Title: Warsaw ’44 (Miasto 44)
Director: Jan Komasa
Screenplay: Jan Komasa
Starring: Józef Pawlowski, Zofia Wichlacz, Anna Próchniak
Released: Sep 2014 (PL), Jun 2016 (UK)
On the 1st of August, 1944 the Polish Home Army put in motion a plan to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany. The Warsaw Uprising was to coincide with the arrival of the USSR and endeavored to drive the German occupiers from the city. However, the Soviet Army stopped short and did not advance beyond the city limits, which allowed the Germans to regroup and defeat the Polish resistance, obliterating the already decrepit Warsaw in the process.
Warsaw ’44 portrays these indelible and deeply tragic times in a very audacious but nonetheless harrowing manner. Komasa’s vision is very stylistic and at times hyperreal – utilising slow motion and synthesisers – but it’s also deeply immersive and provocative, with worldly themes of love, apprehension and self-fulfillment and a lot of stirring imagery that leaves little to the imagination.
The film opens with Stefan (Józef Pawlowski), a good-natured young man who lives with his mother and younger brother. After being harassed at his workplace by a Nazi officer (who tears up his work papers), Stefan finds himself in the company of old friends who are preparing for the Uprising. At first, he’s hesitant to get involved, but ultimately joins the Home Army. Initially, all is well. The resistance are able to push the Nazis back and Stefan finds himself aflutter after falling for medic Alicja (Zofia Wichlacz), but the arduous, tragic and deeply unsettling nature of war begins to wear them all down and with a lack of outside support, the Uprising begins to crumble.
Stefan has a tremendous character arc, starting as a personable but somewhat anxious boy who melds into someone keen to display bravery in the face of adversity, and then into almost a husk of his former self. Józef Pawlowski displays a superb range and is entirely convincing in the face of both family and war. His love interest Alicja starts off as a bit of an enigma, but blossoms into a tenacious force and a truly awe-inspiring character, played very naturally and with great passion by Zofia Wichlacz.
The romance aspect lends itself to some of the films more stylised sequences, with a dramatic use of slow motion and some very quirky musical choices as far as wartime dramas go. The soundtrack is an eclectic mix of classic and contemporary – ranging from Debussy to dubstep – challenging conventions and presenting a thoroughly unique if not sensational experience. However, despite the artistry, the film remains grounded in its portrayal of war. It’s gritty, gruesome and tragic, with many poignant and distressing scenes able to rival some of the most stirring Hollywood productions.
Visually, the film ranges from downright beautiful to frightful, in a very striking and poignant way. There’s a stark contrast between beginning and end, with the visuals and imagery changing from attractive to wretched. It’s shot very provocatively, with the more harrowing sequences often shown center frame, leaving little to the mind’s eye and ensuring the audience witness the same horrors as the characters. In that way, it’s very immersive and powerful, similar to how striking the Omaha beach assault is in Saving Private Ryan because of its no holds barred depiction of real life atrocities, violence and sorrow.
However, Warsaw ’44 doesn’t really compare so straight-forwardly to other World War II films. Komasa presents a unique and unexpectedly fresh vision, which is daring given the subject matter. The films use of slow motion – which slightly sensationalises the subject – could bare comparison to a modern day action movie rather than a historical war drama. Some viewers may see it as a tad gratuitous or self-indulgent, but I found it a remarkably bold and captivating style. The slow motion is used conservatively in Warsaw ’44, where it is able to capture a lot of detail and raw emotion in a single shot and express and emphasize well moments of heightened tension and drama.
All in all, Warsaw ’44 is a thoroughly tremendous film; as engrossing and powerful as it is haunting and frightful. It’s beautifully shot and aesthetically rich, which almost leaves as much an impression as the sorrowful story and soul-stirring subject matter. Yes, it’s slightly sensationalised and picky on details, but it’s also a very credible piece that – terrifically – is both thrilling and instructive.