It took real courage to make Interrogation. Known as Przesluchanie in the original Polish, it looked like career suicide for everyone involved in the making of it. Even given the easier political situation in Poland once the Solidarity union had started making headway from 1980 onwards, the film’s message – that the regime was inhumane, Nazi even – was never going to be tolerated by the authorities. And it wasn’t. Banned before it appeared in 1982, it was nevertheless widely seen in Poland, thanks to pirate tapes played on VHS machines, which had only recently been introduced to Poland. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 it finally got its official release and went on to win its star, Krystyna Janda, a best actress award at Cannes in 1990.
It is a great performance, big and broad and full of emotion. Janda plays the flighty club singer whose round of gigs, vodka and affairs is brought to an end one night in 1951 when she’s picked up by a couple of handsome guys after a show. Drink follows drink and bar follows bar, but instead of winding up back at a hotel for yet more alcohol and a hazy bunk-up, Tonia (Janda) finds herself at a military prison, where she has soon been stripped naked and examined before being thrown in a massively overcrowded cell.
This is the beginning of a very long process designed seemingly by a capricious sadist. What the interrogators want from Tonia is not so much a signed confession that she’s guilty of something, or of knowing somebody, or of harbouring some secret knowledge, as a complete yielding of herself to the state apparatus. She is a singer, and so she is guilty of being an individual in a collective system. And as her interrogators apply a variety of techniques to de-individualise her – psychological more than physical, though that figures too – she puts up a defence consisting of a performer’s brass front. Telling stories, flirting, head up, tits out, ready to make a run for it if an opportunity arises, keeping the other women in her cell entertained as much as herself and eventually making an impression on her two interrogators, one of them especially, though winding up pretty broken in the process.
The two guys who play her interrogators resist the urge to be a good cop/bad cop duo, Janusz Gajos and Adam Ferency both sailing close to the stereotype of the haughty, almost regretful Nazi interrogator at times but never quite going there. They play human beings, not automata. Look out also for Agnieszka Holland, then more an actress than a director, as the devout communist and informer Tonia shares a cell with. This was her last acting role.
Interestingly, the secret police had a hand in the origin of the film too. Its director and co-writer Ryszard Bugajski was working for Andrzej Wajda at his Studio X production outfit when he was approached by them. They wanted a spy inside Wajda’s camp. Wajda’s films, 1976’s Man of Marble and 1981’s Man of Iron, were far too critical of the regime. Would Bugjaski be their man?
It pushed him the other way and Interrogation, his first film, was the result. After making it there was no future for him in Communist Poland and he fled, heading for Canada.
For a first film made under difficult circumstances, by a cast and crew who knew it meant trouble, it’s a remarkably accomplished affair, technically superb and claustrophobic without feeling constrained, thanks to Jacek Petrycki’s fluid camera and short, sharp scenes that don’t overstay their welcome. This is a dynamic movie that has a lot to fit it and so doesn’t hang around.
Of course it cannot be as powerful now as it was then. Watch it with that in mind. This isn’t a veiled critique, or an allegorical satire pulling at the odd loose thread in a regime, it’s a full-frontal attack stating that the country is deliberately torturing its citizens, and that it’s no better than the Nazis the Poles had so recently only just escaped.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023