Hands Up! is a 1967 film by Jerzy Skolimowski. It was supplemented in 1981 by an expanded prologue. A drama with elements of avant-garde, it was banned by the censors for 14 years.
The films of Jerzy Skolimowski, rightly compared with the films of the French New Wave, was a real sensation in Poland in the 1960s. Beginning with his debut titled Identification Marks: None, the intransigent director created hermetic and deeply personal films which combined story and essay. The most distinct mark of authorship in Skolimowski’s early cinema is the protagonist, Andrzej Leszczyc, played thrice by the creator himself. Leszczyc is a young man who does not know what to do in his life because the Polish reality does not have much to offer. In Identification Marks: None, Walkover (1965) and Barrier (1966) – which is considered to be a part of the series even though the protagonist is not named and is not played by Skolimowski but Jan Nowicki instead – the hero tries to mature but finds neither aim nor motivation in Gomułka-era Poland. Hands Up! is the final part of the Leszczyc tetralogy and a good summation of the series. This time, the director focuses not only on his alter ego but also on a particular collective and creates a bitter portrait of the generation of 30-year-olds.
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Hands Up! begins with a homecoming from medical school – a good opportunity for looking back on one’s life. In the first scene, we see Leszczyc (Jerzy Skolimowski) reading an accusatory letter written, supposedly, by an absent colleague. The medics, offended by the pamphlet, decide to visit the author and hop on a freight train (as Andrzej tells the guards: ‘it’s appropriate enough for these wretches’). The bigger part of the film plays out in the wagon, but one has to mention that the world depicted here is entirely conventional: the scenography brings to mind theatrical decorations, the setting is flat and one-dimensional and the characters emerge from the shadows like spectres to recite their lines. In this unusual space, a psychotherapeutic séance of sort takes place.
For his fear of responsibility – Lord, forgive him. For not picking up the phone when he was called for help – Lord, forgive him. For abusing his position – Lord, forgive him.
In one scene, the medics lay out the litany over their sleeping colleague and it could refer to any of the gathered, conscious of their cowardice and conformism. In another scene, characters reminisce of events from the time of Stalin-era Poland, when, as students, they pledged to create an enormous portrait of Stalin as a social service, but, due to neglect, they destroyed the portrait and made a laughingstock out of the ‘leader’. After the event, the friends did not show solidarity, instead, almost every one of them tried to cowardly defend himself or herself. However, their submissiveness and lack of ambition have stayed with them to their adult life. It is not by chance that the names of the characters are car brands such as Zastawa (the nickname of Leszczyc), Opel Rekord (Tadeusz Łomnicki), Romeo (Adam Hanuszkiewicz), Wartburg (Bogumił Kobiela) and Alfa (Joanna Szczerbic). The 30-year-olds do not want to repair the world but to fight the system and they are satisfied with the cheap consumerism of the ‘little stabilisation’ era.
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Skolimowski focuses on the relationships between the characters but, at the same time, gives the story a symbolic nature. In one scene, skilfully filmed by the debuting Witold Sobociński, the darkness of the train is lit only by candles resembling grave candles. Such an image evokes memories of the generation of dead fathers and the scenography of the wagon connects to the theme of death wagons in a symbolic manner. The shot in which four men stand by the wall with their hands up resembles Andrzej Wróblewski’s Execution painting. However, for the characters in Skolimowski’s film, and for the director himself, the experiences of war are now an abstraction of sorts. The drama of the 30-year-olds’ generation consists of something other than the drama of dead fathers – it is about a lack of meaning, aims, and prospects.
Such a critical vision of reality could not have been liked by the authorities and the famous scene with the portrait of Stalin was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Hands Up!, banned by the censors, was not screened until 1981, at the film festival in Gdańsk. In the early 1980s, Skolimowski added an almost 25-minute-long prologue in which his personal memories are juxtaposed with paintings and photos documenting the war in Beirut. This image, perhaps a little too pompous, does not hold up to the latter part of the film which is still considered to be one of the most important works of the Polish ‘New Wave’. Unfortunately, the final part of the series about Leszczyc brought bad luck for Skolimowski – after the censors’ intervention, he left Poland for many years.
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Director: Jerzy Skolimowski. Screenplay: Jerzy Skolimowski, Andrzej Kostenko. Cinematography: Witold Sobociński, Andrzej Kostenko. Scenography: Jarosław Świtoniak, Jarosław Sosnowski (prologue). Music: Krzysztof Komeda, Józef Skrzek (prologue). Starring: Jerzy Skolimowski (Andrzej Leszczyc – Zastawa), Joanna Szczerbic (Alfa), Tadeusz Łomnicki (Opel Rekord), Adam Hanuszkiewicz (Romeo), Bogumił Kobiela (Wartburg).
Zespół Filmowy Syrena, PRF Zespoły Filmowe (prologue).
Poland 1967/1981 (prologue). Premiere in 1985.
Run time: 76 minutes (version with the prologue).
Black & white + colour (prologue).
Originally written in Polish by Robert Birkholc, translated by PG, Feb 2019