Konrad Niewolski: Symmetry (Symetria), 2003

reviewed by Jadwiga Mostowska © 2005

The most memorable and widely acclaimed Polish prison film is probably Interrogation (Przesłuchanie, 1982), written and directed by Ryszard Bugajski. This dramatic story of an innocent woman arrested and abused by secret police officers was banned by the communist censors and remained unreleased through the 1980s. Once it was finally screened to audiences, Interrogation proved to be a disturbingly shocking account of the repressive measures applied by the totalitarian regime in Stalinist Poland. The horrifying experience of Antonina (Krystyna Janda gave a stunning performance and was awarded the prize for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990) provoked viewers to a discussion of political and moral issues, and the film became a metaphor of the entire nation’s situation.

After more than twenty years, another young Polish director has made his own prison film. Symmetry, written and directed by Konrad Niewolski, neither has the same undeniable artistic significance as Bugajski’s film, nor deals with political issues of comparable importance. It concentrates instead on contemporary social problems and moral dilemmas. Obviously this shift in emphasis reflects the recent process of democratic transformation in the country, where political matters are still important, but are no longer the primary concern. Symmetry is one of the recent Polish films that can be considered as testimony to the current anxieties in Polish society. It is also an interesting commentary on Polish everyday life, made by a filmmaker whose adult life started in the new reality of a democratic country.

 

A graduate student, Łukasz (Arkadiusz Demeter), spends a lonely evening at the cinema. On the way home he is suddenly arrested and wrongly accused of assault. The only witness to the crime is the victim, an elderly woman, who picks him out of the line-up at the police station. Nobody believes the young man’s explanations. He had not kept the cinema ticket and his alibi cannot be confirmed by anyone. Charges are pressed against him and Łukasz has to remain in detention until the trial. His case becomes even more difficult because the victim has a stroke and dies soon after the incident. Therefore, the prosecution considers charging Łukasz with a more serious crime—causing the elderly woman’s death.


With a few short scenes and little dialog, the beginning of Symmetry triggers a considerable number of emotions in viewers. Most important is the realization that no matter how absurd this situation may seem, it is perfectly credible: what happened to Łukasz can happen to anyone; a mistake by a confused victim, a misunderstanding, or simply “bad luck”—and suddenly an innocent person lands in prison. This immediately raises associations with themes already explored by Franz Kafka. Symmetry, however, does not end here. Niewolski attempts to show what it may mean for someone like Łukasz to live in prison and how this experience can cause irreparable changes in such an individual’s personality and system of values.

The imprisoned young man tries to fight for what is left of his dignity; he does not want to be a victim again. Following the advice he received in the detention cell, Łukasz asks to be given a cell with the prisoners call “gity” (the prison’s criminal elite, who have their own language and code of ethics), and not with the ordinary “suckers.” In accordance with his wish, Łukasz is assigned to a cell that is already occupied by five men, including murderers and gangsters. Because he is accused of a serious crime (when questioned by the other inmates, Łukasz is smart enough not to claim that he is innocent) and does his best not to demonstrate fear in the presence of others, he gradually manages to gain some respect. Łukasz learns all of the rules and unwritten laws of prison life step-by-step until he becomes fully accepted by the group. He even manages to establish a sort of a friendship with some of his cellmates. Although he still hopes to be released, he has already found his place among the other prisoners and becomes more confident.

However, the changes in Łukasz’s attitudes also lead to a change in his system of values. His morality is put to the test when a man accused of pedophilia is assigned to the same cell. With tacit approval from the guards, prisoners abuse treat child molesters. From Łukasz’s new point of view, this is perfectly understandable. When he learns that the man might be released on bail, Łukasz decides to take action together with four other cellmates, even though it may extend his own imprisonment. The molester’s murder is made to look like the suicide of a desperate man. But even if the criminal investigators assume this is what happened (and the prologue of the film seems to suggests that they do), the other prisoners will know the truth. Łukasz is no longer innocent.

