Interrogation (Bugajski) Second Run Blu Ray


Two thirds of the way through Interrogation (1982) the police interrogator tells his female prisoner not to be so naïve to belief that her husband and friends couldn’t be complicit in informing on others, betraying their loved ones: for this is how the world works and she needs to wake up to the fact that “there is no unconditional honesty.”

It’s a chilling line and shortly afterwards the husband visits his wife in jail and says how much he now hates her for her rampant sexual infidelity.  It’s left unsaid but you suspect that he was used by the authorities as another tool to help get his wife sign a false confession that she  colluded in espionage with one of her pickups.  She has nothing to say and looks at her husband with longing tempered by amazement and disbelief.  A confession is not signed.  And at this point she unsuccessfully attempts suicide.

These are powerful moments in an extraordinary film about the psychology of captors and the captive, made more disturbing as the setting is Communist Poland during the most Stalinist totalitarian period of the 1950s.  To backtrack on the plot, Tonia (a phenomenal performance from Krystyna Janda) a cabaret singer has been arrested, imprisoned and interrogated without being told why.  After a year she’s informed of her crime.  Yet it’s made obvious that she was innocent and during her one night stand, long ago, with Colonel Olcha, was unaware of his treachery.

The cinema has given us many prison as metaphors for society films (Joseph Losey’s The Criminal); films about female prisoners (think of Susan Hayward in I Want to Live or Eleanor Parker in Caged) and depictions of East European totalitarianism (Karel Kachyna’s The Ear).  But few have combined fascist prison cruelty, under state control, of women, in the manner of Interrogation.  But Ryszard Bugajski’s film goes far beyond being a political drama or an indictment of an ideology aided by a cruel police apparatus.  Tonia’s fierce resistance to her interrogators has her protest that they can’t see the absurdity of what they’re doing and how meaningless is a pure socialist ideal.

Interrogation gradually becomes an exposure of the moral degeneracy and spiritual bankruptcy of the captors’ world as they attempt to break the individuality of those imprisoned.  Tonia’s unrelenting strength and courage (locked in a tiny barred cell that’s then flooded; made to witness the staged execution of a man and still at gunpoint refusing to sign a false confession) is testimony to her apolitical fortitude.  Her refusal to cooperate being a fierce moral stand for basic human dignity, irrespective of transient political beliefs (near the end of Tonia’s captivity we learn of the death of Stalin) and respect for the individual.  And in spite of a suicide attempt and being made pregnant by one of her interrogators she’s eventually released.

Interrogation’s portrayal of the film’s torturers and victims is complex and ambivalent.  The young lieutenant Morawski (Adam Ferency) takes great exception to being called a Gestapo officer for members of his family died in a concentration camp.  A sense of both solidarity and antagonism amongst female prisoners is equally tender and prickly.  Cell companion Honrata (Bozena Dykiel) is eventually broken in spirit but before that provides Tonia with some brief physical comfort.  Whilst the solid and stubborn communist Witkowska (played by Agnieszka Holland, later to become a film director) although falsely accused of espionage is willing to become a martyr for her beliefs.  Each tightly framed and shot cell episode is intense and claustrophobic, edited with an exact rhythm aligned to the putting of pressure on the inmates.

Perhaps Interrogation should have been filmed in black and white.  With all its visceral humiliations and insults there is a slight tendency for the prison to look a little cleanly clinical as if the film crew had just moved in and hadn’t quite made it lived in yet.  But this is 1982 and monochrome was out.  And maybe the ex-landowner’s attempt to make the shared prison cell more domestic is a humanist cliché; she plants grains of wheat in the soil round the prison bars and there’s rapid growth.  However these are very minor complaints.  For Interrogation is a brilliant film, excellently acted, often very moving and although containing harrowing subject matter manages to be interspersed with critical humour.

Suffice to say the Polish Ministry of Culture viewed the finished film, just near the very end of the Solidarity movement, and were highly disturbed.  It was banned until 1989 and after the revolutions.  However a smuggled out VHS version of Interrogation was provided by Bugajski, copied and seen by many Poles.  Now the film is on Second Run blu ray in a fine transfer and still remains just as compelling and urgent given the authoritarian drift of so much of our present world.

Alan Price©2023.