By Paul Risker.
Robert Gliński’s The Battle for Warsaw (2014), which was originally titled Stones for the Rampart before it was given a title with a more dramatic resonance, brings the director’s career full circle. His early work focused upon the Soviet occupation of Poland, while Stones for the Rampart looks to the earlier chapter of occupation under the Nazis. The film is a powerful story of the realities versus the dreams of resistance or armed struggle. While Gliński’s adaptation of Aleksander Kamiński’s non-fiction novel Kamienie na szaniec (1943) attempts to capture the realities of the past, it presents a transitional movement from youthful aspiration of heroism and the ideological defence of one’s country to the harsh realities of armed struggle. It is a transition that is meticulously accentuated through the film’s use of music that intertwines image, narrative and sound into a dance within the shadow of oppression, heroism, violence and bloodshed.
In conversation with Film International Gliński discussed the role of history in his own career and as an influential narrative device for his fellow filmmakers. He also reflected on the process of adapting a well known work in Polish literature and the juxtaposition of the then and now to create distinctions. He concluded by briefly discussing the place of Polish cinema within Europe, on the international stage and the outward interest of the Polish audience.
Has there been a particular source of inspiration that has helped to shape your cinema?
History is very important to me and I think Polish history is a very complicated one. There are a lot of stories that we can bring to our films from our history and this is the reason my first film was about the Stalinist period in Poland. Then let’s say afterwards I made a film about immigration from Poland to Eschweileer during Soviet times. Now this latest film is similar because my inspiration was the book about the German occupation of Poland. So I have made five or six films based on Polish history and in this story we have a lot of conflicts between people and conflict on the screen; it is the meat of the film’s story. But our history is a very tragic one, which is very good for filmmakers and is the reason a lot of Polish filmmakers are looking to our history for inspiration.
Literature and film are two distinct storytelling mediums. How did you approach adapting Aleksander Kamiński’s non-fiction novel?
This is kind of a mythological book in Polish literature, meaning that it is very famous and well known. So of course it was a problem because everyone in Poland knows the story, and the second problem was the book has a lot of characters and scenes. So we had to make the decision to take two main characters from the book and to concentrate on one storyline, and this was the friendship of the two main characters, the one of who tries to set his friend free when he is arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Let’s say that this is the base story of the film, which was one of the stories in the book, of which there are a lot of small stories. So we decided to take this story and then with this adaptation the idea was to limit the storylines and the main characters. Once we had made the story as small as possible we then gave it a sort of conflict and dramatic touch. But when we watch films we are emotional and so the main idea was to build emotion. When the young Polish generation watched the film they really liked it and so I hope it will be the same outside of Poland, because we built the emotions on the screen.
This being one of many stories from Kamiński’s source material would you describe the film as a companion piece?
For us this is a rather old book, meaning that it is the old kind of literature. It was written in the 1940s and so the style of the film is different. It is modern, quick and has a lot of energy, and the characters are very real. So it means we can believe they are young people of the moment, and because the book is from an older time I tried to make the film as coming from our time.
So the film looks back to the past with a modern perspective?
Yeah, that’s true.
Narratively the film descends into the grim realities of confronting an occupying force. Early in the film the youthful characters are playing at being rebels and soldiers until abruptly they are forced to confront the brutal and bloody reality of resistance fighting. The film is therein centred upon the journey from contemplating action to the actualities of performing those actions.
This story is real and so we tried to make it real in the film. It’s not fantasy, although some of the scenes are romantic and some, let’s say the scenes with the Gestapo in the German prison, are very strong. We decided to show those scenes where they beat and torture him in a very real and strong way. And the last part of the film is a little bit of a psychological story in which the main character, a young Polish hero who kills and who has a lot of thoughts about death and killing, struggles with what to do and how to live with this sign of death. So we can say it is a romantic-real story.
The music is intrinsically linked to the evolution of the narrative itself. How did you approach scoring the film and choosing the specific pieces of music?
The music in the film was a big problem for us and we discussed it at length. We searched for solutions and decided to incorporate a lot of different kinds of music into the film. So at the beginning we have pop-rock music because for me this kind of music is connected to the boys, and so it is very expressive. We have the one line of the music in the film that is connected to the past – Tango Notturno from the German film [Tango Notturno, (1937)] with Pola Negri, in which she sings this song. But it was very funny because this song was very popular with German soldiers, the Polish underground army and within Polish society. Jews in the Ghetto in Warsaw were singing Tango Notturno too. It was very strange that this same song was very popular on the German, Polish and Jewish sides. But then this is the power of music and so we decided to put this song to the film. It can be heard sung strongly on the radio and it is also used as a musical motif during some scenes. Another kind of music we used was the romantic film music with piano. So we have a lot of different kinds of music because I think it shows the youthful spirit of the main characters. Although when we started to work on the film we were thinking of only one kind of music, but then afterwards we decided to incorporate a lot of different kinds because it helps us to understand the main characters.
Reflecting on contemporary Polish cinema, are you optimistic about its future both at home and on the international stage?
Nowadays when I am at the film festivals I see that the audience are interested in what is going on in other countries, and so I think that Europe in general has slowly come to be one country. So this is the reason in my opinion that Polish cinema is becoming better and better. But anyhow, in Poland we are interested in other films and not only American films which are especially popular. We are also interested in films from France, Italy and Spain. But in general I think that Europe in some ways is becoming a one unit country, and this is the reason I am optimistic about everything. And last year we had the Oscar for international film with IDA (2014), which means there is an interest in Polish cinema.
The Battle for Warsaw is available on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK on August 10th from Kaleidoscope Entertainment.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.