Andrzej Wajda: Revenge (Zemsta), 2002

reviewed by Janina Falkowska© 2005

Wajda’s Revenge, which premiered on 30 September 2002, is an adaptation of Alexander Fredro’s Revenge (1834), a well-known Polish comedy. This play belongs to the canon of literary works taught in most Polish high schools and is often staged in major Polish theaters. It tells the story of two families living in the same castle, divided only by a collapsing wall; the families, or at least their older representatives, quarrel constantly and participate in all kinds of petty maneuvers both sad and amusing. However, it is neither the conflict nor the shocking behavior on either side of the wall that is deplorable, but rather what the inhabitants say and how they say it. The play is, in fact, a demonstration of great wit by Alexander Fredro, who—using the narrative as a pretext—pokes fun at Polish pastimes and characteristics.

After the phenomenal success of Pan Tadeusz (1999), which has been surpassed in popularity only by Jerzy Hoffman’s With Fire and Sword (Ogniem i mieczem, 1999) in post-1989 Poland, Wajda decided to make Revenge not only, as some more skeptical reviewers have suggested, to have a another financial and popular blockbuster (Kobus 119), but also to continue the persuasive and educational trend in his filmmaking. During press conferences both before and after the film’s release, Wajda claimed that he had wanted to make the satire in the film even sharper than in the play and to bring the old play alive thanks to the visual abilities of the film medium.

Wajda’s film adaptation of Revenge represents a specific trend of the past decade in Poland called “heritage cinema.” As Ewa Mazierska proposes in her seminal essay “In the Land of Noble Knights and Mute Princesses: Polish heritage cinema,” heritage films, generally based on well-known literary texts, usually refer to the nation’s past, presenting Polish nobility in an idealised way. In addition to Pan Tadeusz and Revenge, both by Wajda, Hoffman’s With Fire and Sword, Pawel Komorowski’s Sisyphean Labours (Syzyfowe Prace, 2000), Filip Bajon’s Early Spring (Przedwiosnie, 2001), and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Quo Vadis (2001) all belong to this genre (Mazierska 167). Each of these films provides an alternative, glowing portrayal of Poles and their glorious past, and constitutes a sort of response to the difficult times of post-communist Poland.

In 1990s Poland, disorder and uncertainty in politics created economic and political chaos. Several quickly and unexpectedly changed governments, each introducing confusing fiscal policies, proved particularly challenging to the middle-aged and the elderly. These heritage films, then, referring to and glorifying the past in Poland, promised a relief from everyday reality. As Wajda states in the context of the production of Pan Tadeusz, he wanted to “retreat from present-day Poland, which he finds deeply disappointing and disturbing, and to re-create the experience of belonging to one community or nation; an experience which, in his opinion, was destroyed after the introduction of martial law in Poland” (Mazierska 168).

These films must also be seen in the context of nostalgia, “the longing for return to an idealized ‘home’ or nostos” (Scribner 64). The pre-eminent aspect of nostalgia in these films, though, seems to be death, whereby the past becomes an object lovingly portrayed—it is unchangeable and unchanging, more beautiful and ideal than the present simply because it is designed to contrast with it. Fred Davis argues persuasively that “the ability to feel nostalgia for events in our past has less to do with how recent or distant these events are than with the way they contrast—or, more accurately, the way we make them contrast—with the events, moods and dispositions of our present circumstances” (quoted in Mazierska 168).

Revenge, then, is a nostalgic heritage film in its presentation of characters, objects, mise-en-scène, and an unrealistically positive narrative. Admittedly, it is more bitter and sceptical, albeit humorously so, in its assessment of the Polish past than its lyrical predecessor Pan Tadeusz. Still, Revenge is deeply nostalgic in its loving portrayal of the details from the epoch, the careful depiction of its bad-tempered characters, and in its exact rendering of the elaborate verse of the original play. As an example of “heritage cinema,” Revenge, in particular, is also profoundly didactic: Wajda openly addresses Poles via the character of Cześnik, looking straight into the eye of the camera. In his diatribe about the lack of concord between neighbours, Cześnik scolds not only the inhabitants of the castle but also the spectators of the film. In this, Revenge upholds the dominant Polish conservative ideology that, according to Mazierska, uses heritage cinema to “assert Polish identity, which is in a state of crisis” (171).

