Sieniawka: Berlin Review

Experimental docudrama mostly filmed inside a Polish mental hospital.

This experimental sci-fi docudrama blend is one of the most original feature debuts at the Berlinale festival.

BERLIN -- An experimental blend of observational documentary, social commentary and science-fiction fable, Sieniawka was one of the most original debut features premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last week. Born in Poland but raised in Germany, the youthful director Marcin Malaszczak pays elliptical homage to his ancestral homeland in this semi-abstract mood piece, which arguably would be more at home in an art gallery than a cinema. Fitfully mesmerizing, but overlong and too loosely structured, it feels tailor-made for festival audiences but highly unlikely to play in commercial theaters.

Opening with a mysterious spaceman-like character wandering among the pipelines, quarries and industrial ruins of rural Poland, Sieniawka takes its name from a small Polish village close to the German and Czech borders. The village is nationally synonymous with its hospital for the treatment of mental illness, where most of the film was shot, special insider access only granted to Malaszczak because his aunt and grandfather both worked there for decades. Lengthy scenes feature elderly inmates chatting, smoking, staring vacantly into space, dancing to loud techno music, playing tennis with invisible balls and – in one artfully reversed shot - shuffling along a corridor backwards.

Malaszczak imposes a very loose narrative on this non-fiction footage, allowing his enigmatic narrator to wander through the hospital’s crumbling interiors and leafy grounds, reminiscing to real patients about his time working there. On departing once again for the outside world, he witnesses the aftermath of real-life flooding along the Polish-German border, with roads swept away and houses collapsed. Contrast is pointedly drawn between the placid, ordered existence inside the hospital walls and the post-apocalyptic devastation outside.

Glacially slow in places, uncomfortably voyeuristic in others, Sieniawka is an original but flawed labor of love. Dialogue is muffled and fragmented, and often buried under bursts of soundtrack music or ambient sound design. The director claims his intent was to pose philosophical questions about the fuzzy borderline between madness and sanity, past and present, order and chaos. If so, he frames them in such a cryptic, abstract manner that he risks sending audiences to sleep. All the same, an ambitious failure is always more welcome than a bland success. Clearly a fresh talent who is still finding his voice, Malaszczak’s future career should be worth watching.

Venue: Berlin Forum screening
Production companies: Megamuk Films, DFFB
Producers: Michel Balague, Georg Tiller, Marcin Malaszczak
Cast: Stefan Szyzszka, Stanislaw Cheminski, Ryszard Ciurus, Tomasz Czlonka
Director: Marcin Malaszczak
Screenwriter: Marcin Malaszczak
Cinematographer: Marcin Malaszczak
Editors: Stefan Stabenow, Maja Tennstedt
Sales company: Megamuk Films, Berlin
Unrated, 126 minutes