I’m not sure why Jerzy Skolimowski’s great film about four Poles doing illegal construction work in London isn’t better known. Perhaps it’s because the smirking, vapid TV series with Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd had the same name. Perhaps it’s because the vogue for Eastern European culture in the West disappeared after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s too bad. Moonlighting hasn’t aged at all. It not only stars a young Jeremy Irons at his very best. It’s a rare film that sees the world through the eyes of the working class, from the point of view of the most alienated, marginalized, casual laborers. Rewrite Skolimowski’s Poles as Mexicans. Move the setting to Los Angeles. Cast a good Latino actor who could play the role as well as Irons did in 1982, and the movie would be a major hit today.
Moonlighting is a deceptively simple movie. At the end of 1981, just before General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law on December 13, four Polish construction workers, Banaszak, Kudaj, Wolski, and Nowak fly from Warsaw to London on a tourist visa to renovate a town house for a man referred to only as “the boss.” By hiring Poles and paying them in Zloties, Nowak explains, the boss can get his house in London for a quarter of what it would have cost to hire English workers and pay them in pounds. On the surface, it looks like a good deal for the four men. They get a trip to London. They get paid above the rate they would be getting paid back in Poland. They each get a 20 pound bonus. But the devil is in the details. “The Boss” has given Nowak 1250 pounds for expenses. It sounds like a lot of money. Nowak remarks that it’s more than he’d earn in 25 years in Poland. The problem is that the 1250 pounds must cover not only building supplies, but food, clothing, entertainment, and the 80 pounds Nowak will need to pay the four 20 pound bonuses. Technically it should be enough, but there’s no margin for error. The slightest mistake means they come up short.
Nowak, the only one of the four men who speaks English, is not only the foreman, but a baby sitter, almost a dictator. He has control of the money. The other men – whom he chose because he sees them as dumb, easily manipulated rubes – can’t read the local newspapers, find their way through the labyrinthine metropolis, or communicate with their temporary neighbors. Their only contact with the Polish community, services at the local Polish church, is cut off when Nowak decides that the 20 pounds allotted for “entertainment” would be better spent on a used color TV than on bus fare and the collection plate. The TV breaks 5 minutes after they get it inside. It’s just as well, Nowak decides. They don’t have time to watch TV anyway. Now he can drive the men even harder. Nowak does the shopping. He buys all the building materials. He determines how many hours they’ll all work each day. That they have to finish the job in under a month, the time they’re allowed in the United Kingdom under a tourist visa, means a tight schedule and very little sleep. Nowak is also convinced that “the boss” is fucking with his wife back in Warsaw, and the month long tourist visa. The more stressed out he becomes, the more of a petty tyrant he becomes. Kudaj, Banaszak, and Wolski become virtual prisoners in the town house.
On December 13, when Nowak tries to call his wife in Warsaw, he discovers that all the lines to Poland have been cut off. Jaruzelski has crushed Solidarity and declared martial law. If Kudaj, Banaszak, and Wolski had been virtual prisoners in the boss’s town house, they now become actual prisoners. Nowak decides that if his three companions find out about the declaration of martial law, they won’t be able to finish the renovations on time, that it will be too much of a distraction. He confiscates both keys, and locks them inside on his trips to the local supermarket and the local building supply store. After work on the plumbing goes wrong – they overheat the joints of the pipes and flood the house – there’s no longer enough money to buy food along with the new joints. Even if Nowak could call home to Poland to have “the boss” wire more money, there’s no guarantee he would. So he takes the money for the new joints out of the food budget, eventually developing an elaborate scheme to defraud the local supermarket to make up the difference.
Jerzy Skolimowski understands shoplifting and petty scamming. For the lower working class, shoplifting and petty scamming aren’t the perverse challenge they occasionally are for the bourgeoisie. They’re a way to survive, to supplement a shoestring budget that has no room for error. Nowak the Pole has already noticed that almost everybody in London, a rich, first world city many times as wealthy as his native Warsaw, seems to be shoplifting. The assistant manager at the local supermarket, who bears no small resemblance to Margaret Thatcher, is a petty fascist who lives to humiliate people who steal food. It happens all the time, a young cashier remarks as the police drag off an old woman who gets caught stealing a bottle of gin. But Nowak is a clever shoplifter. He realizes that he can comb through the garbage can, grab a discarded receipt, and steal anything listed on the receipt without putting himself in any danger of arrest. Soon we begin to suspect that he steals, not only to supplement the food budget, but out of some compulsive desire to “beat the system” that’s beating him.
Nowak also begins to steal from his three companions, but not for himself. Indeed, what makes Moonlighting such a penetrating inquiry into the lives of the lower working classes, both under communism and under capitalism, is how clearly it demonstrates that it’s not capitalists or even communist party bosses who oppress workers. It’s other workers. At the beginning of the film when a customs agent casually asks Nowak if he’s a member of Solidarity, he says that no. He’s not. He then remarks to himself that it was the only truthful answer he gave. He’s right. Nowak has no understanding of the concept of “solidarity.”. He’s a complete stooge, utterly committed to his boss, to getting the job done at all costs, eventually trying to steal the 60 pounds set aside for the bonuses of Kudaj, Banaszak, and Wolski to pay for a machine they need to resurface the floors of the townhouse. That finally, at long last, proves to be too much for Kudaj, Banaszak, and Wolski, and they rebel, locking him out of the town house to sleep outside in the cold, forcing him to give them back the money, then beating the ever living shit out of him on the way back to the airport after he tells them about the declaration of martial law back home.
Nowak thoroughly deserves the beating he gets at the hands of his three companions. That we actually feel sorry for him is testament to the brilliant acting of Jeremy Irons. By the end of the film, he’s made us so completely identify with his character that we’ve come to look at Kudaj, Banaszak, and Wolski similar to the way he looks at them, as simpletons who need to be managed by a superior intelligence. I’ve sometimes noticed that English actors make lousy East Europeans. Irons is the exception. He’s not only utterly believable as a Pole. He’s utterly believable as an illegal immigrant. Irons had his breakthrough role as the Oxford student Charles Ryder in the BBC production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Here he plays a man who jumps at every stray noise, who seems to expect that at any moment he might be arrested and hauled off to jail, who’s embarrassed by his very existence. I don’t even know if he gets the accent right but it doesn’t matter. He’s built the character of Nowak into a complete whole, a man who can represent any illegal immigrant, anywhere, the living embodiment of what Lenin meant when he said “the proletariat has no country.” Moonlighting is a film that understands what capitalism does to the human soul. Find a copy and watch it.