Wajda’s choices for the film are effective. For instance, he selected the old, half-ruined castle of Ogrodzieniec as the location for his film; its jagged walls serve as an ideal backdrop to the conflicts that, although realistic and universal, seem ridiculous and irrelevant in the context of a contemporary world that must unite in order to achieve world peace. The modest set design—with only minimal adornment of the naked walls, costumes, and noble insignia, such as coats of arms and family sables—functions as a mere signifier of the nobility and of the place and time of the film. The dialogue is delivered brilliantly by the exceptional cast carefully gathered by Wajda for the film, making the complex script dazzle with humor and wit; the words written almost two centuries ago by Alexander Fredro nonetheless stand out as a warning to present generations of Poles. Even the exquisite players of secondary roles, such as Daniel Olbrychski (Dyndalski), provide a veritable firecracker of verbal attacks and counterattacks filled with political and sexual innuendo.

Cześnik and his cousin Klara reside on one side of the wall, while Milczek (referred to as “Notary”) and his son, Wacław, live on the other. The patriarchs of the two families do not talk to one other, having been feuding for many years. Other characters residing in the castle are the widow Podstolina and the swashbuckling braggart Papkin (an impoverished cavalry captain and an old acquaintance of Cześnik). The film starts with Papkin returning to the castle after an extended foray on the road. At the same time, Klara, Podstolina, and Cześnik return from a carriage ride. From subsequent scenes in the film, we learn that Klara and Wacław are in love with one another and try to spend time together―generally through breaks in the wall―at every opportunity. On one occasion when they meet at the crumbling wall, however, Wacław’s father, Notary, notices them; he decides to repair the wall and, thus, fills in all the holes through which the lovers can meet.

At the same time, Cześnik wants to get rid of Notary altogether and uses Papkin for the negotiations. He also wants to draw upon the eloquent Papkin as his intermediary in another matter, for Cześnik wants to marry the aging and wealthy Podstolina, but does not know how to woo her. Papkin soon begins his “services” and addresses Podstolina with elaborate verbal overtures. Podstolina, however, thinks that Papkin is flirting on his own behalf, so she responds with visible pleasure to the rhetoric of the younger man. In the meantime, as Notary tries to repair the wall, Cześnik’s people, Smigalski and Dyndalski, chase the workers away. In the scuffle, Wacław lets himself be captured by Papkin, and Notary writes a summons in the name of the supposedly injured workers. The criticism of barratry is apparent here, underlined by Andrzej Seweryn’s (Notary’s) self-congratulatory reading of his long and elaborate letter in painstakingly and amusingly pronounced statements.

In further developments, Papkin presents Wacław to Cześnik as Notary’s Commissary (not as his son) and asks for his safekeeping. Wacław tries to convince Cześnik that, instead of a fight, a mutual accord is more important. Cześnik, played brilliantly by Janusz Gajos as a tough, demanding individual without much education or culture, stubbornly sticks to his decision, no matter how petty, ridiculous, or narrow-minded. Cześnik is a familiar character to many Poles; he might be the cantankerous neighbor, the drunken and quarrelsome uncle at family gatherings, or the irresponsible politician—many of whom have appeared in the Polish Seym in post-communist Poland. Cześnik is highly self-centered; while funny and pitiable as a character, he is also worthy of contempt. In eliciting this portrayal of Cześnik, Wajda is highly critical not only of the nobility that ultimately led Poland to its current state of political and social chaos, but also of his own contemporaries who have quarreled in the government for many years in a similarly churlish way.

Wacław is held as a prisoner of war at Cześnik’s home, but he is also assigned to work as Podstolina’s scribe. When he is introduced to her, Wacław realizes that Podstolina is, in fact, “Hanna,” his former, long-forgotten lover (Fig 1). Podstolina has not forgotten him, however, and tries to seduce Wacław once again. He escapes the scene and flees back to his father, Notary. Wacław explains that he loves Klara and wants to marry her despite their families’ longstanding quarrels. His greedy father has other plans for him, unfortunately, and wants him to marry the wealthy Podstolina, even against Wacław’s will.

