Knife in the Water (1962)

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You’re just like him… only half his age, and twice as dumb.  On their way to an afternoon on the lake, husband and wife sportswriter Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) nearly run over a young unnamed hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). Inviting the young man onto the boat with them, Andrzej begins to subtly torment him; the hitchhiker responds by challenging his masculinity and making overtures toward Krystyna. When the hitchhiker is accidentally knocked overboard, Andrzej panics and leaves the boat to go to the police. The hitchhiker appears from behind a buoy where he’s been concealing himself and has sex with Krystyna who’s alone on the deck.  Then she reunites with Andrzej … Roman Polanski’s debut was nominated for the Best Foreign Film at the 1963 Academy Awards and announced a major talent. The imaginative direction of a limited cast in such a confined space led to it being chosen as the still on a Time cover story about international cinema. Tense, psychologically challenging and boasting a pervasive sense of danger and violence, this is a remarkable and occasionally audacious piece of work with a wonderful jazz score by Kryzsztof Komeda. Co-written by Polanski with Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski.

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The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

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You can never tell who your enemies are, or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. You look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts. They’re not like people. The time is 1939 and the place is Poland, homeland of veterinarian Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh). The Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). The Zabinskis covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save the lives of hundreds from what has become the Warsaw Ghetto… Zoos and Jews. That’s what this should have been called. And unless you’re either sadistic or masochistic or a Nazi you won’t enjoy the spectacle of mass murder perpetrated on either party in the Warsaw Ghetto or at the Zoo. As usual Niki Caro’s film is a game of two halves with an ugly child. It’s hard to empathise because Chastain – not an actress who really cares if we like her – is the main protagonist and she has a squeaky high-pitched accent so ludicrous you laugh and it’s only in the second half that the action, narrative and emotions clarify and coalesce. You can probably guess the ending (the Nazis lost, the zoo survived, the Jews and animals, not so much.) Adapted by Angela Workman from Diane Ackerman’s book, based on a true story. Goy veh!

Denial (2016)

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I had quite forgotten the outcome of the 2000 libel suit taken by Holocaust denier/falsifier British Hitler historian David Irving against Penguin Books as a result of academic Deborah Lipstadt’s claims about him and his fellow travellers.  She is played by Rachel Weisz, he is played by Timothy Spall. She’s from Queens and sounds it:  she says what she thinks and has issues with the reluctance of elite British Jews to fund her case since people in the US like Steven Spielberg are backing her unquestioningly (that’s an awkward dinner party). She retains solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) which causes no little hilarity because of his association with the late Diana, Princess of Wales. She finds herself having to deal with a team of lawyers who seemingly speak a different language but are also capable of emotional distance:  she is conflicted particularly when contacted by survivors who want to be heard. Her team don’t even want her to testify, the idea being to box in Irving with his own perverted version of the truth. The real relationship here is the combustion between Lipstadt and her barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). When they travel to Auschwitz he appears to be late – but he’s been pacing the perimeter, a payoff that happens much later. Their argument 80 minutes into the running time is the heart of the narrative:  he explains to her that this isn’t just about Holocaust denial it’s about self-denial – hers. She finally understands the man who spent a year learning German and who can now quote Goethe to make his point. He rushes off in the evenings rather than indulge her pettiness to prepare – the case is his life.  Wilkinson is very effective and his own emotions are properly managed – reserved for his hard-hitting courtroom performance. This is a fascinating and ultimately rewarding story despite the apparent caricature played by Spall – Irving defended himself on the stand and Lipstadt can’t restrain herself from reacting to his pantomime in front of the judge (Alex Jennings) who during the  final summations appears to be falling for Irving’s shtick (as it were.) A well-integrated interview with BBC’s Jeremy Paxman (he’s meshed into the pictures with Spall) illustrates just how accurate Spall actually is. Weisz is playing a difficult character – wilfully ignorant of British law, spiky and confrontational and unable to understand subtle wordplay or good advice (those legal eagles are all the same) and she taps into all the right feelings – denial,  anger, bargaining, depression, and yes, acceptance.  Her uncontrolled emotionality is what drives the case but it could also derail it. It takes her a long time to get there. Adapted by David Hare from Lipstadt’s book History on Trial:  My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, this is an important work about something that even now appears to beggar belief. And if you haven’t been to a concentration camp and you haven’t experienced the reality of what happened in back gardens all over Germany and Poland and elsewhere on the mainland of Europe with all those infinitely mutable borders and beliefs then this would be a good place to educate yourself. Directed by Mick Jackson.

Andrzej Wajda 03/06/26-10/09/16

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The death has taken place of the great and prolific Polish director Andrzej Wajda, whose films formed a constant stream of correspondence between those living behind the Iron Curtain and those of us fortunate enough not to be downtrodden (at least not by the Communists.) From Ashes and Diamonds through Man of Iron and beyond, we learned how vibrant and innovative and subversive those brave men and women from the film school at Lodz were under the cosh of the Soviet regime. Thanks for all the films. RIP.