War novel, Bugajski then met a friend at a bus stop and gave him the tape for safe keeping. From this tape VHS copies were made and were leaked out into general circulation.
Interrogation became a genuine underground hit. A population otherwise fed propaganda were holding secret viewings of the film all over Poland. This eventually came to the notice of the authorities and Bugajski was sacked from his job at the studio. He was also told by the SB (Secret Police) that they would make it impossible for him to hold down any decent job for long.
Faced with a lifetime of persecution, Bugajski exiled himself and his family to Canada where he continued to work in film and television. Following the return to democracy in 1989, Poland was finally able to freely see Interrogation for the first time. Exactly seven years after the announcement of martial law, the film was given its premiere in Warsaw. The following year, at the Cannes Film Festival, Interrogation was nominated for the Golden Palm and Krystyna Janda won the Best Actress Award.
Ryszard Bugajski has moved back to Poland and continues to write and direct films. Interrogation remains a profoundly powerful film. It is a testament to the determination of a director who risked everything to bring it to an audience. And now in 2005, sixteen years on from its first official public performance, the film is as relevant as it ever was.
Poland, 1951. Tonia (Krystyna Janda) is a cabaret singer. One night she gets very drunk and wakes up in a prison cell. She is asked to give evidence against a former lover. She refuses, and the authorities try to break her through a long process of brutality and intimidation.Interrogation (Przeschulanie) is one of the most harrowing films you’re likely to see. Considering that this is a film openly critical of State oppression during the Stalinist era made in a Communist country, it’s not surprising that it was banned for eight years. It’s even more surprising that it was ever put into production, but at the time (1982), the Polish authorities were preoccupied with the forthcoming imposition of martial law and the script was passed for approval. The film was shot in the summer and autumn of that year, with director Ryszard Bugajski running out of 35mm film stock at one point and having to ask colleagues in Western Europe and the USA to send him enough to complete the film. The film finished shooting in December, days before martial law was declared in December, and had to be hidden until Bugajski felt safe enough to edit it. However, the film was banned by the authorities (Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blind Chance was another one), though clandestine copies circulated on videotape. Bugajski left the country to pursue a film and TV career in Canada. Following the return of democracy in 1989, Interrogation had its long-delayed premiere, being the last film to have its ban lifted. It was entered into competition at the following year’s Cannes festival, and won a much-deserved Best Actress award for Krystyna Janda. The film had a limited cinema release in the UK, followed by a showing on BBC2 which I saw.
Janda was and is a distinguished actress best known in the West for her leading roles in Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble and Kieslowski’s Dekalog Two. (She’s also second-billed in Istvan Szabo’s Mephisto, but as that film is so dominated by one of the great leading performances of the last half-century, from Klaus Maria Brandauer, it’s not her fault that you can forget that Janda is in it.) But if she’s given a finer performance than the one she gives in Interrogation, then I’d certainly like to see it. Tonia seems at first a carefree, frivolous party girl, but as days of imprisonment become months, an inner steel becomes more and more obvious. This is a very demanding part, physically as well as emotionally, but Janda carries it off perfectly. At her lowest ebb, in a scene that’s hard to watch, she tries to kill herself by biting the veins in her wrist.
Although ultimately everything else in Interrogation is there to support the central extraordinary performance, all the supporting roles are well played. Writer-director Agnieszka Holland makes a rare appearance in front of the camera as a fellow prisoner. Bugajski and his DP Jacek Petrycki make good use of light. In the opening shot (on a train), the sunlight gives a warm glow, which fades as the film progresses. Blues and greys dominate as Tonia’s hope fades…but at the end of the film the sun comes out again and warm colours return. The film also makes good use of the soundtrack, which I will discuss further below.
Interrogation isn’t a subtle film, and it’s fair comment to say that after nearly two hours you might feel you’ve been worked over by a blunt instrument. It’s certainly unrelenting, but you sense an anger fuelling it. It’s a film that had urgent things to say about a then-vital and still relevant issue, and it says it very well. Not an easy film to forget.
Subtitles:English, Russian (idx, sub), English, Spanish (srt)
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