The Birch Wood is Andrzej Wajda's adaptation of a novel by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. It tells the story of a musician on the threshold of death who tries to find his inner peace in a cottage within the woods.
Films based on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s prose are a distinct part of Andrzej Wajda’s body of work. In The Birch Wood, The Maids of Wilko and Sweet Rush, a lesser-known Wajda appears: quiet, impressionist, focused on nature, full of melancholic cogitation on the passing of time. A long and fruitful adventure with the great writer’s work began with The Birch Wood (1970), a film surprising even for the director himself. Many years later, Wajda mentioned that working on the adaptation of Iwaszkiewicz’s short story, taking place in a secluded forester’s lodge, was refreshing, since he could escape from political themes and work on something that he usually had no time for: contemplation of nature. Despite its uniqueness, The Birch Wood remains a true ‘Wajda’ film – visually suggestive, filled with symbolism, referencing the category of myth.
The Birch Wood is based on a series of contrasts and antinomies. The forester Bolesław (Daniel Olbrychski) is a healthy, strong man who lost his will to live after his wife’s death. The mourning protagonist is as if ‘dead for the world’, insensitive to beauty and closed in his shell. It has an impact on his daughter Ola (Elżbieta Żołek). A nightmarish doll with a massacred face, probably the girl’s only toy, is a scary symbol of her childhood. Stanisław (Olgierd Łukaszewicz) is Bolesław’s reverse – enthusiastic and cheerful, he wants to enjoy life in all its forms. Only later on do we learn the cause of this euphoria: the man is ill with tuberculosis and is now in the last stretch, characterized by a temporary improvement. He came from a Swiss sanatorium to his brother’s forester’s lodge only to die.
Paradoxically, the brother’s appearance brings life to Bolesław’s gloomy house. Stanisław brings in a piano, plays with the lonely Ola and starts a romance with the sensual peasant Malina (Emilia Krakowska), the local bruiser’s (Marek Perepeczko) fiancée. But from the beginning, his greedy lust for life is signed with the shadow of death. The sick man’s pale face reveals a mortal illness, his wide smile turns into a grimace of an eerie mask, and his thin body looks pathetic, when it is compared to lumberjack Michał’s impressive muscles. Presenting the slow process of dying, Wajda doesn’t create a pessimistic film, filled only with pain and sadness. Stanisław’s death is inscribed in the cycle of mythical renewal, with its source in nature. The Birch Wood starts with a panorama of a gloomy, snowy landscape, but when the plot unfolds, winter is replaced by a beautiful, blooming spring. Nature has died, but is reborn with a new season. In the protagonist an analogical process takes place: after Stanisław’s death, Bolesław comes back to life. It’s not coincidence that the action takes place around Easter.
In Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s monography, published in 1970, Ryszard Przybylski mentioned two contrary forces present in the writer’s work – Eros (the god of love) and Tanathos (the god of death). The duality of human existence, hanging between life and death, is symbolized in Wajda’s film in a very rich way, through Zygmunt Samosiuk’s cinematography (which underlines light and colour contrasts) and pictorial quotations. The frame showing Malina leaning on a scythe is especially meaningful, since it clearly references Jacek Malczewski’s series of paintings Thanatos. Malina, a personification of life, happiness and carelessness, is unexpectedly shown as the goddess of death. Life and death are tangled in Wajda’s film in a node which is impossible to untie. What dies, always has a fraction of life in it, and what lives, is signed by death.
It must be added, that symbolism, drawn mostly from Malczewski’s paintings, does not weigh down the film, which remains very watchable. Love of life and melancholic cogitation on the passing of time – emotions strongly present in Iwaszkiewicz’s literary original – are shown in Wajda’s film through sensual, romantic images. This modest made-for-television film is amongst the famous director’s greatest achievements.
Brzezina / The Birch Wood, Poland 1970. Directed by Andrzej Wajda. Screenplay: Andrzej Wajda. Cinematography: Zygmunt Samosiuk. Music: Andrzej Korzyński. Set design: Maciej Maria Putowski. Starring: Daniel Olbrychski (Bolesław), Olgierd Łukaszewicz (Stanisław), Emilia Krakowska (Malina), Marek Perepeczko (Michał), Elżbieta Żołek (Ola) and others.
Produced by Zespół Filmowy Tor. Duration: 99 min.
Author: Robert Birkholc, translated by: N. Mętrak-Ruda, November 2015.