Somersault / Salto is often called a "a poetic film”, nevertheless any attempts of genre classification are futile in this case. In Tadeusz Konwicki’s work one might find not only poetical elements but also comic, autobiographical and sociohistorical ones. The oneiric world presented in the film is strongly rooted in Polish reality – this is a land of national myths, fears and delusions. Konwicki addresses the film’s topic with contrariness as well as irony, and Somersault surprises, provokes reflection and entertains.
The main character of this film is a mysterious man (Zbigniew Cybulski) who comes to a small town, in which he allegedly spent the occupation. The enigmatic newcomer sometimes introduces himself as Kowalski and other times as Malinowski, so it’s hard to determine his real identity. The man begins to tell completely unbelievable stories from his life, however, one might suspect there to be some truth in his deceits.
What is most surprising is that Kowalski can see right through every person that he meets – he instantly guesses what troubles and hidden complexes people have. Who is this stranger then: a saviour, who wants to awaken the stagnant town, or a common liar?
Konwicki doesn’t give unequivocal answers and leaves many ambiguities in the film. Sometimes Kowalski seems to be an incarnation of Christ and sometimes he is a pathetic, exalted buffoon making a cheap spectacle in front of the town’s community. The director makes use of the messianic myth which is strongly rooted in Polish culture only to ironically undermine this myth later. The character of Kowalski is very strongly based on the legend of Cybulski himself and this character may easily be associated with the actor’s earlier roles, especially with the part of Maciek Chełmicki. However, in Ashes and Diamonds / Popiół i diament Cybulski’s dark glasses were a “souvenir” from the Warsaw Uprising whereas in Somersault they are only a sign of vanity (“these glasses, you know, they’re so that I look better, my sight is actually alright”). This detail shows the difference between Konwicki’s picture and other works of the Polish film school: Somersault doesn’t tell about the facts of the war, it tells about the myths that have accrued around these facts - hence why this film is full of quotations and cultural references. The half-saint, half-deceiver played by Cybulski is a great guide through a world in which it’s impossible to tell the truth from lies and authentic tragedy gets mixed with confabulations.
In Somersault, Konwicki created a certain cross-section of Polish society, as did Wyspiański in The Wedding / Wesele. The town is inhabited by characters that are personifications of various national character types: here we may find the vigorous cavalry captain (Zdzisław Maklakiewicz) who endlessly talks about his wartime achievements; the envious Artist, full of complexes (Wojciech Siemion), the drunken erotomaniac Pietrucha (Andrzej Łapicki), the helpful Landlord (Gustaw Holoubek), who secretly dreams of finally doing something very mean to somebody. The catalogue of characters is made complete by the widow Cecylia (Irena Laskowska), who spends her time in solitude making auguries, and the alienated Jew Blumenfeld (Włodzimierz Boruński), who is marked by wartime trauma. All these people meet in the climactic scene of the film, during the celebration of a local anniversary.
Paradoxically, thanks to the lies and manipulations of Kowalski, the inhabitants of the town realize the truth about themselves, the truth that may bring about revival. The question is, will they still be capable of any kind of change?
Somersualt is a deeply allegorical tale, nevertheless the director managed to balance the literary construction with a richness of sociological observations. All of the lofty moments are confronted with the ordinary reality of the small town. The most perfect element of the film are the dialogues spoken by the best Polish actors – the lines are linguistically very elaborate but they are natural and strongly rooted in the “living speech” of the characters at the same time. Worth noticing is also the innovative, strongly subjective narration of the film, which conveys the internal experiences of the hero. Somersault is one of the most interesting experiments of Polish cinema of the 60s, and also Konwicki’s greatest cinematic achievement.
Author: Robert Birkholc; April 2014
Translated by: Marek Kępa
Somersault / Salto, Poland 1965. Directed by Tadeusz Konwicki. Screenplay by Tadeusz Konwicki. Cinematography by Kurt Weber. Music by Wojciech Kilar. Scenery by Jarosław Świtoniak. Cast: Zbigniew Cybulski (Kowalski – Malinowski), Włodzimierz Boruński (Blumenfeld), Gustaw Holoubek (landlord), Irena Lakowska (Cecylia), Marta Lipińska (Helena), Zdzisław Maklakiewicz (cavalry captain), Wojciech Siemion (artist) and others.
A Film Studio Kadr production. Black and white, 100 min.