During all of these events, Papkin is trying to seduce Klara (for himself) and bombards her with ardent speeches. He goes to Notary at the request of Cześnik, who wants to challenge Notary to a duel for the castle, on the same day that Cześnik has planned to marry Podstolina. In the meantime, Podstolina comes to Notary with a marriage contract she has concocted to entrap Wacław into marrying her (in exchange for a significant amount of money that she would pay to the greedy Notary). Papkin is shocked by this state of affairs and criticizes Podstolina for her decision to marry the young man; finally, Papkin is thrown out of Notary’s home and, in turn, tells Cześnik everything he has learned from Podstolina.

His pride offended, Cześnik comes up with a plan of his own: to abduct Wacław and to force him to marry Klara, unaware of the fact that the two young people have been in love, secretly, for some time. The abduction takes place, and Wacław learns from Cześnik that it is Klara he will finally marry, not Podstolina. Surprised and grateful at such a turn of events, he thanks Cześnik, his abductor, and agrees to marry Klara in the chapel immediately. The film ends with a scene of reconciliation between the opponents, Cześnik and Notary, preceded by several amusing moments of humor and a few surprising revelations.

First, Notary arrives wearing his hussar’s coat-of-arms for the duel with Cześnik. Suddenly, he hears wedding music, and Wacław and Klara come to him to ask for his paternal blessing. Podstolina also appears, and, on seeing what has happened, tells everyone that she is in fact poor and that her money actually belongs to Klara. Happy at hearing such a development and eager to have a wealthy bride for his son, the greedy Notary quickly changes his attitude and blesses the young couple (Fig. 2). Notary reluctantly agrees to a peace between the two families, and the old war ends. Finally, Papkin bids farewell to everyone and the film ends with a theatrical drawing of the curtain.

The film is a skillful adaptation of a well-known play that appeals not only to those older spectators familiar with the playwright Fredro, but to younger audiences as well. The text of the play is presented flawlessly by the most prominent Polish actors of the time, who, while portraying these figures from the past, are able to imbue them with a feeling of the present. On the one hand, the film rekindles a love for Fredro and his antics; it is amusing and light and provides good entertainment. On the other hand, Wajda’s Revenge does not add much to the interpretation of the play or to its cantankerous characters; still, the film moves smoothly from one scene to the next one, not missing a beat. In press conferences, Wajda often stated that he wanted Revenge to be a well-designed film adaptation of a great Polish literary classic in a similar vein to that of the great film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays (Kobus 118).

Predictably, the film pleased many spectators and angered others in Poland. Although some reviewers were surprised that Wajda decided to film such a celebrated traditional play—dismissing it with statements like “It is a pity he wastes his talent on such old stuff” (Wojciechowski 58; Sobieszek 92)—most of them admired him for trying to reveal the most interesting aspects of the play. Even those who were critical of the source material admitted that “the play has a wealth of meanings, several levels of thinking and finesse of description” (Wojciechowski 58).

Although the film is set in the 18th century, it nonetheless endorses a universal message, espousing honesty and open-mindedness. It is a film that, as Justyna Kobus states, “makes fun of our national characteristics: barratry, buffoonery, lack of tolerance, and narrow-mindedness” (118). She also avers, however, that the film is too mild and should promote a stronger political message—Wajda could have used the play to communicate a vociferous attack on those in power. Thus, some spectators seemed disappointed with Wajda’s amusing treatment of the play and accused him of an apolitical approach. As with Pan Tadeusz, the main criticism of the film is that, while it is made in a “correct” manner and skillfully adapted from a famous play, it lacks the ardency and passion of his earlier films.

Other criticisms concern the casting of the protagonists, well-known figures to most Polish spectators. The portrayal of Cześnik was universally praised for its accuracy (and its links with iconic contemporary figures) and for the fact that Wajda “imbued Cześnik with the contemporary spirit” (Sobieszek 92). Sobieszek also claims that Cześnik resembles contemporary politicians eager to raise arguments at any occasion (92). By comparison, Papkin, played by famous director Roman Polanski, did not appeal to some viewers. Piotr Kajewski complained that Papkin, who in the play was not only a proxy but also a colorful character in his own right (“half-clown, half-nobleman, scrounger, old stager”) is, instead, a low-key, “mottled” old soldier in Wajda’s film, an unconvincing and timorous negotiator (89). Nevertheless, the largely colorful ensemble of characters largely amused spectators. Poles recognized themselves in Cześnik and Notary, as well as in their constant musings about old conflicts. They admired the beautiful and spirited women, and laughed at clumsy Papkin. The benign comedy is presented by Wajda with a smile of nostalgia and an awareness of the passage of time.

