It may seem that Polish cinema is obsessed with Polish History, and is therefore hard to understand to the unlearned outsider. If that’s your case, take a couple of hours and watch Citizen/Obywatel, a dark comedy that will make wonders for your understanding of this country stuck between the East and the West.
Directed by Jerzy Stuhr, mostly known for his acting work, here he also plays protagonist Jan Bratek, whose main gift is to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When we meet him first, however, we do not know that – he is the apparently established and deeply catholic Polish citizen. A phone call to the studio shakes his religious facade, and when leaving the country divine justice makes him be hit by a piece of falling building, just as Poland’s President arrives. Jan ends up in the hospital, his face completely plastered, lost between flashbacks of his past and visits from characters of his life. Non-chronologically, we’ll see his life from being a young boy to that fatidic day at the TV studio, going through all possible political movements and underground resistances, bad luck with the ladies and frustrated attempts to leave Poland and travel abroad, ending with a truly ironic and iconographic moment where Jan and Poland become one (just in case you didn’t get the metaphorical joke until then)
This satire is also an incredible eye candy, courtesy of cinematographer Pawel Edelman, a regular Polanski collaborator, that includes the insider’s joke of imitating several Polish film styles while going through Jan’s past years. And if you’re wondering how did they find an actor that resembles Stuhr so much to play young Jan, Maciej Stuhr is his name and he’s Jerzy’s son.
The greatest pleasure of watching Citizen/Obywatel, besides learning about Poland in a very sarcastic History lesson, is without a doubt its narrative construction. We’re given hints to Jan’s past before we know what actually happened, and we wonder if he ever had a chance to change the course of events. At a certain point Jan, after a failed suicide attempt, asks himself “Why always me? Why me.. everywhere….everytime….”, and then we realize for the first time, luck knocked on his door (and wasn’t wearing any trousers). It’s all coincidences, you see, and just like in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films, you can’t escape Fate. Ever ever never. (Not a coincidence, maybe, that Stuhr did star on Kieslowski’s Three colors: White, about another unlucky Polish, Karol Karol).
Symbols. Metaphors. Dark Humour. All New Polish Cinema has these aplenty. Can Poland escape itself, is the question that the film keeps asking. In the end, just a half-attempted answer: does it really want to?