Eight o’ clock in the morning. On the main road some workers are setting the street watch, while Kuba is watching them from his window, waiting anxiously for someone to arrive. Finally the door bell rings: it’s Krystyna his girlfriend.
The man is very upset, they have a brief discussion about what is going to change in their lives; after they’ll attend the appointment she got later in the afternoon. She is an hurry, but she’ll be back at the meeting hour.
After a while, Kuba left alone, is craving for something, and his addiction is finally revealed: the man is an alcoholic.
Wandering in the streets, waiting for the late afternoon visit with a doctor that could help him, Kuba is determined to stop drinking. But while the time passes by, all the people he meets instead to help him, with their sarcastic comments, brings him even more down the spiral of the desire of one last little drink more.
He’ll get drunk. He’ll be beaten and robbed. And when back, too late for the appointment with the doctor, he’ll find Kristina once again waiting for him.
The following morning at eight o’clock some workers are setting the street watch, while Kuba waits anxiously for someone to arrive again, but this time the loop of his life in which he constantly keeps repeating the same mistakes every day, will be stopped only by a definite and terrible decision: to commit suicide hanging himself.
The debut long feature of Polish director Wojciech Jerzy Has, Petla, is an astounding piece of filmmaking, revealing the enormous talent of its director. With a firm and coherent approach, Has brings us in this world of misfits, derided by common people, and avoided even by their friends and relatives.
The film is one of the strongest act of denounce of the risks and the problems related to alcoholism (along with Billy Wilder’s The long week end and Blake Edwards’ The days of wine and roses), but it introduces us also to Has’ cinematic structures with his looping narrative devices and elliptic storytelling.
The ellipsis of the tale is declared starting with the title Petla, related to the hang noose, metaphorical for a situation out of control that will lead to any recovery, and physical when Kuba will use one to kill himself; but also to the narrative of the tale ending exactly where it started, when almost the same events would start to keep repeating.
Has’ characters are as trapped in a loop, as in a time warp, other recurring element of his work that will lead him later to direct one of his most celebrated films Sanatorium pod Klepsydra (The clepsydra).
The flowing of time in Has’ films seems to be different and its perception is always suggested to the viewer with frequent scenes of clocks running or people setting them.
This creates a detachment between the audience and the film, a barrier that suggests and reminds us we are watching at a movie. But instead to weaken the cinematic experience, this involvement grows bigger and bigger because: the fracture of the story telling in Petla is used to create a sense of suspense as well. Kuba is fighting with his biggest enemies: himself and time; and the tension mounting from scene to scene is produced by the constant announcement of a time table, counting the hours left before his visit to the doctor, an hopeless desire of freedom and salvation.
This objectivity of the audience is counter balanced by numerous shots of the events reflected in mirrors that create an alternative point of view. Staging a triangle of perceptions of the characters: acting in the film, reflected in the mirrors, caught by the viewers; Has seems to suggest that the images in the mirror are us watching at the movie; and constantly building and immediately breaking this point of view barriers, multiplying them, he re-establishes the participation of the viewer to the story in the very same moment he could start to abstract from it; in a looping the loop of images from the start to the end. The circularity of an existence from birth until death, summarized in a day life.
Even if realistic, the story has a kind of unusual estrangement because of this; an element that will grow in Has’ following films leading him to completely abandon realism for a more allegorical storytelling to represent life and human beings.
Wspolny pokoj (One room tenants)
Lucyen rents a place in an apartment. The flat is very busy, and the young man divides the room with many other people, occupying one of the many beds.
Trying to restore his health, Lucyen would like to start to write prose, while another guy living with him is writing poetry. A law student, two women and many others are also living in the same crowded room.
Lucyen can’t really write in the place, divided by his interest for some girls and the parties with the men, always going out for a drink.
His health will get worse and in the end he will die, surrounded by the ones who liked him and some others that really didn’t care about him.
This Kafkian tale of love and death, marks Has’ complete depart from realism in favour of the allegoric tale. It’s easy here to spot a metaphor for the problem of claustrophobia, but Wspolny pokoj is also an exposition of the constrictions and restrictions of the society in which Lucyen lives. With his hesitations and lightness of being Lucyen could be one of the very young men of contemporary day; living with the longing need for something, not really knowing what it could be, with no guidance and constantly suffocated by the urge to superficially experience and get more.
Has is telling us that passions and desires are truncated in the modern way of living, by the situations and even the opportunities that surrounds us. The capitalistic way of life is wrong, and leave us only with a beg for more that will devour our inner self until death. This death is a symbolic one; it’s the consumption of all the beauty and artistry of human soul, extinguished by power, greed and men’s own interests.
Lucyen will die surrounded by a lot of people, each one of the characters to represent some of the seven capital sins as a “summa” of all the evils affecting the middle class.
Our claustrophobic society, our constant search for time to be spent in a proper way, will lead us to madness. Once again the circle is complete, from life to death, Lucyen’s tale is the ellipsis of modern man. The crowded room is a parable for our current life, a pale imitation of what it should be, where there is no room for things that really count like unselfishness, love and mutual respect.
Stylish and accomplished, the film is full of beautiful, slow, camera movements that enter deeper in the inner self of the characters underlining their weakness and disrespect for the others. Technically, it’s an improvement over its already gifted predecessors, displaying a talent worth nurturing that will be fully disclosed in the later opus.
The DVDs examined here are the Polish editions, released by Telewizja Kino Polska. Both films have been re-mastered and look very good with few minor issues, like some big damages (nicely fixed) and the heavy use of DVNR, but nothing that could annoy the viewer too much.
Featuring both French and English subtitles, these editions are unfortunately very hard to find at the moment. But for the French friendly, the very same transfers have been used in Malavida editions.
Malavida actually released the whole Has’ work, including his shorts, in a series named L’integrale Wojciech Jerzy Has.
His daring narrative and symbolic images, his elliptic stories and worlds have been primary source of inspiration for such different directors as Tarkowski and Scorsese, making him one of the most influential film directors of modern times.
Film mass is ended you may go in peace