     


Łukasz is not a typical main character. There is nothing interesting about him; he is just an ordinary guy. What happened to him was unjust, but his attitude does not encourage viewers to feel sorry for him. He remains passive and leaves the struggle for his release to others. Towards the end of the film, it almost seems that he does not want to be free anymore. Niewolski deliberately does not make Łukasz too colorful and does not give him a strong personality; his goal is to show an ordinary man in an extreme situation, not a hero. At the same time, however, by creating an unconventional main character, Niewolski makes it difficult for the audience to get involved in what is happening to him. This is directorial decision should not detract from Demeter’s good performance in his first leading role. He is particularly good in physically representing the changes that gradually occur in Łukasz: while at the beginning he behaves almost like a scared animal (he walks with a stoop and does his best not to annoy anybody), later in the film he moves with confidence and holds his head high.

Niewolski made sure that Łukasz’s cellmates are also clearly and distinctly drawn characters. Indeed, some of them are even more sharply defined than Łukasz. These, after all, are the people who have influenced him so strongly. The film gradually tells each of their stories and crimes. Despite having very colorful personalities, “Kosior” (Mariusz Jakus) and Albert (Borys Szyc) are stereotypical criminals. “Siwy” ( Marcin Jędrzejewski) is more interesting. Even though he remains in the background viewers do not get the feeling that this is a character they have already seen in other gangster or prison films.

Another cellmate, Dawid (Andrzej Chyra), a lecturer, killed the man who had raped his wife and afterwards turned himself in to the police. The other prisoners talk about him with respect, considering his deed to be an expression of true love. Dawid spends most of his time reading and writing letters to his wife. He becomes a kind of a role model for Łukasz—their conversations have a strong influence on his decision to take part in lynch law. Niewolski uses the character of Dawid to raise questions (at times in ways that are too obvious) about guilt, as well as the essence of human and divine justice. Clearly Niewolski wants to use this character as a vehicle of expressing some important moral dilemmas. If, in fact, that was his intention, then unfortunately, he does not quite succeed because, despite all of his efforts, it is difficult for the viewer to sympathize with him. His crime, the so-called “expression of true love,” is simply an act of egoistical revenge: by committing murder and by going to prison for many years, Dawid punished not just the rapist, but also his beloved wife. At the end of the film, he takes part in the lynching, knowing that it may mean several more years of separation from his wife. Dawid is not a romantic hero or a moral leader; instead, he is a self-centered intellectual whose remarks too often sound like clichés.

The most interesting and complex character in the film is Roman (Janusz Bukowski). The oldest of the six cellmates, he has been sentenced for not paying child maintenance and is treated with some contempt by the other inmates because his crime is not serious. Roman tries not to get involved in any trouble (he is the only character who does not want to participate in the lynching). He tolerates all the cutting remarks that his cellmates throw at him and does whatever he is told. Like Łukasz, he had not wanted to be with the “suckers,” but at the same time he does not aspire to be called a “git.” Roman is also differentiated from the other characters by the fact that the changes that have occurred in him during his imprisonment are unambiguously positive: while he did not want to reply to any of his daughter’s letters at the start of his incarceration, he eventually comes to understand that they need each other and decides to write her and to apologize. The shift in Łukasz’s attitude towards Roman is the best indicator of the changes that gradually take place within the main character. At the beginning, Roman is a sort of father figure to the young man, but later Łukasz treats the older cellmate with the same contempt as “Kosior” or Albert.

By making Łukasz’s story full of dramatic turns and by introducing colorful characters, Niewolski was trying to provoke a discussion of a number of serious issues. Some of them—like the impact of broken families or the unemployment of young, educated Poles who feel rejected by society—are less explicitly invoked and remain in the background. The main social problem raised by the film is, of course, the defectiveness of the legal system: the carelessness of investigators, the dragged-out procedures, and the ineffectiveness of thee law. All of these put people into extreme situations and force them to make radical decisions.

