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By Joe Bendel. They called it a heist, but it was really withdrawal. They were union dues in an account the Solidarity representatives were the rightful signatories for. Yet not surprisingly, the Communist regime preferred to keep all funds under their control, so they could be immediately frozen should the need arise. On the eve of martial law, a handful of workers-turned-activists anticipate a looming need for that money in Waldemar Krzystek’s factually based drama 80 Million (trailer here), chosen by Poland as their official submission for this year’s foreign language Academy Award, which screens as the closing night selection of the Skalny Center’s 2012 Polish Film Festival at Rochester University.

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Winter 1981 will be a cold one. Despite promises made, the Communists are not about to let Solidarity operate freely. So far, they have waged a war of small-ball provocation, desecrating Soviet war graves and the like in the guise of Solidarity activists. However, when four real Solidarity supporters bust them in the act, in front of cameras, the stakes precipitously rise.

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A repressive communist regime.

Perhaps too conveniently, there is a source offering government information to the Lower Silesia branch, but the dissident workers are not convinced they can trust him. Still, his information always pans out. Essentially warning them to expect a long siege, the quartet convinces each other that high liquidity is in order.

Of course, it’s never a good time to plan a major operation in a police state. Staszek’s very pregnant wife is an obvious vulnerability. Her high-ranking father can only protect her within limits. While Maks does not have the same concerns when he takes up with Natalia, a French journalist of Polish heritage, she is something of a distraction.

How refreshing is it to see a film that uses the word “Commie” as a term of denigration. It is equally appealing to see members of the Catholic Church playing a heroic role in the struggle to attain freedom and dignity for the people. In many sad ways, 80 Million is actually a timely film, reminding viewers of the consequences of a media too closely aligned with the state. Still, the film is largely optimistic in tone, more intent on celebrating Solidarity’s triumphs than mourning those lost during the dark days of Communistic oppression.

Life in the Solidarity movement had its moments.

Indeed, there is no nostalgia here for the old regime. At various times viewers see inside Communist torture chambers and eavesdrop on their ruthless scheming. Piotr Głowacki is particularly detestable as the serpentine SB Captain Sobczak. Not to be spoilery, but the manner in which he gets his is quite satisfying.

Frankly, Krzystek’s severe docudrama style limits the time for character development, but he sure can stage a massive protest. The tenor of the times certainly comes through loud and clear. Still, there are some memorable performances, most notably from Głowacki and Mariusz Benoit as “Kmicic,” the Deep Throat figure. Emilia Komarnicka also turns up the heat in a variety of notable ways as Natalia. Of our main co-conspirators, Wojciech Salarz’s worried father-to-be makes the strongest impression. Unfortunately, Olga Frycz, whose earnest presence and youthful good looks helped make Jacek Borcuch’s All that I Love so special, is almost criminally under-employed as Marta, an ex-girlfriend sheltering one of the fugitives.

Although Krzystek’s approach can be distancing now and then, he gives audiences more than enough to keep them emotionally invested in the not-really caper. Marek Warszewski’s design team convincingly recreates Jaruzelski era Poland. Again, that is nothing to be nostalgic for. (New Yorkers take note: the film includes gas rationing lines.) A well crafted recreation of a fascinating historical episode, 80 Million would be a worthy Oscar nominee. Recommended with a good deal of enthusiasm, it screens this coming Monday (11/19) as the closing night film of the Polish Film Festival at Rochester, which will also show Wojtek Smarzowski’s excellent Rosa this Saturday (11/17).


Posted on November 16th, 2012 at 10:39am.

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By Joe Bendel. Conveniently, the infamous Winter Velodrome no longer stands in Paris. Yet, perversely, cycling races were still held in the venue as late as 1958, well after it served as a temporary holding facility for 13,000 Jewish Parisians, forcibly “rounded up” at the request of the occupying National Socialists. It was an episode of history France preferred to forget, since it was the Vichy authorities doing the rounding-up. While the actual event went scrupulously undocumented, Rose Bosch dramatizes the tragic events in La Rafle (The Round Up), which opens today in New York.

The fatality rate of those imprisoned in the Velodrome was nearly one hundred percent. Viewers will have no illusions where the captives are ultimately headed, but those in the Velodrome held out hope their next accommodations would be better. We come to meet many of the roughly detained, including children like Joseph Weismann and his friends, the Zygler brothers. While they used to run free through the streets of Montmartre, the boys suddenly find themselves enduring the heat and inadequate water and sanitation of the Velodrome. Fellow prisoner Dr. David Sheinbaum is the sole extent of the medical treatment available until the arrival of solitary Protestant charity nurse Annette Monod.

Based on years of research, Bosch takes pains to show both the good and bad sides of the French national character. While the Weismann’s anti-Semitic neighbors cheer their deportation, the Parisian fire department reacts with shock and empathy, struggling to improve conditions in the Velodrome, against the gendarmerie’s express wishes.

Those who have seen Sarah’s Key or read the novel on which it is based will be familiar with the 1942 Roundup. Designer Olivier Raoux’s recreated Velodrome has the look and feel of a real life, slightly past its prime building, collapsing under the weight of its involuntary guests. Bosch’s scenes within its confines have a visceral you-are-there impact. However, the intermittent depictions of Hitler and the craven Petain lack the same power, only serving as a wan indictment of their banal evil.

In a bit of a surprise, it is Jean Reno who masterfully serves as the film’s moral center, portraying Dr. Sheinbaum with a profound spirit of world weary humanity. The impossible romantic tension that develops between him and Mélanie Laurent’s Monod is also deeply touching. That sense of “if only thing were different” palpably hangs in the air between them as they labor to ease the suffering around them as best they can.

Post-Schindler’s List, there have been a number of well-meaning dramas that have addressed the Holocaust, with varying degrees of success. La Rafle ranks as one of the more accomplished due to its technical merit and Reno’s assured, anchoring performance. Recommended for connoisseurs of French cinema and WWII films, it opens today (11/16) in New York at the Quad Cinema.


Posted on November 16th, 2012 at 10:38am.

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