“Beyond words” review

The father and son reunite in Urszula Antoniak’s black and white immigration drama.


Michał (Jakub Gierszał) is a young, ambitious lawyer working in a law firm in Berlin’s Mitte. He lives in a flat that used to belong to his mother who passed away. A perfectionist and a professional, every day he learns German words from a recorder, practicing the pronunciation and trying to lose his Polish accent. Berlin is his home, no two ways about it, and he does not feel much connection with his homeland. In fact, he tries to suppress any signs of his origin, framing his German identity.
His boss Franz is also his best friend. They work together and have fun together, spending afternoons drinking fancy drinks in elegant Berlin bars. For Michał is seems to be a fulfillment of a life plan, he is wholly focused on his work, striving for professional excellence and the lifestyle related to it.

This ideal order is disturbed when Michał’s father Stanisław (Andrzej Chyra) appears after years and wants to make up for the lost time. The initial skepticism slowly gives way to a friendship, as they spend a weekend together and create an emotional bond. The father has built his life in a completely different way than Michał. He was a reckless musician, who did not stick to many rules but instead benefited from the joys of life. It is a clash of two different worlds, and there seems to be no place for such a variation in Michał’s well- organized routine. But the more he discovers his father, the more he starts identifying his roots.

The black and white photography gives the film a slightly vintage, classic look, which, together with the piano score, creates a poetic ambiance. The law firm where Michał works is situated in the city’s historical Museum Insel, and his flat is a spacious “Altbau” apartment with high ceilings and beautiful big windows. It has a somewhat austere design, which, we could say, corresponds to his vigorous life.

The dialogue is sparse, and as the title suggests, a lot happens between the words. We carefully observe Michał on the quest to determine his identity. The border between his Germaness and Polishness shifts throughout the film, as he favors the fist but cannot run from the second. Like his father points out, he becomes a different person when speaking Polish than he is in German. When Michał translates a discussion between Franz and Stanisław during dinner, he adjusts their responses to make it most appropriate for the other side.

Just as he is not ready to determine his true self, he is not able to decide whether he wants to bond with his father or keep him at bay.
His love life suffers from this hesitance as well. There is a seed of a romantic affair with a Polish waitress, but Michał never gives it a chance to advance, fearing this might expose him.

In the film’s first minutes we see him refusing to take a case of an African immigrant who wants to settle in Germany. For Michał, who considers himself a German, the newcomer has not earned it to be there- not speaking the language and keeping a strong bond with his native culture. He does not support the man’s argument that anyone should have a free choice of where he wants to live. But while the unexpected visit shuffles his sense of belonging, it also influences these views. Putting Michał in the middle of his two life stories, the director questions the power we have to determine our own identity.
Jakub Gierszał’s and Andrzej Chyra’s excellent performances are one of the good reasons why “Beyond words” is worth a trip to the cinema. Recognising the growing role of immigrants in today’s landscape, Antoniak made a film that explores an inherent challenge everyone who left his country is facing. It is not cinema that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats but rather a beautiful and thoughtful portrait of modern society.


Marcin Wrona’s ghost story “Demon”


When a happy couple arrives to celebrate their love in a remote Polish village, strange things start to happen to the groom. The ghosts from the past awaken and will not allow a happily ever after. In the last film before his death, Marcin Wrona proved that he was one of the most distinctive young Polish film directors.

Our English protagonist Piotr (Itay Tiran) comes to Poland to marry his blond sweetheart Żaneta (Agnieszka Żulewska). The couple arrives in a little, rural town and moves into an old house that belonged to her grandfather. They start joyous renovations, breathing new life into the somewhat neglected property. They are living the dream, no doubt about it.
While working on the lot, Piotr discovers a human skeleton buried in the ground. At first, he decides to keep the secret for himself, but he digs further, curious about his discovery.

The preparations for the wedding begin, and soon guests gather in a big stable next to the house. It is a real polish wedding with a lot of people, a lot of dancing and a lot of vodkas. While everyone engages in a wild party, Piotr starts experiencing hallucinations of a woman in a wedding gown. At first, the guests conclude that he drank too much, which does not keep his fresh father-in-law (excellent Andrzej Grabowski) from filling his glass over and over again. Soon, however, the situation becomes more serious. Piotr starts having convulsions, making terrible noises and eventually performs a dreadful, mad dance. It becomes intelligible that he was possessed by a demon.

The more festive it gets, the more symptoms arise. The hosts encourage the wedding guests to drink more, trying to win themselves time to mend the awkward situation. Or perhaps make them forget it easier. It seems, however, there are no illusions that the fun is long gone. The attention is now wholly focused on Piotr.

The priest suggests the involvement of spiritual forces, while the doctor assumes a drug overdose. Żaneta’s father becomes increasingly suspicious about Piotr and tries to annul the marriage. The bride, in a state of despair, is watching her world fall apart.

