Ryszard Bugajski

Poland, 1982


Review by Ian Johnston

Posted on 06 November 2006

Source Second Run DVD

Talk about bad luck. Working in the freer atmosphere of the Poland of the early eighties in the wake of the successes of Solidarity, Ryszard Bugajski manages to get Interrogation made in 1981—only to have General Jaruzelski declare martial law before editing was completed. As a result, the film only circulated in black-and-white video copies, Bugajski went into exile, and another seven years passed before Interrogation finally received its Polish cinema premiere in 1989 and went on to win its star Krystyna Janda an award at Cannes the following year.

The experiences of Tonia Dziwisz in Interrogation are based on those of Tonia Lechman, arrested by the security police in the early fifties and imprisoned for five years (although the length of time is not so clear in the film). So, it joins a number of other East European films that were able at times, when the authorities eased up on artistic expression, to return to the past of the Stalinist fifties and address, with greater or lesser directness, the abuses that took place.

Interrogation is not a subtle film. This is inevitably so, as it offers a direct, almost blow-by-blow account of what happens to a political detainee in prison. Bugajksi has the luxury (or at least he thought so!) of being able to indict the practices of the authorities, in contrast to an example like Hungarian Károly Makk’s Love which had to deal with a similar prison experience by allusion. But there is a sense that what Bugajski gains in political explicitness, he loses in aesthetic expressiveness.

Perhaps Bugajski shows us too much. When Janda is stripped naked for yet another time or when she is hosed down so that her clothes cling to her attractive body, it seems a short step away from some kind of prison porn—all the more so when we consider that the film’s quieter moments are far more effective in portraying the insidious psychological destruction a political detainee undergoes. In Tonia’s case, there is the prurience of her interrogation, the invasive concentration on her sexual history; the back-and-forth extraction and retraction of false confessions; and her discovery of betrayal by a fellow-prisoner.

Perhaps the film’s most powerful moment is when Tonia’s husband is finally permitted to visit her once he has been supplied with her “confessions” containing details of her sexual dalliances, including the one-night stand with the major who is the subject of the interrogators’ investigations (which continue in spite of his execution). He’s bitter and accusatory and announces he’s succeeded in obtaining a divorce from her, while in the shots of her, closed-off from him behind the wire-mesh of the prison grille, the blow she has just received, her sense of shock, betrayal, and abandonment, are all the more palpable for her silence and her expressionless features.

From the beginning Interrogation is set at a high pitch, in the lurid details of Tonia’s prison experience, and in the rather frantic quality of the early part of Krystyna Janda’s performance. Tonia’s an exuberant and passionate cabaret singer — wildly belting out a provocative number one minute, tearfully jealous over the sight of her husband talking to another woman the next — and Janda pushes her portrayal here of a young and uninhibited free spirit to an extreme. After Tonia has been lured from a drunken night on the town by two security agents to be deposited in an intoxicated stupor in prison as a political detainee, Janda’s full-on performance continues, with the shrieking and the wailing, the cries and the impassioned speeches. But it’s with the gradual calming of that performance and the quietening of tone that the true damage to Tonia is felt, and at the same time we feel even more strongly Tonia’s moral courage, her resistance, and her refusal to compromise her essential integrity.

I assume that the film’s rather melodramatic turn — Tonia’s romantic relationship with one of her interrogators, leading to pregnancy and the birth of a daughter — comes from the real-life case the story is based on. It certainly lightens the increasingly sombre mood, although it does come across as something of a narrative mis-step and — to be honest — very far from convincing.

But the character of her lover, Lieutenant Morawski, is an interesting one. At first, he seems much more of a hard-line, ideology-driven Party man than his superior, the puritanical, order-obsessive family man Major Zawada. However, audience sympathies are soon reversed as the film increasingly humanises Morawski, revealing his Jewish background, his past experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz, and his sincere commitment to Communism. He develops qualms about the treatment being meted out to Tonia, even surreptitiously rescues her from one session of water-torture, and is clearly shown to feel moral disgust for the actions of those around him. His final scene in the film is the final expression of both the loss of his faith in his cause and of his love for Tonia, which at this point no longer seems to be returned. (Bugajski subsequently wrote a novel, in which, according to Michael Szporer’s preface that is reprinted in the booklet accompanying the DVD, Morawski’s end is more directly related to Stalin’s death and the repudiation of Stalinism, but this aspect does not come through in the film itself.)

However, for the film as a whole this romance is, as I say, not particularly convincing, although the way Tonia’s newborn baby is taken away from her does reinforce the inhumanity of the prison and state authorities. And the film does end on a note of emotional depth and ambiguity. Tonia emerges from prison a different person, with the scarf that encloses her face emphasising her new humbled, beaten-down self, even if she has never given in. There’s real pain to the lack of recognition her daughter gives her, and when her daughter leads her to her “father” in the apartment (who is he?—both Tonia’s husband and lover are no longer part of her world), the uncertainness of his identity is a black hole of uncertainty that is the future which Tonia now enters.

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