Przesłuchanie is Polish film about a woman who stands up to her Stalinist torturers to protect a man she doesn’t love, and who, as she later finds out, was dead before they arrested her.
Filmed in 1982 during the brief period of cultural liberalization before the declaration of martial law, Przesłuchanie, or, The Interrogation, was banned in Poland for most of the 1980s. Nevertheless, director Ryszard Bugajski encouraged the circulation of illegal copies on VHS, and it became an underground classic before being shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990. Little seen today, at least partly because the Cold War ended and Poland is no longer communist, it’s as relevant in the age of Barack Obama, Gitmo, and the Bush torture/surveillance state as it was in the days of Wojciech Jaruzelski
Krystyna Janda, who won the Palme d’Or for Best Actress, stars as Antonina ‘Tonia’ Dziwisz, a nightclub singer. One night, during a raucous performance in front of a joyous crowd of largely working class people, she looks down off the stage to see her husband flirting with another woman. She gets drunk, then goes off with two young men, hoping to forget about her misery in the adulation of two of her fans. But they’re not her fans. They’re secret police officers.
The next morning Antonia wakes up in jail. Her two year journey through Stalin’s prison industrial complex — Antonia is arrested in 1951 and gets out of jail in 1953 — has begun. At first Antonia thinks she’s just another drunk who got picked up for disorderly conduct, that she’ll be out in a few days. After they take her to Lieutenant Morawski to be interrogated, she realizes that she’s facing something far more serious. The only problem is she that quite sincerely has no idea why they arrested her. Antonia is no saint. But she’s completely apolitical. Why would the secret police be interested in her?
Every day Antonia goes to Lieutenant Morawski to be interrogated. Every night she goes back to her cell, where she lives a half-dozen other women, almost all of whom have been detained for reasons as mysterious as her own. There’s also Witkowska, played by the well-known Polish film director Agnieszka Holland. Witkowska the Communist no more belongs in a secret police jail than Antonia, but, unlike Antonia, she has no “bourgeois” illusions about guilt or innocence. Subjectively, she explains, she’s innocent. Objectively she’s guilty, having once been assigned to give a tour of government facilities to an American communist who turned out not to be a communist at all, but, a western intelligence agent. The best thing Antonia can do, she says, is to confess to some crime, any crime, lest the secret police believe she’s guilty of something even worse.
Lieutenant Morawski and his even more thuggish colleague, Major Zawada Kapielowy, certainly want Antonia to confess to a crime, but they’re even more interested in her sex life. “Are you going to ask me about the first time in grade school I ever kissed a boy?” she asks Kapielowy. “Yes,” he says, not joking. He and Morawski are, in fact, mainly interested in her sex life. A man she had once had a casual hookup with had been a member of the “Home Army” (the anti-communist resistance during the German occupation), or, maybe, he hadn’t. We never really find out out much about Antonia’s one night stand. He’s mainly an excuse for Kapielowy and Morawski to break her rebellious spirit, to cow her into becoming a good Stalinist just like Witkowska the Communist. Eventually he becomes an excuse for Antonia to assert herself against the tyrannical state.
“The obedient and well behaved don’t always get rewarded,” she says to Morawksi, who asks her what ideal she has that keeps her so defiant. “That’s really the only thing I believe.”
Call it totalitarianism as slut shaming, and slut shaming as totalitarianism. Krystyna Janda’s performance as Antonia is as good, or even better than Michael Fassbender’s performance in the very similar Hunger or Daniel Day Lewis’ as Gerry Conlon in In The Name of the Father. Poland may be a conservative Catholic country, but Polish cinema often produces female heroes far and away more three dimensional and vivid than American cinema does. All you have to do is watch The Interrogation through and try to imagine how ridiculous Angelina Jolie would have been in the same role to realize what a talented an actor Janda really is. Antonia runs the entire gamut of emotions, from utter despair to defiance without a missing a beat. Janda, who was in her late 20s when they filmed The Interrogation, very credibly ages from a vital young woman when arrested to a tired, demoralized middle-aged woman when she’s released shortly after Stalin’s death. Above all, she manages to convey the bewilderment, then despair, and ultimately the defiance of an innocent woman targeted by the state. When she finally just laughs at her torturers, we want to stand up and applaud.
Przesłuchanie is set during the early 1950s, but it’s clear that its target is Wojciech Jaruzelski as much as Stalin. Przesłuchanie is not a work of history but an act of defiance. Ryszard Bugajski and all of the actors knew that the Communist Party would eventually crack down on Solidarity and reassert their authoritarian control. This is no subtle dig full of ambiguity like Wadja’s Man of Iron. It’s a slap in the face of people who would, ultimately, prevent it from being distributed in Poland and greatly impede its success in the west. Indeed, while western critics did promote anti-Communist films like Wadja’s Danton, they seemed to shy away from this one. Why? Maybe it hits too close to home. Antonia’s imprisonment and torture isn’t peculiar to Communist Poland. Far from it. What American filmmaker would dare make a similar film about Gitmo?