Krysztof Krauze: The Debt (Dług), 1999

reviewed by Michael Stevenson © 2005

A Bitter Failure on the Road to Polish Capitalism: Krzysztof Krauze’s The Debt (Dług)

The story of The Debt is based on a famous Polish criminal case: on 8 March 1994 two young and aspiring entrepreneurs, Sławomir Sikora and Artur Bryliński, killed two men who were blackmailing them. In order to avoid detection, they beheaded them and threw the bodies into the Vistula (more information on the web site devoted to telling their story). Krauze develops these events, making them emblematic of the desire post-1989 to adopt western modes of capitalism and the struggles that ensue in the “wild east” as a consequence. In The Debt, two young Polish entrepreneurs, Adam (Robert Gonera) and Stefan (Jacek Borcuch), wish to import scooters from Italy. After a bank refuses them a loan for their start-up business, Gerard (Andrzej Chyra), an old friend of Stefan’s, agrees to help them. When Adam and Stefan turn down his offer, he presents them with a bill for his services. Although they have not agreed to this contract, Gerard enforces it and their lives are quickly destroyed as Gerard operates outside of the law through his enforcers. Finally the pair rises against him and kills him. Racked with guilt, Adam gives himself up to the police and is sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Stated in this way, the story sounds as if it is entirely about general and present-day problems within the nascent neo-capitalist economics of post-communist Poland: will a young business enterprise be able to operate effectively without the protection of an adequate legal system or will it be destroyed as it is caught up in the pressures of brutal mafia economics? Yet the film reverses the narrative organisation implied by the preceding synopsis. It begins with the bodies of Gerard and his minder being fished out of the Vistula. This narrative reversal would seem to indicate that the film has a clear generic task: a police investigation to find the murderers. But the film refuses to play by genre conventions and instead cuts to a flashback—the beginning of the winter season that precipitated this event. It then follows the twists and turns of Stefan and Adam’s desperate entanglement and entrapment. Theses opening scenes are also vital for Krauze’s representation of a society unable to depend on the enforcement of law. The police at the crime scene are instantly certain that the dead bodies are a result of an internal struggle within the Russian mafia and that they should close the case and get back to business as usual. This attitude is compounded by forensic carelessness at the scene—conclusions are jumped to without regard to evidence and a vital clue is trampled underfoot. The film leaves the police investigators never to return to them again. Thus, the law is presented as an absence, leaving Adam and Stefan on their own.

The opening sequence introduces characteristic elements of the film’s organisation. An insistent Michał Urbaniak soundtrack, nervous and jumpy, accompanies the arrival of the police in a low angle shot of their car. The film persistently and powerfully relies on low angle shots, with occasional contrasting high angle shots. Thus, viewers are often looking up from close to the ground or staring up at characters in rooms where they seem to swim against an overwhelming tide of difficulties.

The cut to the flashback introduces other key elements of the film’s mise-en-scène, a complex mixture of the old and the new, of Polish tradition and a modernising country. This is accomplished for the most part by maintaining a parallelism between the private lives of the male characters and the conditions of a new entrepreneurial economics. Very quickly, however, the parallelism breaks down and the two lines interpenetrate with disastrous results, particularly for families—traditionally the space Poles could rely on in times of crisis. Significantly, the threat to family is started by a representation of the possibilities for a new Polish domesticity. Adam is supervising the building of a house on a new estate and wants everything to be just right. A low angle shot of the granite boulders being used to make a wall leads to Adam’s complaint that they are not all perfect and that he won’t pay the builders unless they are. When Basia, his girlfriend, arrives she reveals that she is pregnant and has given up her studies. She also wants to devote herself to a bourgeois dream of a new family, far away from the memories of the sacrifices needed in the past.

Stefan, too, hopes for a family with Jola (“when will we have a baby,” she asks), even Gerard has a family (briefly, but significantly, shown in the film). As much as The Debt is a crime film, it also is a film of family. Family is everything to the characters, but it is helpless. In a familiar sense, Adam and Stefan—as split and doubled elements—represent the traditional Polish hero who goes out into the world to challenge and change things, but is bound to fail. Gradually, the monstrous Gerard even inserts himself into the family in order to use it as a weapon against the two men.


