FilmReview

Film Review: Leave No Traces

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer:  Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk, based on reportage by Cezary Lararewicz

Director: Jan P. Matuszynski

Leave no Traces by Polish director Jan P. Matuszynski is by design a relentlessly grim film. Based on reportage by Cezary Lararewicz, but consciously fictionalised, it follows the aftermath of the unprovoked savage beating by the communist militia in 1983 of student, Grzegorz Przemky, which leads to his death. His friend, Jurek Popiel, is the only witness to the attack. He alone can bear witness to hearing one attacker insist that Przemky is brutally kicked in the stomach to ‘leave no traces’. But inevitably when Popiel attempts to fight for justice, he is met not just with opposition, but with a sinister campaign to silence him.

It is undoubtedly an important story and one which merits film treatment. But at 160 minutes, with a large cast of hard-to-distinguish characters, it is demanding on the viewer. Writer Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk takes for granted a deep familiarity with the history of Solidarity and therefore omits most of the historical signposting a wider audience might need to unravel the significance of Przemky’s death. The opening scene is shot in a single edit, the camera swirling through an apartment following the two larky young men, Przemky and Popiel, as they prepare to go out to celebrate Przemky’s graduation. The apartment is full of other people busily engaged in some sort of work, and we hear snatches of lively dialogue. But the camera work and the upbeat atmosphere blur the focus. Przemky’s mother’s has a damaged hand, for example, but it’s easy to miss the reference to this being done by communist authorities. She is, in fact, Barbara Sadowska, a significant political poet and supporter of Solidarity, but the film makes only elusive references to her full story.

Instead Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk puts at the heart of the film the fictional character of Jurek Popiel as Przemky’s friend and champion. Good-looking Popiel, we learn, has been having a long affair with Przemky’s mother, Sadowska. This is troubling, not least because this make Popiel considerably older than his 17-year-old best friend.

Putting this aside, the film reveals shocking details about the aggressive methods of the communist militia and secret police and their collusion with the powers of justice. Two well-meaning orderlies who take Przemky to hospital are framed as his attackers while Popiel’s family are ruthlessly targeted. Minute scraps of documentary evidence are mined in order, for example, to shut down his mother’s hair salon. His father naively takes into his confidence an old friend who has mysteriously reappeared – he is, of course, in the pay of the secret police.

The various hatchet-faced figures of authority are suitably represented. Robert Wieckiewicz makes a convincingly sinister general up against the one public figure with a conscience, the prosecutor general, a sympathetic Mikolaj Grabowski. There is a rare moment of comedy when woman prosecutor, Aleksandra Konieczna, snacks on biscuits in her fur hat, casually brushing off crumbs while contesting her ruling with him. Barbara Sadowska herself is played with conviction by Sandra Konzeniak. Tomasz Zietek makes an intense Popiel, but the part itself gives him little variety, asking essentially for him to look indignant, smoke and run fast.

There are endless shots of bleak corridors and dingy offices where grim-faced people sit wreathed in cigarette smoke. The authentic look of Poland under communism is undoubtedly well established by cinematographer Kacper Fertacz but the film could afford to tighten up on these unnecessarily long sequences. Ibrahim Maalouf’s music which mainly features ominous tolling of a deep bass note adds to the relentless feel.

Leave No Traces is released in the UK and Ireland on 10 June.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Relentless tension

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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