A 50s Polish war comedy? This summary and Andrzej Munk’s epic title Eroica could promise an hour-worth of quality nap time to those unfamiliar with Polish wit and good taste. Although Munk’s work is not a cinematographic gem like, say, the legendary works of Krzysztof Kieślowski or Andrzej Wajda (the latter more apt to the period in question), Eroica is compelling as a dark tinged war-com in two parts.
The opening miniature – a light-hearted Scherzo Alla Polacca – captures the cheeky middle-aged Dzidziuś Gorkiewicz, whose frivolous behaviour and love of girls and booze is contrasted with scenes of military conflict. An unwilling participant in the Warsaw Uprising training, he weaves his way into wartime opportunism and heroism of a different kind. Gorkiewicz is allegedly a Polish patriot and pursues a “very important mission”, mediating between the Hungarian military backup and the Polish Home Army during the culmination of Poland’s WWII. He puts on an air of valour and determination much like a war-hero should, or so the military backdrop might compel us to believe. As he stumbles over cannons and generally embarrasses himself, his operation dissolves into meanderings between attractive Polish ladies (to whom he is known endearingly as ‘Babyface’) and comic pursuits of chivalry, which in the end are just an alibi for desertion. Copious quantities of alcohol prior to an important mission get our rascally hero pissed out of his wits and battling a head-splitting hangover amidst rubble, streams of soldiers and detonating explosions – a mesmerising scene of the protagonist’s utter uselessness. World War II’s cinematic ideals are shattered in this anti-heroic plot, and Munk continues to season this already acerbic mix by showing Gorkiewicz’s farcical reunion with a war-time wife. But however ironic or excessive his comic miniatures may appear, sending up the romantic ideals of war or marital fidelity, there are also darker and more profound notes to what could be mere farce.
What is heroism? What is loyalty and who can be called a hero? – these are some of the questions that underlie the film. Post-WWII films have all too often focused on glamorising soldiers, giving us hackneyed heroes defeating the Nazi plague or some other occupying menace – an image doubtless needed for popular morale but also, in cinema, all too predictable. The setting of Eroica’s second part – ‘Ostinato Lugubre’ – is a German-run POW camp, much admired by new arrivals for its holiday-resort facilities and notable superiority to a common-or-garden concentration camp. Here a runaway prisoner is remembered nostalgically as a great loss – as if his freedom is in fact a death sentence rather than a blessing. Yet memories of the escapee keep the group’s spirits alive, the camp’s emotional life given a boost by the success of his bid for liberty, and reports that he’s enjoying his life outside. Little do they know just how close the hero is … hiding in the camp ventilation-system to preserve his honour and avoid disillusioning the lot of them.
In both Eroica’s miniatures the protagonists are undoubtedly antiheroes, but anti-heroic in very different ways. Was the war as much about cowardice, lack of willpower and shallow opportunism as it was about blood and grit? It seems a fair guess, but hard to believe such provocative themes could seep into film so (controversially) soon after the war. The true message of these miniatures gleefully undermines the film’s epic title, making for a funny and at times even eerie experience. The darker second half is especially recommended as an ingenious comment on heroism – a sardonic inversion of freedom, honour, loyalty and belonging in a Poland at war.
Andrzej Munk’s Eroica (1958) shows on 13th & 23rd April, as part of the Kinoteka 13th Polish Film Festival, supported by the Polish Cultural Institute London.