The slogan used to sell the film on its very successful DVD release is important in this context: “Nobody wants to help you” (“Nikt nie chce ci pomóc”). The old ways that Poles have stood together against oppression are no longer relevant; the lessons learnt for generations of about the mechanisms of oppression are now useless. Gerard exercises a new kind of power with impunity. The film describes the dangers of separating the personal and the political in the new context that emerged after the collapse of communism, with its hopes of building a Polish life on the Western model. The hope of building a Polish life on the Western model emerged after the collapse of communism. Yet, the film proposes that this is an illusion: the film implies that without a secure civil society, the personal is threatened in Poland.

Two key moments of family representation demonstrate the problems of constructing a new, secure, trouble-free life based on a civil society: Basia’s collapse into illness leading to her miscarriage and a scene at a family dinner. In the first, a wall on-screen divides Adam and Basia. On the left side of the screen, Adam moves about comfortably, discussing the possibility of having honey for breakfast, which has been brought back from a holiday trip to Greece. He is completely confident; there is no sense of threat to his cocooned existence, even though the first step to ruin has already been taken when the bank refused him a business loan. On the right side of the screen, Basia slowly collapses in agony. Thus, the gap between Basia’s bodily agony and Adam’s confidence in the new times is marked in the mise-en-scène. Basia becomes a symbolic premonitory sacrifice to Adam and Stefan’s naïve economics.

The dinner scene is also organised with sharp attention to patterns of symmetry and asymmetry. The father sits at the center of this tableau of a modern Polish dinner. His daughter and Adam are to either side of him, and to the front of the frame are Adam’s mother and nephew, in whom Adam will shortly inculcate his faith in a new era by demonstrating on a computer the pleasures of his future home. The Father is also in the business of teaching, but of the traditional sort. He asks the nephew if he knows the epic poem Pan Tadeusz, the poem at the very heart of Polish-ness. The nephew doesn’t and the father begins to intone it movingly. The mother mouths the poem to the nephew as if trying to teach it to him, but at the same time her attitude slightly mocks the whole event, as if she is suggesting that the father is too set in his ways for a modern Poland.

The erosion of the security provided by the family is compounded across the narrative in terms that are familiar to a Polish audience. The most violent instance of this erosion occurs in the attempt to recover a debt owed to Stefan in order to pay off his current debt to Gerard. Gerard forces Adam and Stefan to accompany him to the house of the debtor and to invade it. To force payment, Gerard’s enforcer rips a baby from its mother’s arms and dangles it out of a window. The Debt brings violence into the heart of family in order to provide an intense awareness of the frailty of the personal that results from a lack of faith in the law. There is an ever-present sense in the film of criminality, which continues to poison the everyday life of the Nation and contributes to an anarchic helplessness, even when Adam and Stefan eventually fight back against their oppressor.

But even in this final confrontation there is no black and white. From the very beginning, Krauze embeds much ambiguity in the relationship between Adam and Stefan, on the one hand, and Gerard, on the other. Gerard enters the film immediately after the partners have been refused their bank loan despite their exemplary market research and business plan. Significantly, at this moment in the narrative, Stefan is trying to retrieve a debt of his own from a shopkeeper (who will later be tortured by Gerard) and is the first distinctly frightening figure in the film, which is emphasized when the shopkeeper asks him to leave: “You scare the customers.” In this scene, Krauze underlines the physical, moral, and functional similarity between Stefan and Gerard. They meet outside the shop, are old friends, and are both collecting debts.


Driven beyond endurance, Stefan and Adam finally turn against their tormentor and the oppressive debt. Gerard’s power seems overwhelming. Krauze’s point is that this new kind of threat—an economic threat—may be even more difficult to move against. The pair strikes back, but in their brutal murder of Gerard and his bodyguard, they surpasses even Gerard in their brutality. And it is Adam, the calm leader with his hopes for a family, who leads this frantic and bloody act. All hopes of normality disappear. The film returns to the present and the narrative pace slows drastically as the threads tangle in a web of uncertainty and guilt.