There is also an old professor who lived in the village as a boy. When Piotr begins to speak Yiddish, he is the only one that can communicate with him. The voice coming from Piotr’s mouth introduces itself as Hana- a Jewish girl whom the professor knew in his childhood. She declares to have chosen Piotr as her husband. We learn that the village was inhabited by Jews before the war and was later completely destroyed by the Germans. The professor also mentions dybbuk- a Jewish ghost who inhabits a body of a living person. The dislocated soul can only leave after it purged itself.

The film balances between a comedy and a horror, mixing humorous moments with its overly grim atmosphere. The wedding guests ridicule the idea of a demon, which brings us down to Earth. We may ask ourselves- would we believe in dybbuk? But their mocking attitude hides a desire to suppress the facts and keep the cumbersome secrets quiet. The wedding continues throughout the whole film, its craziness growing steadily. Foreign audiences may be rubbing their eyes in astonishment, seeing the amounts of vodka. But as much as Polish weddings are frantic, this one turns into madness.

The film refers to the Polish- Jewish history and the extermination of Jews that inhabited the country before the war. Forgotten victims become a symbol of abandoned memories and unrevealed facts. Did the house really belong to Żaneta’s family? How did Hana die? These questions remain open, and just as the audience is waiting for the resolution, Wrona cuts it off allowing them to look for a story themselves.

“I’m a killer” and “Red Spider” – serial-killer tales from communist times


Inspired by Socialist Poland’s demons, the directors Maciej Pieprzyca and Marcin Koszałka brought the dark legends back to life in two absorbing psychological thrillers. “I’m a killer” and “Red Spider” take us back to the country’s grim 70’s and 60’s to explore the sources of human evil.

“I’m a killer” by Maciej Pieprzyca is set in 70’s Poland, a country ruled by communism and its propaganda-machines, aiming to create an illusion of an ideal world. A series of brutal murders disrupts these efforts. The killer, who is pronounced Silesian Vampire, prowls around Silesia hunting down and murdering young women. The “ideal world” cannot suffer such a scratch and the authorities quickly mobilize militia to trace him. The investigation is handed over to a young officer- Janusz Jasiński- ambitious and excited to take up the biggest challenge of his career.

Soon after, Wieslaw Kalicki is arrested and accused of the crimes. The lead comes from his wife (masterfully played by Agata Kulesza), who denounces him hoping for 1 million rewards. Jasiński becomes a superstar- he is the talk of the town, a national hero, attracting the attention of media and sympathy of authorities. The thing is, he still has to find evidence against the suspect. And this goes badly. The more glory falls on the young officer, the less important the truth is. The authorities are entranced, lavishing presents on Jasinski- a new apartment, a color TV (something of a rarity back then). He also begins a love affair with a young girl, who is, as it will soon turn out, striving for a passport to leave the country.

His life could not be better, seems on the outside, but the conscience starts drilling Jasiński. He finds himself torn between the virtues of his new, luxurious life and a backbone which does not entirely allow him to send Kalicki to death.
This engaging thriller includes some brilliant performances such as the main character played by a lesser known to the Polish audience Mirosław Haniszewski as well as Arkadiusz Jakubik, in the role of Kalicki.

The film honestly portrays life under the communistic rule and the concerns of the society. It takes us in the world of the authorities’ tools and tricks and their competence in exacting the obedience of citizens, at their great personal costs.

Another famous serial murderer was subject to the film “Red Spider” released in 2016, just one year after “I’m a killer”. This time the story centers around the vampire of Cracow and is helmed by Marcin Koszałka, known to the Polish audience mostly as a documentary director. His beautifully photographed feature debut includes some hypnotizing aerial photography, like the drone shot of an illuminated amusement park in one of the first sequences of the film.

Again we find ourselves in communistic Poland (this time of the 60’s), shaken by a series of brutal murders committed with a hammer. A young sport-swimmer, Karol Kot, accidentally traces the killer in the mentioned amusement park and decides to confront him. The assassin turns out to be a decent and reserved veterinarian. The two get connected by their fascination with murder, or rather, Karol’s fascination with his new idol. The boy starts following in his steps, eventually turning himself over to the authorities as the “Red Spider”.

The film remains ambiguous about the young man’s motivation to take responsibility for the murders. Neither the political era nor family life provides a possible lead to the grounds of his decision. The director wants us to look for them beyond the perceivable.

It may leave some of the viewers a little unsatisfied by the end. We never see any hesitation of the main character, because we also do not see him making choices. We just watch him committing desperate acts, not able to delve into his psychology. This economy of expression makes us arrive at the end of the film feeling we could go for more.

As a point of interest: although the films are entirely different, they contain few similar points- a detective who gets rewarded after capturing the most dangerous criminal of his times, a conviction of the wrong person. Also, the ending, where we see a portrait of the deceased and where one life is saved in exchange for another.