The Week Before the Festival: Found in Translation, Poland

Poles of Opposition

A Review of Agnieszka Holland's "Spoor"

/ by Alan Lockwood

As much an exposé for how the universal can be reached through local contexts, as it is a vengeance fantasy – a sort of post-postmodern Yokapatawpha County from a Faulknerian imaginarium – director Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor is, at the same time, a procedural conducted by a charismatic nobody in the face of the powers that be. But be forewarned: Once the conclusion approaches, this latter aspect will unapologetically swallow its own tail. Sumptuous on screen (shot by Jolanta Dylewska and Rafał Paradowski), deftly performed by a cast intent on the crucial, inbred simplicity of their roles, contoured with an agile score (Antoni Lazarkiewicz), the film molts through an array of cinematic tactics: A graph of camera ranges, a plethora of intercuts, with key flashbacks that appear late in the tapestry shown with a counterintuitive air of immediacy quite distinct from other, dreamier, historical flashbacks.


Spoor churns with the energy that characterizes much of Holland’s work – especially her work that’s blatant in its contained fury. Righteousness in our day has earned its bad name; then again, it’s rarely graced with an air of dangerous mirth. Part way in, for no particular reason, Holland’s 1981 film A Woman Alone sprang to mind, a blistering feat of exposure that offended the era’s Polish authorities enough to get it shelved for six years, and is now rather too tenderly titled A Lonely Woman in English. Though it’s a commonplace to compare a movie adaption to the book it’s been derived from, it’s also a singular experience, when the sense of wonder is provoked about how well a feature film might read on the page. Spoor is a page-turner of a movie, as it were, and we’ll get back to that distinctive nature, and to its inscrutable title. It may also prove an object lesson in an author – the novelist Olga Tokarczuk – screenwriting from her own work (Holland shares screenwriting credits).


In one set-piece shot, the camera swoops by Dyzio (Jakub Gierasz), panting on a bike over snowy fields, then lofts above a dell, climbing over hunters phalanxed with their hounds on the opposite slope. It’s a form that’s not repeated, and after the soaring take has implied unnamed peril for Dyzio, it then wraps in ascension with the austere scenic beauty of which the hunters could be partaking. Spoor is replete with off-camera aural information: A woodpecker rattles, rifles crack, distant cries or yelps. Mobile-phone coverage is a running quirk, but otherwise the time period is only specified by familiar markings on Polish police cars, when the cops are on the beat, not at their desks – where they must respond, with glances of disdain or desperation, to Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka, limber in the lead role) as she provides evidence, then deploys new-age rhetoric. Her method is a familiar to them, but has become tactical for her, as we only come to realize in retrospect.


For Duszejko walks away from those interrogations, instead of being held for a perp walk, as the prime suspect in what’s become serial killing. Also, the SUVs are huge and they shine. One experiential, if not existential, observation from life on the contemporary Polish street is that traffic is slow and most vehicles small, while the bulk of indifferent threats come from drivers of large, expensive SUVs. Witness, in recent months on Polish roadways, the separate crashes involving convoys of the prime minister and of the defense minister – alarming enough to be pretty fairly covered in the international news.


There’s an early, chilling moment that may serve to indicate Spoor’s dexterity in navigating domestic conflict and its own transnational relevance. The camera cuts to a window in close frame, at the front side of the ramshackle house of Duszejko’s nearest neighbor (Adam Ruciński). He leers out for a moment. He’s unnerving enough for the film’s needs, a poacher committing atrocities on wild game. He’s also a member of the local hunting society, as are cops who turn a blind eye. Any likeness that might be noticed in that window glimpse to Poland’s current defense minister, Antoni Macierewicz, plays no part in the plot – but would jab a festering Polish wound, by implication.


A key figure in the top ranks of Solidarity as it formed, Macierewicz in recent years has relentlessly propagated the unforgiving policy of persecuting former Communists. It’s the antithesis of the truth commissions that have helped the progress of other former autocracies that suffered even bloodier domination than Poland. On the campaign trail in 2015, his party made statements that he’d not hold high office – his general reputation among Poles today is either infamous or ludicrous. Post-election, Macierewicz’s appointment to head the defense ministry was announced immediately. Among his current endeavors is shunting tax funds to paramilitary formations formed in east Poland from gun clubs and hunting societies, publicly-supported forces that do not fall under the oversight of the Polish military.


Poland A / Poland B

Holland’s film is set in the south, where Poland’s mountains rise and where the writer, Olga Tokarczuk, has made her home for decades (see her interview with Justyna Czechowska in on Monday of this week, on this website). As with the east, south Poland is a borderland region where local cultures have richly overlapped down the centuries. And, as with the east, the cruel, costly 20th century imposed geopolitical boundaries on the region – then shifted them, most radically after the Second World War, with enormous population displacements and incursions. Such unresolved social and political histories drive the dichotomy referred to as Poland A / Poland B, with the west more liberal and inclusive, the east more conservative and Catholic.


