Friday, September 13, 2013

Interrogation (Przesluchanie) (1989)

Ryszard Bugajski's controversial but powerful prison drama, "Interrogation", although completed in 1982, got its first theatrical release in Poland in 1989 and then in the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. With its blatant anti-communist themes, in a story set in the early 50s during the latter years of the Stalin era, it was not surprisingly banned for almost 8 years by the then communist Polish government. Prior to the official release though, Bugajski himself struggled to get the film across to the public, even going to the extent of secretly helping out in leaking illegal VHS copies of the film! How ironic then, that the philosophy Bugajski followed in his actions to save the film reflect those of the brave and resilient lead character of his film. Tonia (Krystyna Janda) believes, from experience, that sometimes in life, it is better to just follow one's whim rather than follow the rational path. Sensibility and obedience are not always rewarded!

Tonia is a cabaret singer in the post WW-II era, during the final years of Stalin. Following a successful stage show, she gets completely drunk with two guys and when she wakes up the next morning, she finds herself in jail, taken as a political prisoner! Thrown amidst a sea of women, Tonia is clueless of her offense and reason behind the arrest! After a few days of trying to get in touch with the authorities to demand an explanation, she is finally allowed to meet with  Major Zawada (Janusz Gajos) who simply picks up on one of her joking remarks and starts making frivolous accusations, even those that have only to do with her personal life. It just so happens that Tonia is a party animal, loves to get drunk, and has had several one-night stands!

Flummoxed as to why her personal life should be an issue to the authorities, Tonia spends several days, months, years in prison and finds that no explanation is good enough, and the government is hell-bent on charging her anyway, by blowing some trivial affairs out of proportion and politicizing them, or simply by pinning false charges, no matter how much she claims her innocence!

"Interrogation" then unfolds in its gritty realism and chronicles one woman's struggle to survive in the troubled, grim prison world. While fellow cellmate women relent and give in to the demands of the authorities to sign false confessions admitting that they are spies and traitors, Tonia holds her own and refuses to sign any document. Bugajski doesn't sugarcoat anything. What is seen on screen is far from pleasant. Tonia is stripped, beaten, humiliated and subjected to other forms of torture. There is nary a sign of hope, but only despair. The claustrophobic prison environment is further enhanced by the too close for comfort close-ups of characters as their faces occupy the entire frame, and shy away from giving us a sense of the surroundings except for the interrogation room, the tiny prison cell and the bath chamber where subjects are tortured with hose pipes and flooding amidst rodents scurrying about, to make them confess. The proceedings are harrowing and intense, and in some cases, difficult to watch.

Bugajski adds some symbolism and shows rats and humans trapped in the same cell. In the bath torture chamber, two rats stay afloat and use a plank of wood in the rising water levels and jump away to their escape, while the human prisoner is still trapped, almost drowning! In another symbolic expression directly reflecting the theme of rising against all odds, a peasant woman in Tonia's cell, makes grains sprout into plants on the muddy window sill by nurturing them with spit and some meager amount of water they get. The plants grow taller amid the closed cell, despite being spat upon, very much like these resilient women, who do their best to keep standing despite being pushed down and patronized!

Bugajski also incorporates the Kubrickian long-hallway shots in several instances throughout, showcasing the prison interiors. A noteworthy aspect of Bugajski's screenwriting is the inherent pessimism depicted in some of the dream sequences. At least on two separate occasions, Tonia passes out and drifts into a dream, the splice between dream and reality being quite unclear, but the former distinguished by a muffled soundtrack that could be a distorted version of one of Tonia's own musical performances. In each of these dreams, Tonia seems to find a means to escape, but the dreams always end with a subconsciously induced roadblock, either due to her own awareness of her situation or by a symbolic manifestation of reaching a dead end, sometimes in the form of the door of her own home that never opens in spite of her relentless knocking!

Despite the gut-punching intensity of the proceedings and a taut screenplay that hooks the viewer, Bugajski introduces some cinematic clichés towards the latter half and also in the form of one major character, Lieutenant Morawski (Adam Ferency in an excellent performance), who appears to be the only prison official with a shred of sentiment in him, while all others are merciless, sadist, one-dimensional beasts who only know how to exercise their power and unleash their atrocities in the cruelest of manners. Morawski, then becomes the sole sympathizer, but it is not clear if it is his inherent awareness of human values and his actions, a result of the helplessness in the face of the government he is employed with, or if it is a result of his falling in love with Tonia!

Krystyna Janda's awe-inspiring performance makes Tonia's predicament all the more believable and it is impossible not to feel her frustration and angst. She delivers with utmost conviction, especially in the scenes towards the end and in one particularly well-written sequence (detailing which may spoil it for the viewer) that is the only scene in the entire film that offers a light moment laced with humour. It is an acting job par excellence, an act one can't easily forget.

"Interrogation" is one of those great films that sadly remained obscure owing to their troubled release history, thanks to the controversy surrounding its subject matter. Nevertheless, it is never too late to reach out for it and spread the word.

Score: 9/10


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