'Kill It and Leave This Town' ('Zabij to i wyjedz z tego miasta'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Mariusz Wilczynski
A lingering scream from the bottom of the well.

Acclaimed animator Mariusz Wilczynski’s first feature-length film looks back at Poland’s terrible 1970s and personal loss.

The dehumanization of life under Communism reaches into the most intimate spheres of the relationship between husband and wife and parents and child in Polish animator Mariusz Wilczynski’s terrifying first animated feature, Kill It and Leave This Town (Zabij to i wyjedz z tego miasta). A relentlessly sad tone poem of dissonant notes and off-key chords, its black and white images with an occasional touch of color depict a world of monstrous inhumanity and devastating interpersonal cruelty — hell, in short.

Drawing on his memories of growing up in the industrial town of Lodz in the 1960’s and '70s, Wilczynski uses the simplest line drawings to build at atmosphere of danger, anxiety and horror. Although this is his first feature-length film, his 20-year reputation as a short filmmaker and professor of animation at the Lodz Film School precedes him, with museum shows from MoMa to Tokyo and Brazil. The deceptively simple Kill It is bound to cement his reputation and could easily find young audiences addicted to very dark comics and games, while its historical depiction of Poland at that time will strike a note with older viewers.

Almost 15 years in the making, the pic's premiere in Berlin’s new Encounters sidebar took place without some of its sterling voice cast, like the late Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who movingly overturned socialist realist myths in films like Man of Marble. Here the criticism pinpoints the personal level. Although the story is not easy to follow, the anger behind it is so virulent that it sweeps the narrative along on a wave of rage and repulsion. A downer on this scale will not, clearly, be everyone's cup of tea.

Janek is a little boy whose Dad (Andrzej Chyra) decides to take him to the seaside one day, leaving his mother (Krystyna Janda) with the luxury of a day all to herself at home. But when they don’t phone her as promised, she begins to fret, and finally calls the seaside train station in an incoherent panic. Something is very wrong.

The filmmaker himself appears in an unflattering avatar as a bearded giant often completely in the nude. He observes the first encounter of his own parents (voiced by Anna Dymna and Marek Kondrat) on board a ship, like a sinister Neptune half-submerged in the sea.

Earlier we have seen him impatiently visiting his aged mother (Barbara Krafftowna) in the hospital, where he brushes off her concern and love and need for contact. It’s the wrenching picture of a son’s emotional indifference, which comes back to haunt him. The mother dies and is humiliated even as a corpse during an autopsy. The nurse who stitches up the body is Janek’s mother.

So much of the film is deliberately ugly: the town full of smokestacks, the stores where live fish swim in oil, then turn into tiny people. The people on the street are ugly in body and spirit. Janek’s mother has to beg and cajole the shopkeeper to serve her, and there is absolutely nothing funny about the situation, only a sort of ghastly anxiety to please and survive. Everywhere we look, the strong humiliate the weak. On a streetcar, each unkempt mother holds a child. One of them curses, nags and shakes her son until he cries, then threatens him with a beating unless he stops.

A telling detail: As a little girl, Janek’s mother drew a face on her finger for company.

There is a lot of queasy metamorphosis in the story. Huge birds with bloody beaks keep human pets. An old man (voiced by Wadja) on the train lowers his newspaper and reveals a bird’s beak. A lifesaver is thrown into the sea like a funeral wreath.

Rock-guitar riffs from the '70s feature the Polish band Breakout. Written by the late Tadeusz Nalepa, the songs provide a piercingly sad background.

Production company: Bombonierka
Cast: Krystyna Janda, Andrzej Wajda, Daniel Olbrychski, Maja Ostaszewska, Malgorzata Kozuchowska, Barbara Krafftowna, Magdalena Cielecka, Anna Dymna, Andrzej Chyra, Marek Kondrat, Mariusz Wilczynski
Director-screenwriter: Mariusz Wilczynski
Producer: Agnieszka Scibior, Ewa Puszczynska
Executive producer: Lucja Kedzior-Samodulska
Set designer: Mariusz Wilczynski
Editor: Jaroslaw Barzan
Music: Tadeusz Nalepa
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Encounters)
World sales: Outsider Pictures

88 minutes