'The Red Spider' ('Czerwony pajak'): Karlovy Vary Review

The Red Spider Still - H 2015
Adam Golec/Courtesy of MD4

The Red Spider Still - H 2015

Atmospheric retro-thriller about a serial killer double act.

Polish documentary maker Marcin Koszalka weaves a tangled web of fact and fiction in his dramatic feature debut, a murder mystery set in 1960s Krakow.

Offering two serial killers for the price of one, The Red Spider is a coolly compelling crime thriller that succeeds in holding the attention despite ignoring the genre's suspense-driven procedural rules. Interweaving elements from two notorious murder sprees in 1960s Poland, one genuine and the other a fake but persistent urban legend, the Polish writer-director Marcin Koszalka applies the forensic observational skills he learned as a documentary maker and cinematographer to his dramatic debut. Well received at its world premiere in the main competition at Karlovy Vary Film Festival last week, Koszalka's chilly blend of fact and folklore is crafted and intriguing enough to grab further festival bookings, with potential for specialist theatrical interest.

Krakow, Communist Poland, winter of 1967: a half-empty city of crepuscular shadows and glum citizens standing in line to ride filthy, rattling buses through crumbling, underlit streets. A serial killer is on the prowl, smashing in the skulls of his victims with a hammer. On an evening visit to a bleak fairground in rocky wasteland at the edge of the city, 19-year-old military diving champion Karol Kremer (Filip Plawiak) stumbles across the body of a child drenched in fresh blood. But instead of reporting what he finds to the police, Kremer walks impassively away.  

Spotting a stranger leaving the fairground, who he rightfully suspects to be the murderer, Kremer begins methodically stalking him. Back home in his family's drab apartment, he even poisons his dog in order to engineer a meeting with the man, a middle-aged veterinarian in a childless marriage (Adam Woronowicz). The two strike up an uneasy friendship, initially speaking in charged double meanings, each sizing up the other as a potentially dangerous rival. Kremer's obsessive interest in the killer comes with great personal risk, but he soon becomes a junior accomplice in slaughter. The younger man also has his own agenda, coveting the public notoriety that the lurid murders have started to generate across Poland.

Koszalka modeled Kremer on Karol Kot, a Krakow teenager executed in 1968 for two murders and 10 further attempts, while the unnamed veterinarian is based on the "real" Red Spider, Lucian Staniak, an infamous Polish serial killer from the same era whose entire existence was later exposed as fiction. The script keeps the psychological motives of both men purposely opaque throughout, never judging or demonizing or succumbing to the allure of neat explanations. The political realities of Communist-era Poland also barely figure in the plot, except perhaps in gently amplifying the low-level background hum of paranoia and mutual suspicion. Offering no clear signposts, the film-makers leave us to draw our own conclusions.

Though its ambivalent tone and unresolved ending will leave some genre fans dissatisfied, The Red Spider is a solid addition to Polish cinema's long track record of serious-minded, well-crafted, morally questing drama. With Koszalka acting as his own cinematographer, this Polish-Slovakian-Czech co-production is beautifully lit, crisply edited and handsomely shot in muted colors. Petr Ostrouchov's spare score, insinuating and disquieting, is deployed with elegant restraint. The 25-year-old Plawiak also impresses in just his second lead role, a potential future Euro-star who possesses some of the sharp-edged intensity of a young Edward Norton or Ryan Gosling.

Production company: Mental Disorder 4
Cast: Filip Plawiak, Adam Woronowicz, Julia Kijowska, Malgorzata Foremniak, Wojciech Zielinski
Director, cinematographer: Marcin Koszalka
Screenwriters: Marcin Koszalka, Lukasz Maciejewski, based on an original script by Marta Szreder
Producer: Agnieszka Kurzydlo
Editor: Krzystof Komander
Music: Petr Ostrouchov
Sales company: Mental Disorder 4, Warsaw
Unrated, 90 minutes