Eroica, the ironic film by Andrzej Munk, is devoid of pathos and appeals to the sensibilities of contemporary viewers, even though half a century has passed since its premiere. Like other creators of the Polish Film School, Munk analyses the attitudes of Poles in World War II, but he does this with his characteristic contrariness and reserve. Irony is present in the title itself, the loftiness of which doesn’t correspond to the film’s convention: Eroica, the name of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, which the composer dedicated to Napoleon, simply means "heroic”.
At first Munk’s work was supposed to consist of three separate parts, but the director concluded that one of them was artistically different to the others and he didn’t include this part in the film. The removed short story is entitled "Con bravura” and has been preserved: it tells of a conspirator dressed up as a nun trying to get from Zakopane to Hungary. Eventually Eroica was made up of the episodes Scherzo alla polacca (literally 'Polish Joke') and Ostinato lugubre ('Steadily Gloomy').
The hero of the first episode is Dzidziuś Górkiewicz (Edward Dziewoński), hustler, who flees the Warsaw Uprising as he doesn’t want to risk his life. Fate (to be precise not fate but the infidelity of Górkiewicz’s wife) causes Dzidziuś to meet a Hungarian officer (Leon Niemczyk) at his home, who offers military help to the Polish insurgents. Dzidziuś somewhat involuntarily becomes a liaison between the Hungarians and the Polish army - he has the chance to serve his country.
In one of the best scenes of the first part, a thoroughly inebriated Górkiewicz miraculously walks through a battlefield without even getting a scratch – the Germans don’t even try to shoot at him, they just laugh themselves senseless. The (anti) hero of the Eroica, superbly played by Dziewoński, was supposed to counterbalance the tragic-romantic characters of Polish cinema: Dzidziuś cares more about his family than he does about the homeland and assesses reality rationally. Considering this, his final choice seems rather surprising. While this choice isn’t at all loftily patriotic, it is nevertheless heroic in a certain sense.
The second short story takes place at a German POW camp for officers. Munk describes with sad irony the community of Polish officers, who are in conflict with each other and have petty arguments even in captivity. The long detention at the Oflag causes the men, who live in a common room, to suffer neuroses and psychological traumas: Lieutenant Korwin-Makowski (Mariusz Dmochowski) eagerly organizes courts of honour, Lieutenant Żak (Józef Kostecki) distances himself from company and spends most of his time in isolation in a makeshift booth, etc.
The viewer can almost physically feel the atmosphere of claustrophobia and growing paranoia thanks to the various devices of which Jerzy Wójcik made use: wide-angle lenses that deformed the recorded images; depth of field to markedly present ceilings in his frames, causing the spaces to look closed in and overwhelming. As stated in the title, the atmosphere is gloomy. The commanders are bonded only by one thing: they jointly cultivate the memory of Lieutenant Zawistowski (Tadeusz Łomnicki), who allegedly managed to escape from the camp. Only a few of them know that the sick and emaciated Zawistowski is actually hiding in the attic, fighting for his life. Like Gombrowicz, Munk shows the absurdity of Polish rituals and confronts myths with reality - the director exposes the fictitiousness of myths. All in all, the legend will prove to be beneficial to the survival of the community, and the finale of Ostinato lugubre is quite ambiguous.
By substituting the national heroes with ordinary, sometimes even grotesque, people Munk makes us look at the issue of heroism from a new perspective. The director doesn’t ridicule heroic acts, he merely takes them off the pedestal and reflects on them. The specific atmosphere of Eroica is determined by a mix of what is lofty and what is low, of seriousness and foolery, of comedy and tragedy. Munk wouldn’t have accomplished such great effects had he not found such an ideally harmonized form for the intellectual content of his work. In the director’s "symphony” (the subheading of the film is "Heroic Symphony in Two Parts”; "Symfonia bohaterska w dwóch częściach") all of the elements play perfectly: Jerzy Wójcik’s cinematography which oscillates between subjectivity and objectivity (as noticed by Marek Hendrykowski), Jan Krenz’s music, Jerzy Stefan Stawiński’s screenplay, and the roles of such great Polish actors as Edward Dziewoński, Kazimierz Rudzki or Wojciech Siemion, who were capable of bringing life, frankness and naturalness into the precisely planned structure.
Author: Robert Birkholc, April 2014
Translated by: Marek Kępa
Eroica, Poland 1957. Directed by Andrzej Munk. Screenplay: Jerzy Stefan Stawiński. Cinematography: Jerzy Wójcik. Music: Jan Krenz. Scenery: Jan Grandys. Cast: Edward Dziewoński (Dzidziuś Górkiewicz), Barbara Połomska (Zosia), Leon Niemczyk (Istvan Kolya), Zofia Czerwińska (Lola), Kazimierz Rudzki (second lieutenant Turek), Józef Nowak (lieutenant Kurzawa), Mariusz Dmochowski (lieutenant Korwin-Makowski), Roman Kłosowski (second lieutenant Szpakowski), Bogumił Kobiela (second lieutenant Dąbecki), Józef Kostecki (lieutenant Żak), Wojciech Siemion (lieutenant Marianek) and others.
A Film Studio "Kadr” Production. Black and white, 78 minutes.