In a remote eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, near the border of the Russian empire, the local Jews are in flight. It’s the first day of the First World War and the Cossacks are coming. With the sounds of conflict rising on the breeze, several wagon-loads of Jewish families arrive at an inn. Austeria, Polish dialect for inn, is both title and principal setting for writer-director Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1983 film based on Julian Stryjkowski’s 1966 novel.
The latter, who collaborated on the script, was a radical left Polish-Jewish writer and journalist, while the former, a Pole who grew up in a mixed Ukrainian and Jewish town, is known for some particularly lavish productions. On that level, the tragic-comic Austeria delivers, recreating the detail and atmosphere of late 19th and early 20th Century shtetl life, as well as the fear inspired by charging Cossacks. The naturalism’s balanced with melodramatic tableaux vivants performed by actors of Warsaw’s Yiddish Theatre. Its selection as part of ‘Martin Scorsese presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’, in May at BFI Southbank, acknowledges its importance in the Polish cinematic canon.
Its real importance extends far beyond its production, and if what follows spoils some of the plot, bear in mind that predictability, inevitability and impotence in the face of fate are the key themes. We’re presented with apparently unavoidable outcomes, outcomes that any viewer can sense from the opening without any contextual knowledge. The fleeing Jews have no intention of disembarking at the inn. Some are scared, some affronted: ‘It’s bad manners,’ one observes, ‘to overrun a town without even knocking.’ But all of the refugees implore the innkeeper to leave with them.
Grandfather Tag, standing before his inn and his family, fails to see the point: ‘If a man is not safe in his own bed,’ he says, ‘then where will he be?’ Shortly afterwards, the local Austrian baroness rolls by in her carriage. She, too, is fleeing, and she, too, implores Tag to leave. ‘If Abraham hadn’t started wandering,’ Tag reflects, ‘he would have saved us a few kilometres.’
Tag, as it soon turns out, is philosophical in other ways. He’s conducting an adulterous relationship with a local village girl who tends to the animals. As he puts it: ‘Must everything fall apart on the first day of war?’ Around him, everything seems to be doing just that: a dead girl, killed by Cossacks, is brought by her lover; a Hungarian hussar, who’s been separated from his regiment, arrives, hoping to hide; fresh wagon-loads of refugees draw up, this time Hasidic Jews guided by their ethereal ‘tzaddiq’ or righteous ruler.
The inn becomes a Noah’s Ark, and Noah himself is a flawed man, father, proprietor, sinner and saviour. Soon, the priest turns up, and he offers his friend safe passage with him through the war-torn countryside. Tag, again, refuses. He cannot leave his array of guests, and he wants to bury the dead girl. By then, the Hasids are singing, although they lack a song against fire. With the torching of the nearby town, some of the Jews want to return to save their possessions and homes. ‘If everyone is going,’ says one, ‘I will too.’ Tag wants to go into town to plead for the innocence of the dead girl’s lover. The priest, having warned him this is dangerous and pointless, nevertheless accompanies him. Like the ticking of a clock, fate after fate is sealed without ever addressing the dimensions of actual threats.
‘The Jew does not kill,’ remarks one of the Hasids, ‘like a fish does not fly.’ This terrible acceptance of a perceived inner nature is given a fine gloss when the tzaddiq finally awakes from his slumber and speaks: ‘It is a delight to be a Jew,’ he tells his followers. The Hasids sing, dance, strip and head to the lake to cleanse and to swim, just as artillery shells begin to fall about them.
It’s clear that, whether fleeing from or facing fate, death is the only possible outcome for everyone, and this is the heart of Kawalerowicz’s theme: is passivity causal? Is the lack of resistance a determining, or at least contributory, cause of the fate of the Jews? Kawalerowicz was not the only one to raise this question. In 1968, around the time of the novel’s appearance, the now Nobel prize-winning Patrick Modiano’s first novel was published. In La Place de l’Étoile, Modiano writes of the same Eastern Jews: ‘You are those who let yourselves be machine-gunned with a sad smile. True Jews, a hundred per cent Jews, made in Europa.’ And Joseph Roth’s 1930 novel Job – A Simple Man, responds to the same issues with an assertion of faith.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews of course did fight, both for the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, though some would argue this was part of an assimilatory instinct, rather than a fight either for themselves or what these empires supposedly stood for. Tag embodies failings and ambiguities, logical and ethical inconsistencies, and psychological tensions between faith and behaviour that are universal.
Perhaps such a film’s always poignant, especially in the 21st Century as we daily witness refugees from multi-level conflicts fleeing a mise en abyme of enemies of enemies. How one answers the questions of what to do and why, whether to flee or to accept ‘fate’, whether to celebrate or reject a sense of disposition or pre-disposition, is as relevant to civilians anywhere as it was to the Jews of Eastern Europe.
Nick Barlay’s Scattered Ghosts: One Family’s Survival through War, Holocaust and Revolution is published by I.B.Tauris. For details of this and other works, see www.nickbarlay.com
Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Austeria shows at the BFI Southbank on 13th and 23rd May, as part of the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival 2015, supported by the Polish Cultural Institute, London.