'Klezmer': Venice Review

Klezmer Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
A WWII tale that doesn't reinvent the wheel. 

The feature debut of Polish playwright-turned-director Piotr Chrzan, set in the summer of 1943, almost plays like the anti-'Ida'.

Several villagers converge on the body of a wounded and practically unconscious Jewish musician in Nazi-occupied Poland in Klezmer, the feature debut of playwright-turned-director Piotr Chrzan. At least visually, this modestly staged drama is almost the polar opposite of the country’s rigidly composed, black-and-white Oscar winner, Ida, with all of the action, captured rather loosely, happening over the course of a sunny afternoon in the summer of 1943 and in a single location: a dense, green, yellow and brown-hued forest far away from the frontlines. Though the story’s designed to work on both the level of an actual wartime tale of several locals who fight over the body of a semi-unconscious Jew who could be sold to the authorities for good money, as well as on a more metaphorical level, the film and its characters finally feel too familiar to add any new insight to the canon of movies set during WWII. Jewish, Polish and young-director showcases will be the likeliest takers.

Never actually named, the silent, emaciated and entirely passive Jewish character (Filip Kosior) appears for the first time some 15 minutes into the film. He’s found lying in a gully in a densely wooded forest by Witus (Kamil Przystal), the village simpleton who’s accompanied by Marek (Szymon Nowak), a calculating wartime dealer and trader who’s smart enough not to believe everything that Nazi propaganda is trying to suggest about the Jews.  

Marek’s acquaintance, Michal (Leslaw Zurek), is in a field nearby, having some lighthearted fun with Maryska (Weronika Lewon) when he’s called on to help with the body, since the kart he’s brought to the woods to carry the fir cones they should be collecting could be of use to carry the body to the village, where the authorities will pay good money for a Jew who’s still alive (though prices have gone down from “500 and three kilos of sugar” to “300 and two kilos of sugar,” since people have started to “find too many” Jews).   

Practically immobile and almost constantly on the verge of floating into unconsciousness, the Jew is fought over like an object by the Polish villagers. Only one character that joins the small group later, Witus’s sharp-tongued sister (Dorota Kuduk), seems vaguely interested in the man’s actual well being. She even recognizes him as a fiddler from a wedding she once attended, remembering the music as “great for dancing” (the film’s title refers to a type of music made by the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe). But her not unfriendly stance towards the Jews is undercut by a predictable discovery involving her aloof friend, Rozalka (Ewa Jakubowicz), whom she’s been teaching Catholic prayers.

It's not clear whether the fact that the only Jewish character is entirely passive should be read on a more symbolical level as well, or whether it's just a result of being severely wounded. Similarly, the group dynamics lack specifics that would help lift to the story above its realistic origins to a more metaphorical plane. The (sometimes also literal) tug of war over the body and the money it could reap dominates most of the conversation. But the way in which the characters’ purely selfish survival attitude is tied to the wartime circumstances feels facile and rather flat, with the screenplay, also by Chrzan, not exploring or illumination much that hasn’t already been said in countless previous plays and films about the war. 

The film is especially ill-served by the inevitable comparisons to Ida, which, though set in the early 1960s, opened more than one can of worms about the rural Poles’ wartime behavior and managed to turn a people’s collective guilt into a highly personal story with great emotional stakes. But in Klezmer, there are no standout characters and the only thing that seems at stake is whether at least some of the characters will end up making a profit, which doesn't make it easy for an audience to have any investment in any these characters or in the story's outcome. Some supposedly lyrical moments, such as when Rozalka recites a poem by German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, feel more like calculated attempts to temporarily rise above the film’s realism rather than organically occurring events.

Since the entire film is set in a sun-dappled forest -- shot by cinematographer Sylwester Kazmierczak with an eye for the place’s impassive pastoral beauty -- only Marta Wyszynska and Elzbieta Palczewska’s sober costumes give a sense of period. The eclectic music choices, ranging from Bach, Mahler and Purcell to a synagogue chant that accompanies the end credits, send mixed messages about what the film’s trying to say and undermine any sense of verite action the film might have had.

Production companies: Human Power

Cast: Leslaw Zurek, Dorota Kuduk, Filip Kosior, Kamil Przystal, Szymon Nowak, Ewa Jakubowicz, Weronika Lewon

Writer-Director: Piotr Chrzan

Producer: Aleksandra Zakrzewska

Director of photography: Sylwester Kazmierczak

Production designers: Piotr Chrzan, Aleksandra Zakrzewska

Costume designers: Marta Wyszynska, Elzbieta Palczewska

Editor: Cezary Kowalczuk

Casting: Piotr Chrzan, Aleksandra Zakrzewska

No rating, 97 minutes