4 May 2020 | LeonardKniffel
A Post-World War II Masterpiece That Still Resonates
I thought I knew a little something about twentieth-century Polish history, but while watching a screening of the 1957 classic film "Eroica" at Chicago's Facets film archive, I could barely keep up with the complicated ideas swirling around the role of Poland in World War II and its relationship to its neighboring countries, especially communist Russia, Nazi Germany, and Hungary. Directed by Andrzej Munk, "Eroica" has been called "a truly great film and one of the key works of postwar Polish cinema..., a fine example of the Polish myth of romantic heroism."
Alluding to Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, the film's first movement is a look at the Warsaw Uprising through the eyes of a drunken black marketeer; in the second movement, Polish prisoners in a German camp determine that the heroism of their comrade is a farce. Without a knowledge of what this film is satirizing, it is difficult to understand the dark, very dark, humor in this cynical movie about corruption. Watching the film is like having a two-part nightmare. One of the POWs tells a camp newcomer when he complains about the meager food provisions: "Powdered milk, powdered eggs, powdered coffee, powdered people," a reference to the Nazi extermination camps that littered German-occupied Poland during World War II.
There is as much dark humor about ordinary people as there is about politicians, but my favorite line in the whole film, perhaps because it rings true in the current American political climate: "I don't trust businessmen; their preservation instinct is high."
"Eroica," wrote Pauline Kael, "is a true black comedy and one of the few modern movies that has something relevant to say about the modern world." Fortunately, Facets' owner, the late Milos Stehlik, was on hand after the film to help the audience understand how it "takes down socialist realism mythology" and really fueled the disenchantment with communism that led to the great literature, art, and films that many Polish intellectuals created in rebellion and into the Solidarity movement and the 1989 overthrow of communism in Poland.
By the end of the movie, however, I was left wondering why it seemed so cynical about the human condition as to see no redemption in those people who do show heroism, bravery, and love under the worst possible conditions. Isn't the very making of this film a contradiction of its maker's cynicism? Nevertheless, Eroica is essential viewing for cinema buffs who want to understand the dark road that cinema traveled after the Second World War.