It’s a split the nation’s been burdened with since Solidarity’s 1989 triumph (Solidarity formed when there’d been no alternative to opposition except collusion, and people swallowed their divisive ideologies, or at least postponed them). The dichotomy fueled singer-songwriter Maria Peszek’s single “Polska A B C i D” in 2016. Smart pop must be as hard to translate as jokes, but with Peszek, it’s etched in the graphics of her Karabin disc: Graffiti across an assault rifle. (It becomes even more telling when a canny Pole describes the quality of Peszek’s wordsmithery.) Also in 2016, along eastern borders with Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, Poland opened the ambitious Green Velo network of cycle-tourism trails. Meanwhile, new legislation grants hunters rights within a hundred meters of residential areas, effectively leaving inhabitants and pedestrians responsible for shooting incidents during hunting seasons.


Those seasons appear as inter-titles through Spoor, brightly colored, designating the legal roster of mammal and avian prey. Nature’s seasons intersperse the drama as well, with wordless close-ups of beasts in the wild punctuating the feast of human foibles, Polish-style. The film’s pace is compelling and its contexts remain transparent, recognizable. You don’t need any Slavic sense for the annual ball of the mushroom collectors, or for Good News (Patrycja Volny) bringing a stuffed stork to Dyzio, in his comically minimalist basement flat, in a country where every fourth Pole’s said to be a stork.


We’re all suited to the many, unvaried comic forms (far less so to the rare tragic models) and Spoor is something of an exercise in comic forms. Duszejko holds her arms exultantly to the sun – but as the angle pans back, there’s a jolt of suspicion that the tableaux might read as a crucifixion. The bad guy, Wnętrzak (Boris Szyc), is a real loose cannon, but seems a cardboard cut-out, then appears eerily silent as Duszejko shrieks and stumbles to break up their pheasant hunt, while he either grapples with or props her up, and his gun-bearing mates shout their disgust, including the parish priest (who does not hunt in his ornate cassock). Her neighbor, Matoga (Wiktor Zborowski), first looms fearsomely into the snowy night with a forehead lamp, but serves lunch in the denouement in a fetching apron. The fatal plight of Matoga’s German mother decades ago hits evocatively, painfully, but not obscurely, no matter how conflicted south Poland and the borderland regions will remain.


Matoga’s son (Tomasz Kot), a prosecutor in a suit who takes over as police chief (the local chief gets bludgeoned to death in the roadside snow), tells Duszejko that his dad was once imprisoned as a terrorist for trying to wreck a health-insurance agency that wouldn’t fund life-saving treatment for his mom. She gives him a hug. It’s a ruptured moment of startling concision: A throw-away line that says so much and tugs yet another thematic elephant into the room, then her sugar-coated response. It’s a Polaroid of amoral reality, as we’ll come to realize.


A goofy car chase tweaks the Hollywood convention, then leads to Dyzio’s eureka moment at an urban roadblock: A stroke of his laptop keyboard, after all hell’s broken loose. And after a long shot of the vista from the mountainside where Spoor opens, and where most of its twists transpire, into the valley where the town lies, lovely at dusk, the top of the frame bifurcated by a strange wisp, a paltry black plume from the church steeple. It’s another split moment – deep satisfaction? A shit-eating grin? The “terrorist” label that’s become so effective in our day in campaign rhetoric and in business planning can cut both ways.


Biting fables in black and white

The proceedings are seldom overheated in Holland’s direction, though corners are cut and the director’s not shy about wielding potboiler tropes. Patterns in the narrative fabric are designated, then left – the viewer stitches shards, bits and pieces into any vision of an actuality. Tokarczuk’s novel, Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead (2009), is not yet in English, but must elaborate the plot’s weave and extend characterizations. Good News and Dyzio come together with a rather hands-off sublimity (turns out the Polish noun for train, pociąg, is also the verb for animal magnetism), while she fights to get her young brother out of foster care, where it’d be even more pertinent, if she were a single mom. The mayor’s wife is utterly compromised, but left to dangle (the cost of her choices?) and the gaggle of schoolkids, devoted to their bright, challenging and experienced English teacher – well, kids are inherently nastier than that. Mere glimpses are left to suffice for a showy secret brothel over Wnętrzak’s illegal fox pen.


Fables, however, are hardly based on character development, and utilize types to indicate systemic probabilities awaiting in our convoluted pageant. In Poland and elsewhere, courts of law aren’t terribly interested in character development either – implementing or maintaining pretenses of “precedent” and “impartiality,” while sustaining methods of backroom brokerage and lucrative shadow economies. What’s more, unlike most cinemas, both fables and courts of law have you check any illusions of safe haven at the door.