Revenge is a meaningful part of Wajda’s oeuvre for two reasons in particular. First, Wajda is ironic and distanced in his version of the famous play, and, second, he is quite brave and open-minded in his portrayal of the gender dynamics when compared to his approach in his earlier films. The women in Revenge are more direct in expressing their sexual desires, more independent and straightforward, and have more audacity than Wajda’s female heroines of his earlier films. Only Agnieszka in Man of Marble (1976) and Telimena in Pan Tadeusz reveal similar characteristics, and they do so for different reasons: Agnieszka’s independence and tenacity are justified by her cause—that is, she is brave and straightforward because she works to unveil the truth about the political system in Poland; Telimena, by contrast, is portrayed as a femme fatale, a cunning and selfish woman who uses her position for her own advantage (Mazierska 176–77). Women in Revenge, Podstolina especially, behave in a similar manner to the other two, but are not vilified by the director; instead, they are portrayed by Wajda with amusement and ironic distance.

The irony and the psychological/emotional detachment from reality in the film are visible specifically in two important characters in the play, Wacław and Papkin. Wacław, the young suitor, is slightly surprised when confronted by the film’s two strong and determined women, the contemporary-looking Klara and a strong-minded Podstolina, yet his reaction is anything but “natural”; he responds in an undeniably detached way, seemingly quite outside the bounds of realism. He maneuvers carefully between the two women, somewhat startled by Klara’s determination and passion, openly suspicious of Podstolina’s mature desire. Wacław’s subdued masculinity is further reiterated in the character of Papkin, a parody of a male adventurer, a problematic soldier with a questionable past, a self-centered negotiator, and a ridiculous suitor who is both laughed at and manipulated by the clever Klara and the scheming Podstolina.

Podstolina and Klara, played superbly by Agata Buzek and Katarzyna Figura respectively, are two of the greatest strengths of the film (Fig 3). They are independent, cynical, provocative, and manipulative if need be; both know what they want and how to get it. Their French costumes, exquisite (if not excessive) makeup, and elaborate hairdos reinforce their exaggerated femininity, but also underlie, and thus demonstrate, its strength. This ironic and very contemporary interpretation of the two female characters—who can act as formidable opponents to men, and not merely be passive observers of unfolding events—seems to attest to a new, open-minded perception of women. Just as these fantastically clad and coiffured women seem somehow unreal, the whole story seems to be an unusual fairy tale. Wajda, at the same time playful yet curiously detached, creates this simulacrum of theater and film, real and unreal, in a nostalgic account of past events.

All photos courtesy of Piotr Bujnowicz/FabrykaObrazu.com

Janina Falkowska (University of Western Ontario)


Revenge (Zemsta), Poland, 2002
Color, 100 min.
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Screenplay: Andrzej Wajda based on Alexander Fredro’s 1834 play of the same title.
Cinematography: Pawel Edelman.
Production design: Tadeusz Kosarewicz, Magdalena Dipont.
Music: Wojciech Kilar.
Cast: Roman Polański, Janusz Gajos, Andrzej Seweryn, Katarzyna Figura, Daniel Olbrychski, Agata Buzek, Rafał Królikowski
Producers: Michał Kwieciński, Janusz Morgenstern, Włodzimierz Otulak.
Production: Arka Film, Vision Film Production, Telewizja Polska.

Works Cited
Kajewski, Piotr. “Urojenia żartem i serio.” Odra 12 (2002): 88–89.
Kobus, Justyna. “Zemsta Wajdy. Zemsta Andrzeja Wajdy to nieprzeciętnie kosztowny przeciętny teatr telewizji.” Wprost 40.6 (October 2002): 118–19.
Mazierska, Ewa. “In the Land of Noble Knights and Mute Princesses: Polish heritage cinema.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 21.2 (2001): 167–82.
Scribner, Charity. Requiem for communism. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
Sobieszek, Bogdan. “Zemsta.” Film 11 (November 2002): 92.
Wojciechowski, Piotr. “Co widać w lustrze hrabiego Fredry?” Przekrój 40 (2002): 58.

Andrzej Wajda: Revenge (Zemsta), 2002

reviewed by Janina Falkowska© 2005

Updated: 16 Dec 05