Similar to my last entry on Brother [Brat], the 1999 Polish film Dług examines characters in an Eastern European setting in the early 1990s. Both pieces of modern cinema are crime thrillers from Eastern Europe, and have characters who are forced to deal in criminal behavior. The main characters turn out morally questionable throughout both films, such as how I labelled Danila Bagrov as an anti-hero in my previous blog entry. These two films both bring attention to the gritty and harsh realities of the 1990s in Eastern Europe, in a culture affected by their countries’ turn to a capitalist system. Krauze’s characters, Adam and Stefan, are similar to Balabnov’s Danila Bagrov, as each of them are in a situation where they are forced to commit crimes to secure or retain a livelihood. What is so important about Adam and Stefan’s characters is that they were legitimate businessmen who were taken advantage of by an Russian extortionist, while Bagrov claims himself as an ex-army clerk who came into crime through family ties. At their core, these films are pathways to the psyche of some Eastern European citizens in the early 1990s.
The Debt [Dług] explores a real life “between a rock and a hard place” situation involving three true to life characters, Adam Borecki (Robert Gonera), Stefan Kowalczyk (Jacek Borcuch), and Tadeusz Frei (Cezary Kosinski). What makes the film an unforgettable experience is that each of these characters are based on real people who were driven to commit murder and end up spending time in prison as a result. Each of the characters are put in psychological turmoil throughout the film. For example, Adam Borecki goes into a remorseful and melancholic state towards the end after the most climactic moment. Our main character’s trouble begins as they are ensnared by Gerard Nowak (Andrzej Chyra) and his underhanded criminal racket, in which he builds upon a debt and forcefully collects upon unsuspecting victims. The debt begins after Stefan, with his business partner Adam Borecki, pitches a business proposition to Nowak. They want to ship scooters from Italy to Poland, and are caught with more than they bargained for as Nowak gradually takes everything from the two characters. Nowak extorts them through intimidation. His favorite tactics are paying visits to their loved ones, and threatening them with help from a hired goon. Moreover, our other character, Tadeusz Frei is brought into the fold and is extorted alongside Adam and Stefan, unwittingly agreeing to sell Nowak’s stolen car.
Cinematically, there is a sense of foreboding in scenes with hand-held camera movement and oblique angles. There are many memorable moments in the cinematography, such as oblique angles on a rock climbing wall, and an off kilter longshot in the scene where Gerard Nowak hits Adam for refusing to pay, to name a few. As Nowak hits Adam, an interesting analysis can be developed from the mise en scène. In the background, an owner waves an object in front of his dog as if taunting it. The way the dog is taunted could mirror how Gerard Nowak treats our characters throughout the scene and the film. Other moments in the mise en scène can be described as gritty, cold, and desolate. These cinematic techniques leave the viewer with a feeling of uncertainty to what is going to happen next. Additionally, the film comes with a sense of ambiguity attached that begins with an opening sequence of police uncovering bodies from a river. The audience is left to wonder who has been murdered, which the filmmakers then choose to slyly disclose by taking us back to three months earlier. However, before we are taken back in time, the filmmakers leave us with a close-up of a silver elephant we later see as a necklace Adam gives to his girlfriend, Basia (Joanna Szurmiej). This silver elephant is significant in that it alludes to the fact that Adam could be the one who was killed. Other than the reasons already mentioned, the opening is significant in that it sets an unnerving tone when we are shown a decapitated corpse unwrapped from a garbage bag with an unknown identity.
Interestingly, as we see the slow psychological torment in our characters who are pushed to their limit, we can’t help but notice a comedic effect. Ironically, many moments of tension are humorous, such as in petty arguments between the main characters. As our three main characters get deeper into torment, they cannot help but play the blame game or jump into arguments. A great example of this is when Tadeusz Frei pretends to break his leg to avoid having to deal with Nowak. Adam Borencki then calls him out on his lying, and humor ensues. I very much enjoyed the balance of humor and tension, which undoubtedly made the film more memorable and made the performances stand out. I will never forget the arguments these characters had near the bench in a park, and their performances, as well as Gerard Nowak who is such a memorable and unquestionably terrifying antagonist. Moreover, I find the fact that their real life counterparts were pardoned due to the release of this film to be historically important.
All in all, I am left with a few significant questions after watching Dług—
What is the correct response when pushed to one’s limit? Can one be judged on immoral actions if they had no choice? Did Adam Borecki make the right choice in turning himself in?
3.60 out of 5
— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.
Christian is a Junior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.” Additionally, his poem “The Japanese Photography is Covered in Dust” is forthcoming from City Brink Magazine. In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavettes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mitzoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.