Hands Up / Identification Marks: None
BFI Blu Ray 2023
In 1964 Skolimowski was a student at the famous Polish film school in Lodz. Here he created the semi- autobiographical character Andrezj (a disaffected university student acted by Skolimowski) in three shorts that became the feature Identification Marks: None. A loose Andrezj trilogy was formed to include the 1965 Walkover. In that film Skolimowski played the lead as an amateur boxer. And then the 1967 Hands Up (The director now acting in an ensemble piece).
Hands Up was completed after Skolimowski’s graduation and was immediately banned by the authorities. It wasn’t screened until 1981 at the Cannes Film Festival.
Both Hands Up and Identification Marks: None are fascinating critiques of the socio-political climate in sixties Poland. They are ambitious, daring and inventive. But the surprises and delights of the work of graduated film students often accompany faults and misjudgement. Moments in Identification Marks: None and almost all of Hands Up have material, which though in the sixties appeared provocative and radical, now feels mannered and dated. I will tackle the more awkward film first.
Hands Up is an attack on Stalinism, a roar against the Holocaust and a bitter reflection on materialism. It’s mainly shot in a studio with minimal props. The actors, covered in cement dust, appear to be travelling in a railway truck. A member of the group is physically attacked for passing on the names of critics of the state. Collectively they criticise one another for capitulating to the demands of communism but also succumbing to materialism – film inserts show them guiltily returning to their showy middle class cars. The effect of them having stained stark white faces and dress makes them look like zombies. Not quite living and not yet dead: caught between a failed socialism and an enticing capitalism.
I found it hard to relate to this absurdist political allegory. The characters never come alive nor does the power of the repressive history they’re attacking make for a strong impact: their personal critique of Stalin appearing to be merely the unveiling of a huge image of his face. Although the actors’ vigour and an intensely sharp black and white photography give everything a ghoulish charge, the script of Hands Up sounded bluntly Brechtian: pretentious avant-gardism delivering its ‘shocks’ in too obvious a manner. Such cine-theatre of the absurd worked better onstage. Hands Up reminded me of its great influence, the theatre of Jerzy Grotowski (I once experienced his work when I visited Poland in 1980 and that really was powerfully immersive!)
At its first screening in 1981 Skolimowski added a new filmed prologue in colour. Jane Asher, Mike Sarne and Alan Bates (all former Skolimowski actors passing through the director’s current art exhibition) only made me feel he had good mates to support him. Even the re-editing of Hands Up couldn’t improve a film that feels an empty rant. But, to be fair, Skolimowski had every right to be angry and shout out, not just about the cruel issues raised in Hands Up, but the fact that making it meant he was forced into exile in America and Europe for the next 17 years and unable to direct another film.
Much better is Identification Marks: None with its restless anti-hero Andrezj. As played by Skolimowski himself he’s an engaging character. The film has no real plot.
It’s more a serious of episodes in the day of a student trying to figure out what he can do as he’s given up his university studies and failed to turn up for his obligatory 3 months military service: now Andrezj is being forced to serve in the army for two years. I like the discursive tone of the film and Skolimowski’s experimenting with narrative – the Godardian two minute take on a bare wall with Bach on the soundtrack that interrupts Andrejz’s walk; the interview by the military as to why he won’t conform and join up like his friends; his conviction that his pet dog could be infected with rabies that’s almost symbolically raging through the city and best of all an opening scene with a long tracking shot across a street at night, just after Andrejz has emerged from his girlfriend’s room, with its street disturbances, noisy party guests and passing vehicles, all suggesting revolutionary violence coming to the streets. It reminded me of the famous long take opening of Welles’s Touch of Evil. After doing some research I discovered that Orson Welles is Skolimowski’s favourite director.
Technically Identification Marks: None is shaky compared to Hands Up and there are moments when the hand-held camera goes off-kilter. Yet there’s much raw excitement and humour here. No real political message to sell. It’s more a case of observing Andrejz’s stubborn disaffection ( For the best fusion of the trilogies personal and political themes watch Walkover). Walkover is not on this 2 disc set but can be seen in the Skolimowski season at the BFI Southbank that’s on in April. All the films are worth seeing. I particularly recommend Deep End, Moonlighting, Walkover, Barrier and The Shout.
Jerzy Skolimowski’s films bristle with an energy and originality that constantly engages and surprises. His cinematic range extends from the experimentally avant-garde (Hands Up) personally quirky (Deep End) and unorthodox mainstream (The Lightship). From Poland, England, America and then on the international film circuit he’s been consistently and defiantly inventive: bringing a fleeting poet’s eye to his visuals; athletic camerawork; lightning-quick direction and abrasive dialogue. He’s multi-talented – a filmmaker, artist (painter), poet, photographer, actor, screenwriter and when young even a boxer.
Boxing is a term that suits Skolimowski’s creativity which comes across as exhilaratingly pugnacious. Here’s an artist constantly on the move: hitting out with anger, wit and veiled compassion. I savour David Thomson’s summing up of this Polish maverick. “Skolimowski is a director who stalks us like a fighter with stunning blows in either hand.”