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Snow White and Russian Red - Xawery Żuławski

Published in 2002, Dorota Masłowska's debut novel Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną / White and Red (U.S. edition: "Snow White and Russian Red") aroused as much admiration as it caused controversy. The writer was 19; fresh out of secondary school, she had been admitted to university to study psychology. The book was hailed as "Poland's first novel about the dresiarz [tracksuit-wearing urban thug] subculture" and - as an image of that subculture, written in a unique language characteristic of that particular group, though stylised by the author - was recognized as an intriguing record of the social awareness of young Poles growing up on tower-block housing estates. The dispute over Masłowska was concerned on the one hand with whether the image she had created could be universalised, and on the other - with whether Polish literature needed such an image at all. Regardless of the conclusions from the discussion, Dorota Masłowska has become known in Poland's cultural life: she has written several novels and plays as well as a collection of feature articles, she has received prestigious awards, including the Polityka Passport 2002 (for "an original insight into Polish reality and creative use of street language in 'Wojna polsko-ruska...' "), and the Nike Award 2006 (for the book Paw królowej).

In view of the subject matter - a young guy's relationships with several women against the background of an imaginatively described subculture - and the book's fame, a screen adaptation of Masłowska's novel was only a question of time. Jan Jakub Kolski took on the book but then gave up (could the creator of Jancioland, the magical rural land of his films, have been unable to create its urban equivalent?). The next person to undertake an adaptation was Xawery Żuławski, already an award-winner in Gdynia for his debut Chaos, a film brimming with energy. His work went in a different direction - he was fascinated not by the portrayal of the subculture, but the special nature of the creative process. In his commentary to the film, he claims that Wojna polsko-ruska / Snow White and Russian Red

"is a film about imagination and its role as a prime mover. Perhaps we are all the creations of someone's imagination? Out of boredom, the writer invented the character Silny ["Strong"]. And the world that comes before him is built, it is 'born'. Silny moves around it like a 'foreigner', a traveller from another planet. Silny's character is convincing, we believe he exists. From the start, the world presented to Silny appears to be a small Polish town, boring and empty at night, but there's an awful lot going on in Silny's rhythm, in his activity. Silny loves Magda and follows her, searches for her, meeting other characters from the writer's mind on the way. At the end, during Silny's death and descent into hell, which turns out to be a television studio, a question is subconsciously asked: what's the point? What's the point of creating, writing, making films?"

Żuławski invited Dorota Masłowska to appear in the film (in fact she's also featured in the novel, becoming - from Silny's viewpoint - Masłoska). The writer not only suggests to the character what he should say, but at one point also suggests that the world in which Silny exists comes from her imagination which - like Silny's - is fuelled by drugs (though the question of how great a role drugs play in this original vision of the world remains unresolved). Hence the shockingly literal message - the dumped girl thrown against the bar wall, the kitchen demolished in the search for amphetamine, the vomited stones. However, Żuławski's film offers some scraps of truth about the dresiarz subculture - based on the one hand on simple psychology (the man hiding behind the nickname "Strong" turns out to be a weakling in contacts with women), and on the other - on sociological or even anthropological observations (the great relishing of freedom following the political transformation, a cursory review of social ills, the birth of the middle class, the flourishing plebeian culture linked to disco-polo music). But scraps are only scraps, placed as they are in the inverted commas of the author's view of the world - a view which, we mustn't forget, is the projection of a clever and sensitive person, but still just a teenager, though she is a few years older in Żuławski's film. Any attempt to see Wojna polsko-ruska / Snow White and Russian Red as a reflection of the reality outside the film is pointless. What remains is admiration for Xawery Żuławski's ability to create a world and populate it with intriguing characters. It's been a long time since Polish cinema saw such a dynamic work as Wojna..., and such a vibrant one, too. This is due not only to the director's narrative skills, which reveal his own original style though one that clearly looks towards the films of his father Andrzej Żuławski - director of such famous pictures as L'important c'est d'aimer / That Most Important Thing: Love and Possession. Credit is also due to his actors - especially Borys Szyc as Silny. With his head shaved and an energy unseen in Polish cinema, the actor portrays a young guy from the dregs of society, thus risking being identified with a subculture which is a symbol of residual Soviet mentality in the reality of not only big urban centres. It's hard to refrain from the question that has appeared ever since the literary premiere of Dorota Masłowska's book: all the excellent technique of this interpretation aside, does Polish cinema really need such a portrait?

  • Wojna polsko-ruska / Snow White and Russian Red, Poland 2009. Screenplay based on Dorota Masłowska's novel Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną / White and Red (U.S. edition: "Snow White and Russian Red") and director: Xawery Żuławski, cinematography: Marian Prokop, set design: Joanna Kaczyńska, costumes: Anna Englert, sound: Jarosław Bajdowski. Cast: Borys Szyc (Andrzej Robakowski "Silny"), Michał Czernecki (Maciej Lewandowski "Lewy"), Roma Gąsiorowska (Magda), Sonia Bohosiewicz (Natasza Blokus), Dorota Masłowska (Masłoska), Maria Strzelecka (Andżela), Anna Prus (Alicja Burczyk) and others. Production: Film Media SA, co-financed by: Polish Film Institute. Length: 108 min. Released on 22 May 2009.

Author: Konrad J. Zarębski, June 2009.

Tags: snow white and russian redxawery żuławski

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