A couple of weeks ago I sent out a request to my family and friends. I asked them to tell me what it means, in their opinion, to be Polish. Curiously, hardly anyone responded. My normally eloquent and slightly argumentative social circle lost its collective tongue. My brother was the only person who actually responded. He talked about the importance of cultivating Polish traditions and that was pretty much it.
I wasn’t exactly surprised by the lack of response. To be honest, I had a hard time answering that question myself. Should I focus on our history and tradition? Should I demonstrate my profound knowledge of the nation’s stereotypical traits? Or should I make it easy for myself and just describe my friends and family? “What does it mean to be Polish?” is a kind of faux-pas question that makes people uncomfortable. Maybe we tend to avoid the big words and empty phrases that such a question forces us to use. Maybe we just can’t pinpoint our nation’s essence.
So I went online. My search for answers got me several results. Apparently you’re Polish if:
1. Your body tolerates significantly more alcohol than other nations representatives’,
2. You know the song: ‘Siekiera, motyka…’ by heart, regardless of your age. (Translated into English, the lyrics go something like: ‘Axe, hoe, two balloons, Hitler lost his underpants…’),
3. You have a Polish flag and always wash it on its own.
Not really helpful, is it?
Fortunately, there’s a movie that invites us to go on a metaphorical trip into the nation’s heart. It’s about Germany, not Poland, but in my opinion, this ‘road’ is universal. The country’s heart can be soft and warm, but it is also bitter and full of downbeat sentiments. ‘There are no role models in Germany, no one people could identify with,’ says Dominik (Leonard Scheicher). He also adds that the one person everyone associates his country with is Adolf Hitler (with underpants this time, I assume). Think about it – it’s true, right? And Hitler wasn’t even originally German.
The movie I’m talking about is Finsterworld (2013) by Frauke Finsterwalder. It not only questions the ‘qualities’ of Germany as a nation, but it also casts doubts on the possibility of making meaningful human connections anywhere in the country (or, perhaps, anywhere in the world).
It isn’t a film about criticizing Germans and focusing on their flaws. We feel warmth and goodness in most of the characters; we empathize with their struggles to reach out and emotionally bond with each other. But, for many reasons, the characters fail. Maybe it’s the fact that they are simply too different.
We have a powerfully built police officer who, in his hunt for a bit of gaiety, dresses up as a giant bear. We also meet his girlfriend, a frustrated filmmaker who simply cannot find a good topic for a movie. We encounter a neurotic pedicurist who bakes his favourite client’s hard skin bits into cookies. We also meet a group of blasé teenagers heading to a concentration camp for a field trip. They all create not only a surreal parade of unfulfilled wishes, but also a complicated network of social quasi-connections.
All characters are colourful and loveable. Or, at least, most of them are, with the possible exception of Max (played by Jakub Gierszal), who comes across as a spoiled brat throughout the movie. But even he, in the very end, turns out to be a victim of his parents’ emotional elusiveness. The Finsterworld people desperately want to form some kind of human connection, but it’s always too late or not good enough. As a result, people get bitter and can connect only by complaining about their German identity.
This pessimistic story is served on a colourful plate of well-written dialogue and extraordinary characters. Whether you’re German, Polish or something else: don’t choke while you consume it. Cherish this film, because it is, indeed, both, a visual and emotional feast.
You’ll enjoy this movie if:
a) you enjoy surreal and bizarre visual experiences, and you are able to look through this superficially attractive facade to see hidden truths about human condition.
b) no matter how much you deny it or lie to yourself about it, you are a pessimist. But a good-hearted one.
c) You <3 Jakub Gierszal. At risk of sounding like an immature groupie, I’m stating here that I love my men whatever they look like as long as they look like Gierszal. Not to mention that he is so ‘IT’ in Polish cinema at the moment.
Directed by: Frauke Finsterwalder
Written by: Frauke Finsterwalder, Christian Kracht
Produced by: Tobias Walker, Philipp Worm
Trailer: http://vimeo.com/87070717 (you can watch it on this website).