Klezmer: Jews on the run in the Polish countryside
by Vittoria Scarpa
- VENICE 2015: The debut of Piotr Chrzan tells the story of a group of young farmers who, one sunny day in 1943, come across an injured Jew in the woods and have to decide what to do with him
In March 1942, the Nazis initiated an operation to exterminate the Jews in Poland (operation code name Reinhardt), which ended in November 1943 with the murder of almost two million people. During the operation, many Jews sought refuge in the countryside and asked local farmers for help, although they didn’t always get it. This is the context behind Klezmer [+see also:
interview: Piotr Chrzan
film profile], the off the wall debut film of Polish filmmaker Piotr Chrzan in competition in the Venice Days section of the 72nd Venice Film Festival. A deeply theatrical piece (the director has a background in theatre, like the entire cast) that tries to capture the complex nature of the relationship between Poles and Jews during the German occupation, “a decisive period for the future development of my country”, as pointed out by the director.
Klezmer is a sort of road movie in the forest that plays out within the space of a few hours. Far from the front, but with the war ever-present in their minds, young farmers gather pine cones and small shrubs in the woods near their village, chatting, flirting and making plans for the future. Michal (Lesław Zurek, who appeared in It’s a Free World [+see also:
film profile] by Ken Loach) dreams of joining his sister in Chicago (“in America you don’t need to be Jewish to make money”) whilst trying to seduce the beautiful Maryska (Weronika Lewoń), who was a good girl before the war and now associates with smugglers. Witus (Kamil Przystał) wants to join the army so that he can eat sausages everyday, and Marek (Szymon Nowak) is counting on his inheritance from his father, three hectares of land… The day rolls by smoothly until the foursome hit upon a man lying in the undergrowth, injured and unconscious: he’s a Jew (Filip Kosior). What should they do, help him or report him?
From this moment on, the film becomes a long and laborious endeavour to drag the Jew out of the forest and deliver him to his destiny, and an exploration of the various attitudes of Poles towards their fellow Jewish countrymen during the Second World War, sprinkled with anti-Semitic prejudice, pearls of popular folklore and a thirst for money. In Chrzan’s mise-en-scène, the characters come and go from the sort of stage that is the forest, argue with one another, discuss the situation, disappear and reappear and all their activities revolve around the Jew, the undisputed protagonist of the scene despite being mute, passive and unconscious. Lots of other characters put in an appearance along the way, including Hanka (Dorota Kuduk, who appeared in Ida [+see also:
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
film profile] by Pawel Pawlikowski), the so-called ‘auntie of the Jews’, and Pazyniak (Rafał Maćkowiak) who, if he finds one, reports them to the Germans straight away.
Each character represents a different attitude towards the Jews, which range from compassion to cruelty, but “the extreme cases, both positive and negative, were rare”, specifies the director, who studied a number of reports from the era whilst writing the screenplay. “Most Poles were passive observers and witnesses to the Holocaust”. A bit like the Jew in the film – defenceless, helpless, swept along by events. In the end, it seems that it is he who best embodies the spirit of a country overwhelmed by horror, left to fend for itself.
(Translated from Italian)