In Michał Wnuk’s documentary debut, his private family history becomes an introduction to a story about the difficult Polish-German past.
It all started with a film in his family archives. Amongst the many family mementos given to him by his father was a 16mm film that revealed pictures of daily life on the front during World War II. There were also 120 photographs that the author – most probably a German soldier – took of the Nazi campaign, massive exterminations in the Częstochowski ghetto, the destruction of Warsaw after the Uprising in 1944…
These mysterious family heirlooms sent the director on an investigation. He wanted to understand how these objects found their way into his family's possession and what they actually say about the wartime past of his ancestors. An unobvious past – the director's grandfather from Silesia served as a soldier in the Wehrmacht during World War II. Was he the author of the photographs? Did he participate in the extermination of Poles? During the war, did he participate in the killing of civilians? Why did no one at home ever speak of his past?
Agfa 1939 Trailer from Michal Wnuk on Vimeo.
In his film, Wnuk searches for answers to all of these questions. He digs deep and pries in search of explanations. The problem is that every road he thinks may lead to the truth in fact leads to nowhere. His parents or distant relatives are not able to explain anything and subsequent leads turn out to be too unsubstantial to base any future findings on them.
The young director takes up the slightest possible lead in order to examine the origin of the titular film. This is his way of giving meaning to a story that was silenced many years before. Wandering through a world of insinuations and ambiguities, he tries to clarify his family history. The worst truth seems better than any lie. According to this rule Michał Wnuk tries to find evidence of his grandfather’s wrongdoings. The fact that his war story was never a topic of conversation for his family seems to be a confirmation of his worst intuitions, proof that his family wants to forget some sort of inherited disgrace.
Despite this, the story Wnuk tells has nothing to do with a cleansing journey toward the truth. Real life does not want to resemble a film script, a film something like the documentary version of Martin Pollack’s The Dead Man in The Bunker or Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies (which tells the story of the complicated fate of the Hungarian writer's family and which turns out to be a comedy of mistakes). All the effective hypothesise are turned down one by one as the facts are being determined in course of the investigation. Instead of a story about suppressed guilt and exorcising the truth, Agfa 1939 ends up being a documentary about the necessity for meaning and an attempt to give structure to history.
In Michał Wnuk’s documentary, the real story turns out to be less spectacular than the audience and director would have wanted. Although it turns out to be interesting nonetheless. Because Agfa 1939 slowly transforms from a small-scale private family story into a documentary about the tough Polish-German past. Silesia, from where the director’s family is from, had a less obvious past than in most other places.
The director's family history is a tale of an encounter between two paths through a war – the director’s grandfather, Alois, is serving in the Wehrmacht and ancestors from his father’s side are fighting in the Polish Underground. On one hand, a surgeon serving in the German army, on the other a Home Army executioner who eliminates informers. After the war ends, the former Wehrmacht soldier marries a Polish girl, the sister of the Home Army soldier. No one will speak of the war. Instead of opening up old wounds, they try to make a life for themselves on the leftover ruins. This will not be an easy task for all.
In Wnuk’s film, one Silesian family’s history turns into a story of the difficult relationship between Germans and Poles and the Silesian identity. But Agfa 1939 is not so much a documentary about the past as an attempt to tell its story. The journalistic-biographical investigation, that the director takes on, does not lead to any straight answers. It seems the authors efforts are for nothing, because the past does not want to reveal all its secrets. Because Agfa 1939 is primarily a story about mysteries that cannot be solved and history, that does not want to be submit to a simplified narrative.
- Agfa 1939. Journey into War, Directed and screenplay by: Michał Wnuk, Cinematography: Michał Popiel-Machnicki, Editing by: Jarosław Barzan, Ludwik Sielicki. Poland/Germany
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, Translated by: Zuzanna Wiśniewska