The film’s closure is also marked by a return to a darkened domestic mise-en-scène. The focus is now almost wholly on Adam who, guilt stricken, becomes a child again as his Mother uncomprehendingly tries to comfort him. Stefan advises taking the easy way out by going abroad and seems relatively untroubled. Basia doesn’t want to listen to Adam’s halting confessions and seems to reject him. Adam buys an airline ticket in an office where the scooters he wanted to import are proudly displayed.

Basia returns and begs Adam to flee the country with her. He seems to acquiesce. Adam is alone on a grey winter’s day amidst crowds of ordinary Poles going about their business in the center of Kraków.

On one level, Krauze has to adhere to the rules of verisimilitude dictated by his decision to represent a famous criminal case. This requires that Adam surrender to the police. At the same time, however, in this particularly grey and bleak resolution, Krauze reaches out to a narrative convention of closure that is familiar in Polish culture: the plight and responsibility of the Polish exile, the decision of whether to go or stay. Yet unlike the traditional image of the exile, Adam has committed a crime that—despite the provocations of his tormentor—has to be expiated. He cannot run, even though Basia and the audience want him to. One of the central contradictions in Polish narratives about the balance of forces relating to male responsibility to the nation or to one’s self is played here, but with an entirely new sense of what is needed in a new context. By convention, the hero either has to die or to leave. But to hand himself in quietly? This can only be understood in relation to an overriding Polish context, one that stems from a sense of guilt and of an obligation to something more than one’s self—not only to family but also to nation. Krauze avoids the conventional ways of representing the end of his hero. Adam’s decision is simultaneously altruistic and depressing: he phones the police and drifts away to begin his 25-year imprisonment. His is an act of expiation, affirming the need to save his integrity by offering himself to the law that has so badly failed him. In a small way this will help to make order out of anarchy.

The film describes a deep-seated cynicism that has existed in the Polish context since 1989. This cynicism is double-edged. Residually, it comes from the long absence of confidence in a just and democratic body politic, an absence that is the product of ancient oppressions, bred into the social and personal configurations of Polish life. But this cynicism is also a result of the most brazen aspects of the market capitalism adopted and practised since 1989. These two clashing and then interpenetrating tendencies create a hollow space, a vacuum, in which only a violent individualism seems possible. The young men are alone. Polish film has never lacked bleak narrative endings. Just consider the endings of the Andrzej Wajda’s trilogy: the apparent impossibility of resistance in A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954), which is compounded further in Kanal (1957) as a soldier emerges from the sewer only to find his companions lying dead in heaps around him, and in Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i diament, 1958) where a resistance fighter dies on a rubbish heap.

Like The Debt, these films describe moments of decision and courage even in the realisation of inevitable failure in the face of overwhelming pressures. The Debt, however, is darker. It contains something of the hard descriptive power of entrapment and suffering found in the ending of Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), a film that also describes young people in a context with little hope of escaping their entrapment unless a larger movement for political change develops. Yet The Debt can hardly be thought of as cynical itself. It was seen and appreciated by young audiences who celebrated its representation of a familiar dilemma without recourse either to a comforting return to long-sustaining tradition or to a wholesale embracing of a rampant individualism. Adam’s hesitant return, in its very confusion, speaks of a continuing need to find a new—and specifically Polish—way towards the possibility of a just normality.

Michael Stevenson (University of Reading, UK)

Stills by Jeremi Prokopowicz, courtesy of Studio Filmowe “Zebra”.

The Debt (Dług), Poland, 1999
Color, 97 min.
Director: Krzysztof Krauze
Screenplay: Krzysztof Krauze, Jerzy Morawski
Cinematography: Bartosz Prokopowicz
Art Direction: Magdalena Dipont
Music: Michał Urbaniak
Production: Studio Filmowe Zebra, Canal+ Polska, ITI Cinema.


Krysztof Krauze: The Debt (Dług), 1999

reviewed by Michael Stevenson © 2005

Updated: 16 Dec 05