(director/writer: Andrzej Wajda; screenwriters: from the novel by Kazimierz Brandys/Kazimierz Brandys; cinematographer: Jerzy Wojcik; editor: Janina Niedzwiecka; music: Tadeusz Baird; cast: Serge Merlin (Jakub Gold), Alina Janowska (Lucyna), Jan Ciecierski (Józef Malina), Elzbieta Kepinska (Kazia), Tadeusz Bartosik (Pankrat), Wladyslaw Kowalski (Young Prisoner), Beata Tyszkiewicz (Stasia), Jan Ibbel (Genio), Irena Netto (Jakub’s Mother), Zofia Jamry (Jew hunting blackmailer of Malina), Andrzej Zulawski (killed student); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: NR; Facets; 1961-Poland-in Polish with English subtitles)
“Powerful black and white filmed psychological war film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Arguably Poland’s greatest filmmaker Andrzej Wajda (“Kanals”/”Man of Marble”/”Ashes and Diamonds”) directs and cowrites with Kazimierz Brandys, whose novel the film is based on, this powerful black and white filmed psychological war film. It’s an emotionally charged study of bigotry, displacement and survival for a Jew in the Holocaust in World War II Poland. Jakub Gold (Serge Merlin), the young Jewish resident of Warsaw, was attending his first day of college at the Polytechnic University when attacked on campus by a violent group of anti-Semite student bullies and accidentally with a rock kills one of his provoking schoolmates. Sentenced to a ten-year jail term for murder, Jakub escapes from prison at the beginning of the war in 1939 as the jail is bombed by the invading Germans. The devastated Jakub is forced to live with fellow Jews confined inside the walled-off ghetto, where he must wear on his clothes a Jewish star and, as a sense of duty, the lad volunteers to go around the ghetto with a wheel-barrow to collect and bury the dead found on the streets. After burying his beloved mom (Irena Netto), Jakub is left an orphan and reluctantly is induced to escape from the ghetto by climbing over the wall by the gentile criminal Genio (Jan Ibbel), on the run from the German occupiers. But once on the other side, where the non-Jews reside in relative luxury, Genio abandons Jakub because his nasty girlfriend (Beata Tyszkiewicz) refuses to hide a Jew. On the run, Jakub accidentally crashes the party of Lucyna (Alina Janowska), a Jew living as a sophisticated gentile to escape ghetto life. Jakub refuses to betray his fellow Jews, and makes plans to return to the ghetto and share their same fate. To get help to return, Jakub visits the building of his gentle cell mate, Malina (Jan Ciecierski), a bank clerk who stole to get medical treatment for his sick son. But his son died in the German camps and left dad with nothing more to live for. In prison, Malina became a father figure to Jakub. Malina lives with his young niece Kazia (Elzbieta Kepinska), who falls in love with the runaway Jew and protects his secrecy as he hides in the basement.
Tragedies pile up, as Malina is killed when run over by a German truck in front of his building and the Germans squash the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising when the Jews run out of ammo. A confused Jakub thinks of himself as blinded by a non-Jewish woman like the Samson story in the Bible and out of guilt for not being in the Ghetto runs away to get revenge on the Nazis. He gets his chance when taken in by an underground leftist group led by prison pal Professor Pankrat (Tadeusz Bartosik), and sacrifices his life to take out a squad of Nazis with a grenade who are searching the underground hide-out.
It’s too heavy-handed in delivering a stream of symbolic messages to be a great film, but it successfully engages the viewer when depicting the loner Jew’s plight in a threatening world because insane hate-mongers in power believed he shouldn’t exist only because he’s Jewish and gives us a peek of the horrible living conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto.
REVIEWED ON 2/23/2013 GRADE: B https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/