Another contemporary Polish film, Krzysztof Krauze’s The Debt (Dług, 1999) emphasizes similar problems, telling a story based on historical events of desperate people who cannot count on state institutions and decide to administer single-handed justice. Both films present rather bleak, pessimistic—but unfortunately authentic—pictures of Polish reality and both deal with the common anxieties of people who realize that no system can guarantee an absolute justice. In Symmetry, this view of contemporary Poland is presented by a representative of the generation that is the first real beneficiary of Poland’s transformation.

Symmetry also addresses a number of complex moral dilemmas, signaled by the meaning of the title of the film, which allows for different interpretations. One such interpretation is that every society is based on certain principles (whether unwritten or codified law, morality, the Ten Commandments). To have a feeling of safety, the members of that society need to be sure that a “symmetry” exists between crime and punishment, law and justice, guilt and expiation. But once there is no such correspondence, it is very easy to cross the line and to decide to take justice into one’s own hands. While such a view sounds quite convincing, Niewolski carelessly oversimplifies the issues by emphasizing a black-and-white vision of the world. As a consequence, he disregards a far more interesting problem: why does someone like Łukasz, who knows that not all people in prison are guilty, so easily assume that someone else has committed a crime? Łukasz cannot be sure that the child molester is actually guilty of what he is accused. The very fact that the man might be released on bail only proves that he has not yet been found guilty. What if he is another victim of a defective system or a false accusation? Yet there are no signs in the film that the main character has any moral dilemmas of this kind. “Someone like him may one day harm my sister,” thinks Łukasz, and this is a good enough reason to lynch the cellmate. How can a young intellectual never experience the pains of doubt? It is a pity that Niewolski did not decide to explore this issue and preferred a simpler, more obvious solution.

Symmetry does not live up to expectations evoked by the beginning of the film. There are some interesting moments (like the scene where Łukasz attempts to commit a suicide) and characters, but the overall result is not fully satisfying. The main conclusion that can be drawn from what happens on screen is that in extreme situations people make extreme choices and that everything to them seems to be either black or white. This is not a very revealing insight and can also be challenged. The film’s real strength lies in its verisimilitude, the credibility with which it shows the reality of prison’s s life. Niewolski presents a set of micro-dramas—scenes representing everyday interactions of people tossed into the limited space of a cell or walking around the small, walled-in yard, of long empty corridors or shots of little windows with bars or of the barbed-wire strung across the top of the walls. There is nothing glamorous about this place and this life. The everyday existence of the prisoners consists of a boring routine. This is quite different from many mainstream productions, where prison is presented as a set for main hero’s demonstrations of courage and knowledge of martial arts. There is no doubt that shooting Symmetry in a real prison in Białołęka helped to recreate an accurate image of such place.

The film’s creative use of cinematography is invaluable in achieving this effect. By effectively using lights and shadows, as well as pale shades of green and gray, the director of photography (Arkadiusz Tomiak) helps to emphasize the depressing and claustrophobic atmosphere of the prison. The same can be said about the dark and disturbing music composed by Michał Lorenc. In other words, Niewolski manages to overcome the weaknesses of his own script thanks to his visual sensibility, his talented production crew, and the overall good performances of the cast.

All photos courtesy of SPI International Polska

Jadwiga Mostowska (University of Łódź)


Symmetry (Symetria), Poland, 2003
Color, 99 min
Director and Scriptwriter: Konrad Niewolski
Cinematography: Arkadiusz Tomiak
Set Design: Konrad Niewolski
Music: Michał Lorenz
Sound: Maria Chilarecka, Bartosz Putkiewcz
Cast: Arkadiusz Detmer, Janusz Bukowski, Andrzej Chyra, Mariusz Jakus, Marcin Jędrzejewski, Borys Szyc
Producer: Krzysztof Dobosz
Co-producers: Konrad Niewolski, Piotr Reisch, Radoslaw Styś
Production Company: EM Jolanta Dobosz/SPI International Polska

Konrad Niewolski: Symmetry (Symetria), 2003

reviewed by Jadwiga Mostowska © 2005

Updated: 16 Dec 05