Faraway, So Klaus! — a postcard from the Gdynia Film Festival

Published on: October 3rd, 2013

the Kinski plaque, in situ

Klaus Kinski has been dead for more than two decades now, but his vibrations linger on with eerie persistence. Three of the five films the extravagantly intense, bug-eyed actor made with German director Werner Herzog – Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) – are firmly established as landmarks of every self-respecting cinephile’s cultural hinterland.

His multifarious ‘extra-curricular’ appearances in the likes of For a Few Dollars More (1965), A Bullet for the General (1966) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) would be enough to ensure more than a footnote in any chronicle of big-screen thespian extremity. And the 1988 priapically balls-to-the-wall braggadocio autobiography published in English as Kinski Uncut is perhaps the Seventh Art’s closest equivalent to Benvenuto Cellini’s Life or Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog.

The Great Silence (1968)

Though officially a German, Kinski came into this world in a city which is now part of Poland, and which at the time of his birth in 1926 was actually part of a small independent zone called The Free City of Danzig, whose brief existence spanned the years 1920 to 1939. This clump of land on the Baltic coast included both Danzig – later rechristened Gdansk, and the cradle of Polish independence thanks to the defiance of Lech Walesa’s shipyard Solidarity union during the late seventies and early eighties – and Zoppot, Kinski’s home town, now the well-heeled resort destination Sopot (where property-prices are reportedly second only to Warsaw).

These days Gdansk and Sopot are part of what’s known localled as the Trojmiasto, or ‘Tri-City’ region, the third element of which is the port of Gdynia – home of Poland’s national film festival. Gdynia and Sopot are only 10 miles apart, and I took advantage of my presence in Gdynia to pay homage to Kinski at the place of his birth. The house still stands, decorated with a metal plaque placed a little too high for easy reading, and most notable for a suitably atmospheric pub on its first floor.

As befits a performer who, as Anne Widdecombe might put it, always had “something of the night about him,” ‘Kinski Bar’ isn’t the most enticing of boozers. Framed photographs of the urbanely sinister star dominate the small ground-floor lobby, with stairs taking patrons up to the drinking area: dark interiors with an air of slightly scruffy loucheness. Internet images indicate that the bar itself once boasted a sprawling mural featuring Kinski’s most famous roles, but this seems to have been painted over – perhaps in response to the sex-abuse allegations levelled by his eldest daughter Pola in her autobiography earlier this year (and corroborated by Pola’s half-sister, Tess star Nastassja).

made it, ma! top of the world, ma!

While Kinski’s public image was never exactly wholesome, such headlines cast something of a shadow over my Sopot pilgrimage – though in Poland these stories don’t seem to have caught hold of the public in the same way as, say, Britain’s ongoing Operation Yewtree developments. Or, indeed, the enduring controversies swirling around Poland’s most illustrious film-making son, Roman Polanski, whose visit to the Gdynia festival to promote his latest picture Venus In Fur provoked a media frenzy. “Polanski Risks Arrest At Film Festival” yelped Variety, referring to the legal case against the Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby director arising from a sexual assault perpetrated in the 1970s, and which effectively bars the 80-year-old from setting foot in the USA.

Polanski’s visit may have generated the festival’s most lurid headlines, but it wasn’t the only newsworthy element of the 38th national festival of Polish cinema (held in its early years just down the road in Gdansk). The big winner at the prize ceremony was Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, which provides a welcome return to the spotlight for the Polish-born writer-director who moved to the UK aged 20 in 1977.

His Margate-set 2000 fiction-feature debut Last Resort stands as one of the finest British – indeed, European – productions of its decade, and his international profile soared after 2004’s follow-up My Summer of Love. Pawlikowski’s belated third feature The Woman in the Fifth, a darkly romantic thriller with Kristin Scott-Thomas and Ethan Hawke, was, however, generally dismissed as a dud and received relatively little exposure after premiering at the Toronto film festival last year.

a tense moment in IDA

Undaunted, Pawlikowski must have set almost immediately to work on Ida, a small-scale and beautifully judged study of a young woman and her aunt set in 1960s Poland. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novice nun on the verge of taking her vows. Before she retreats to cloisters for good, her Mother Superior informs her that she must visit her sole surviving relative, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a middle-aged woman of faded glamour who lives a somewhat dissolute life in a city-centre apartment. Almost immediately Ida receives her first surprise, when Wanda matter-of-factly informs this devout Catholic that she’s in fact Jewish, and that he real name is Ida Lebenstein. Further revelations are to follow as the pair take an excursion to the countryside, on a mission to find out what happened to their relatives who died during the war.

The investigations of this mismatched duo – Wanda was a leading prosecutor during the particularly repressive Communist period of the late 40s and early 50s – unearth some harrowingly dark misdeeds, their findings emblematic of a nation which for various reasons found it politic to ignore the horrors of its recent past. Pawlikowski and his cinematographer Lukasz Zal shoot in a boxy, old-fashioned monochrome format, their austerely stylised compositions keeping the viewer in a constant state of mild unease.

The atmosphere of the period is unfussily evoked to a claustrophobically intense degree, but largely thanks to the vivid, uninhibited characterisation of Wanda – a dream role for Kulesza – there’s a streak of salty gallows humour that prevents proceedings from bogging down into the dour miserablism suggested by the picture’s bare synopsis. Selected for the main competition of the London Film Festival, it will presumably obtain UK distribution in early 2014 and deserves generous arthouse exposure.

Neil Young
25th September 2013
written for Tribune magazine

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