The Totentanz: Scenes From Warsaw Uprising: Film Review

Memory is the haunting protagonist in this powerful Polish evocation of the tragic Warsaw uprising.

Written and directed by Leszek Wosiewicz, the film centers on the bloody Warsaw uprising at the end of WWII.

It’s hard to make old stories feel new on film, but The Totentanz: Scenes From Warsaw Uprising succeeds, by relying on sheer cinematic technique. This powerful evocation of the bloody Warsaw uprising at the end of World War II, in which the Polish Resistance fought to liberate country from Nazi occupation, communicates extreme angst through a boldly modern mix of realistic performances and strong expressionistic editing and effects. The subject may preclude wide audiences outside its native Poland, but this emotional tragedy has solid fest credentials and should find international admirers, the older and more history-obsessed the better.

Written, directed and coproduced by award-winning Leszek Wosiewicz (Cornflower Blue, Crossroads Cafe), the film creates a visceral experience of wartime using very contemporary methods. The opening sequence is a master class in editing flashes of fiction and newsreel footage together to simulate human memory, as an eye peers into a sort of time machine that shows snapshots from Marek Pater’s lost youth.

Imperceptibly these images turn into the chaotic evacuation of Warsaw’s Old Town, already reduced to rubble under German bombs. A ladylike mother bravely bids farewell to her adolescent son Marek (Rafal Fudalej), knowing that if he tries to flee to the countryside with her, his chances of survival are nil. Setting off alone through a labyrinth of underground cellars and tunnels for City Hall, where his father is a “bigwig” in the Resistance, Marek immediately crosses paths with a beautiful blonde woman in uniform, Irene (Magdalena Cielecka), who he impulsively saves from being shot as a spy and child-killer.

Marek, a self-defined poet, is too young and naïve to be a reliable judge of character, and Irene turns out to be much more ambiguous than he believes. Though she has a son his age, he falls madly in love with her, even after she reveals her true identity. For most of the film his obtuse, juvenile love-sickness makes trouble for everybody, and only in the final scenes does he get to play the hero.

There is little real story-telling in the film, which rushes from one horrifying scene to the next, making little narrative headway.  Marek and the young Boy Scout Tomek sleep beside rotting corpses and witness the Germans terrorizing the populace as they try to hide or evacuate the city. The horror reaches a peak in the masterful scene of Marek’s rape at the hands of a drunken young German soldier who promises him that “after the war, we’ll be friends.”  

Apart from the predictable perfidy of the Germans, characters are sharply drawn and original, with impressionable young Fudalej and the stern, authoritative Cielecka turning in highly convincing and emotionally compelling performances.

Yet few dramatic films are so completely designed around editing technique, with the task of describing memory falling on Wosiewicz’s regular editor Teo Paganini. The interplay of archive material with fiction is seamless, thanks to very fast pacing and to some superb period recreation by cinematographer Andrzej Ramlau, who shifts effortlessly from color to black and white within scenes. Also impressive is the eclecticism of composer Wojciech Waglewski’s score which ranges freely from folk music, period tunes and war songs to modern-sounding jazz.

Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (competition)
Production company: Odyssey Films
Cast: Magdalena Cielecka, Rafa? Fudalej, Piotr G?owacki, Eryk Lubos
Director: Leszek Wosiewicz
Screenwriter: Leszek Wosiewicz
Producers: Leszek Wosiewicz, Daniel Markowski
Executive producer: Iwona Paszkowska
Director of photography: Andrzej Ramlau
Production designer: Anna Seitz
Costumes: Aneta Suskiewicz
Editor: Teo Paganini
Music: Wojciech Waglewski
Sales Agent: Odyssey Films
No rating, 95 minutes.