Volhynia, a brutal yet beautiful picture, is one of the most important Polish films of recent years. This universal story about hatred beyond national borders confirms that Smarzowski is the most prominent directors of his generation.
Polish cinema hasn’t seen a film as feared as Volhynia for a long time. Many were afraid that the story about the slaughter from 1943-1944 would become fuel for xenophobia, that we’d see a black and white world of good Poles and bad Ukrainians. But Smarzowski is too mature and wise to be resigned to this kind of simplification. In Volhynia, he shows how nationalism and hatred are not tied to one nationality, but concern both sides and always cause harm. One won’t find easy accusations or political blaming here. Instead, there is a story about a spiral of evil which is easily started but impossible to stop.
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‘We are all guilty for everything and everyone’, the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov said, and Smarzowski seems to agree with this belief. In Volhynia, he demonstrates that the network of mutual animosities had been woven for decades, also by Poles, who for years had treated Ukrainians like sub-humans, used them as slaves, destroyed their culture, and shut down their churches. Smarzowski justly shows that Volhynia tragedy did not come out of nowhere – it was a consequence of hatred between two nations.
In Volhynia, crimes are committed by both the Banderites and Poles, who murder Ukrainian women and children in the name of revenge. The wound-up spiral sucks in more and more victims. In his film, Smarzowski shows the mechanism of winding it up. While one Ukrainian priest calls for peace, another praises sickles, scythes, and axes which will serve to murder Polish neighbours. On both sides of the conflict, few characters try to save innocent neighbours.
Once again, Smarzowski portrays a meeting place of different nations and cultures. In Rose, he described the persecution of Masurians. This time around, he paints a portrait of Volhynia as a space inhabited by Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, to which German and Russian occupants are brought by subsequent waves of war.
In Smarzowski’s cinema, ordinary people become prisoners of history, especially women, defenseless victims of men’s impulses and struggles for domination. Smarzowski makes us witnesses of their fate, just like in Agnieszka’s Holland’s unforgettable Europa, Europa. Similarly to Holland’s film, in Volhynia, private perspective is intertwined with the national one, thus creating a story about people sucked into the vortex of history.
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In one of the first scenes in the film, a bride (Maria Sobocińska) kneels down in the doorway and lays her head on the doorstep. Then, one man chops a section of her long braid off with an axe. This is one of many wedding rituals, an element of a folk ceremony. Two hours later, this scene will return – the young wife will once more lay down her head on a house doorstep, and an axe will be raised. Other props from the wedding party will also make a come back – burning sheafs of hay thrown by men and flails, with which neighbourhood boys playfully hit each another. They will once again be an element of ritual, however, this time it will be a bloody ritual of hatred and murder.
Smarzowski’s fans know very well that the director of The Wedding is not afraid of brutal scenes. However, in Volhynia he purposefully pushes them into the background. The most cruel scenes – of a Polish officer getting pulled apart by horses, of a young boy wrapped in a hay sheaf being set on fire, or heads being chopped off – are climaxes of tension, but not parts of the plot. Volhynia is most of all a story about encroachment and struggle for life and dignity, about the attempt to break from the hell of war.
Volhynia is an impressive film. Not only through its wisdom and balance of political and historical rationale, but most of all – through its form. The director of Rose shows that he is a true cinema virtuoso. The opening wedding scene is especially awe-inspiring. The creator of Traffic Department composes seemingly chaotic scenes into an image of Volhynia as a multicultural world which is pulsating with social unrest within.
There aren’t many authors in Poland who are as good at guiding a narrative and arranging and directing groups scenes which build up to a coherent, utterly realistic world. Smarzowski does this impeccably. His artfulness and power of leading the story, while completely controlling audience’s emotions characterise an outstanding craftsman and an exceptional artist.
Smarzowski is one of few recent directors from Poland whose cinema can truly be described as grand, not just in terms of the scale of the raised themes, but also when it comes to the size of the production.
Dozens of locations carefully prepared by the scenographer Marek Zawierucha authenticate the on-screen world and create a coherent image of the era. Battle scenes with historical reconstruction groups and military units measure up to top international productions, while Piotr Sobociński Jr.’s cinematography, both raw and beautiful, leads spectators into the heart of the film’s hell. Finally, there is the excellent music by Mikołaj Trzaska – illustrative and expressive, and actors, out of whom the debuting Michalina Łabacz definitely deserves special mention, as do the poignantly acting Arkadiusz Jakubik and Tomasz Sapryk, who plays the part of a Jew.
This excellently played film by Smarzowski is a work which is ambiguous in a beautiful way. It demands mature, smart scrutiny from the viewer, offering in return emotions which don’t appear in Polish cinema often.
- Volhynia, Screenwriter and director: Wojtek Smarzowski, cinematography: Piotr Sobociński Jr., music: Mikołaj Trzaska, scenography: Marek Zawierucha. Cast: Michalina Łabacz, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Tomasz Sapryk, Jacek Braciak, Filip Pławiak. Polish premiere: 7th October, 2016.