It’s important to add, regarding Tokarczuk’s thematics, that she remains Poland’s most recognized and active writer of prose, while being spurned by the culture ministry of the new government, since it took office in late 2015. Granted, ministry officials have had their own priorities, as contemporary democracy careens in the noose of its pendulum. But plunging into competition without your star player seems a pretty lousy management strategy, in the long-shot game of international translations, to speak only from the literary level. Unless, that is, you’ve long since committed to an ideology, in place of contending with actuality (see the case of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, opened in on 23 March, an institution of international distinction that could only have been founded in Poland, for both historical and intellectual considerations, which is being severely underfunded and has just had its founding director ousted by the government’s preference for ideology). As Holland put things in her Guardian interview in February, when Spoor premiered at the Berlinale festival, Poles will be among the first damaged by Brexit, yet Poland’s present leaders supported that referendum, as a defeat of liberals.


The director assembles Tokarczuk’s cell of misfits in the homes of Dyzio and Matoga, then ultimately at Duszejko’s less tidy place, before they spirit her away (a term that’ll become even more pertinent in the postlude, the closing sequence). Her home has taken on an inner radiance and transparency. The world the audience has come to know immediately around that house, which she’s soon to abandon forever, gleams in through several windows, as if that wall would “transluce” (which is how walls are probably experienced by animals less visually-dependent than humans).


If there’s a key line in Spoor, it probably comes when someone says of Duszejko: She didn’t start this war. It’s a statement that has a sibling comment in Strange Things, Margaret Atwood’s lectures about mythic threats in north Canada. Atwood cites a character, a white woman defecting to the local tribe and their woods, who says of her own kind: I’m sick of hating them alone. Politics are displayed only as communal behavior, shorn of slogans and party acronyms and posters, dropped in the laps of the local populace. Today, Poland’s opposition parties have imploded; the expectation of the electoral cycle is that this same party, with their comprehensive control on power (the result of voter chagrin, not actual majorities), may retain power in future elections. It’s a paradigm that’s apparent in political contexts in which Holland’s film deserves to play. Consider Boris Johnson, who seemed to finally evaporate in 2016, then was appointed Tory foreign minister to carry a racist pedigree to the world, while Betsy DeVos, the new US minister of education, is a billionaire with a brother who’s the planet’s crown prince of private-militia profiteering, as radically religious as his sister, who’s now lording over the deeply vulnerable US public school system.


Polish returns

As mentioned above, Holland, in her return to Poland, has crafted a message movie that needs no preamble or key about local context for audiences outside Poland. When a wild boar wanders into our hero’s barn, it’s in league with boars and feral pigs in Florida’s panhandle and with Patagonian’s peccary. Such wasn’t the case with director Jerzy Skolimowski, whose Polish production 11 Minutes (2015) was a return – but not to that director’s brilliant form from his Innocent Sorcerers script for Andrzej Wajda in 1960 to Essential Killing and a Cannes Jury Prize in 2010. A film that may bear comparisons, for viewer impact, seriousness of intent and filmmaking adapted to volatile material, is The Innocents, Anne Fontaine’s release from 2015 from a harrowing Polish tale of a postwar convent and multiple rape pregnancies. The Polish cast playing the nuns is acute, though the French perspective references Jewish loss at the Bergen-Belsen camp, not the death factories run in Poland, and the doctor’s trial by fire came as Paris was liberated from collaboration, not the futile uprisings in Warsaw.


The term “spoor” refers to all an animal leaves in its wake in the wild, so Traces may’ve been considered as the film’s English translation. It certainly would’ve raised fewer eyebrows and cracked fewer dictionaries. But with Spoor, audiences can be excused for thinking they’ll spend two more hours with, for example, the ultra-life form that burst from executive officer Kaine’s gut sack in Alien. In Poland, posters of a full-on seated wolf lead wary passersby to its eyes, which may be those of the wolf and may only seem human, and accusatory. The film has played, or is scheduled, at the Berlinale and at international film festivals in Sofia, Hong Kong, Lecce, Vilnius and “lots of others” that can’t yet be announced, due to press embargos, according to a rep from Beta Cinema, in charge of foreign promotion. The film’s production company, TOR, confirmed that Spoor has made it to 159 screens around Poland as of 19 March, and is taken up by the nation’s major multiplexes – Multikino, Helios, Cinema City – along with single-screen cinemas. (TOR was founded by the director Krzysztof Zanussi, with whom Holland worked as assistant director and whose taut, startling Camouflage from 1977 would better adhere to its original title as Protective Coloring.)


Agnieszka Holland, in her Berlinale comments to the Guardian, mentioned a Polish Press Agency (PAP) journalist writing “that we made a deeply anti-Christian film that promoted eco-terrorism. We read that with some satisfaction, and we are thinking of putting it on the promotional posters, because it will encourage people who might not have bothered to come and see it.”

Alan Lockwood

has written on Polish topics for the New York SunTime Out New York, the Santa Fe Opera's program book, the Polish Review and the Brooklyn Rail. His interviews with directors of Polish history museums for the Polish History Museum appear at