With the fires of the Second World War still smouldering European cinema rose from the embers across the continent. At one time such resurgence took place through the Polish Film School, a movement intended to make films that would help their country come to terms with the war and all that had happened within her borders. Directors such as the colossal Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Wojciech Jerzy Has made films that sought to express the deep ramifications of the conflict and deconstruct national myths that they felt hindered healing. Notions of heroism are firmly in the sights of Andrzej Munk with his pitch black satire, Eroica (1958).
Munk’s background was in documentaries and it was arguably for this reason that he stood out from his compatriots – his features not only lacked the lyrical romanticism of other directorial styles within the movement, but actively questioned it. Though his life was cut tragically short in 1961, his oeuvre has endured and Eroica stands for many as a shining example. One might not expect to see a comedy about the horrors of the WWII just over a decade after its conclusion, but Munk uses his genre to skewer Polish ideas of wartime heroism. Wajda’s Kanal (1957) also questioned nostalgic heroism during the Warsaw Uprising, but whereas his effort emphasised the tragedy, Munk’s work is laced with caustic irony (the film itself opens with the subtitle ‘A Heroic Symphony in Two Parts’).
Amidst the smoking ruins of a bombed out Poland, appears Dzidziuś (Edward Dziewonski) a soused opportunist who deserts his drills amidst an air raid only to find himself reluctantly embroiled in negotiations between the Home Army and the Hungarian military. In an attempt to avoid his adulterous wife, he takes on the mission of communicating between the two parties traipsing back and forth through war-torn countryside even when too drunk to walk straight – out of self interest, not patriotism. The first section is both the more overtly comedic and a allows for a fraction more visual flourish, both in the form of Dzidziuś’ drunken foray. A largely slapstick affair, it brings the biggest belly laughs and affords opportunities for some neat sight gags. The second of the two sketches – both of which were penned by Jerzy Stefan Stawinski – shifts the focus to a prisoner of war camp.
Munk and Stawinski are less interested in exposing the realities of wartime valour than debunking legendary bravery. A group of soldiers labour on in confinement, given hope purely by the recent escape of their comrade Zawistowski. As a newly interned officer soon discovers, however, Zawistowski is in fact secreted in the overhead pipes hiding from the Gestapo, rather than living it up in England as his old friends believe. Eroica tells these stories with a droll comic touch that expertly subverts heroic ideals while always remaining quietly compelling and respectful to those that fought and lost their lives. One wonders what Munk may have gone on to do with a longer career.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson