The Erlprince – Kuba Czekaj
Kuba Czekaj's second feature seduces with plasticity, refined form and mesmerising rhythm. It is, however, rather glitzy – beautiful, but empty.
Although Baby Bump proved that Kuba Czekaj is one of the strongest voices in contemporary Polish cinema, his second film begs to question oneself whether the owner of this voice really knows what he is singing about.
The Erlprince is a triumph of form. Unbridled, fierce, sometimes lyrical and always bold. Czekaj's imagination seems to have no limits – it produces subsequent eye-catching takes and scenes so beautifully that it was worth directing the film just for their sake.
Given its allure, it is curious how The Erlprince does not work – or at least does not work as it should. There are several answers to this puzzle, but let us start with the characters. Czekaj tells the story of a young man (Stanisław Cywka), who is a budding physicist and a home-spun philosopher. He is fourteen years old, has an overprotective mother (Agnieszka Podsiadlik) and – because of her – financial problems. A competition for young physicists is supposed to solve their problems. The boy's mother believes that the main prize could help them pay off accrued debts.
Czekaj hits high tones in The Erlprince – he speaks of parallel worlds, quotes Goethe, touches on the Oedipus complex and the cultural father archetype. This is precisely the point – it is difficult to shake off the feeling that Czekaj’s characters are not true-born people but archetypes. The Mother is someone taken from Sophocles’ works and the Father – from a western or a dark survival film. Although the actors do their best, it is difficult to get concerned about the characters they are depicting. This is because they are made-up – properly constructed, but completely bogus.
Instead of sketching modest psychological portraits, Czekaj shows us characters-symbols. In his film almost every scene has a hidden meaning and dialogues have a lot of gravity to them. It is something in-between Xavier Dolan’s hysterical emphasis and late-stage Zanussi’s philosophical dilemmas.
At this point we should give due to Sebastian Łach, the brightest element of the cast, who created an excellent character in The Erlprince. His Father is a persona characterised by absence – a silent, firm and laddish man. He is a filial phantasm, a challenge difficult to overcome, but one which has to be faced in order to cross the threshold of maturity. Łach appropriates the screen and mesmerises. Let us hope that Polish cinema will not allow us to forget about him.
The Erlprince is a twin to Baby Bump – Czekaj’s critically acclaimed previous film. They were both produced at the same time, a large part of the cast is the same, and both works make use of avant-garde film language. They also both seduce with visual splendour and bravery in building metaphors.
In this light, the fact that what worked in Baby Bump, this time works less is even more surprising. Why is that? Because of the humour – or rather the lack of it. Whereas Baby Bump showed the horror of growing up in all its dread and ridiculousness, in The Erlprince Czekaj reaches for a more serious tone. In his debut, he composed a visual chorus out of fragments of children’s cartoons – this time the director hits the viewer with a romantic poem read in German. The protagonist turned from a little rascal into a teenager with Weltschmerz, with whom it is incomparably more difficult to identify.
All that renders The Erlprince an unfulfilled film. Still, it is a must-see for every Polish art-house aficionado. Kuba Czekaj proves that he has a rich imagination and visual sensitivity. There are some scenes in his film which alone could be considered reasons justifying the feature’s inception. For example, the thrilling sequence of the boy’s visit at his father’s place, or the take, in which a shadow of a branch, on which small birds ready to fly away are sitting, is visible on the boy’s back. There are many more analogous images in the film and the impressive camerawork of Adam Palenta shows that in cinema imagination is more important than budget and that a modest film can become a visual symphony thanks to the creators’ ingenuity.
More is the pity that formal mastery in The Erlprince is not accompanied by equally mature content. Another story about the Oedipus complex and patricide as a gesture of initiation and finally stepping into adulthood? A director as incredibly talented as Kuba Czekaj can do better than this.
- The Erlprince. Directing and screenplay: Kuba Czekaj. Cinematography: Adam Palenta. Scenography: Anna Wunderlich. Cast: Stanisław Cywka, Agnieszka Podsiadlik, Stanisław Łach. Polish premiere: 18.08.2017.
Originally written by Bartosz Staszczyszyn in Polish, August 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, October 2017.Bartosz Staszczyszyn