Accomplished and involving, “Poznan ’56” follows the events of a failed strike by Polish workers as seen through the eyes of a pre-adolescent boy but remembered by his adult self. Beautiful B&W lensing is realized with skilled craftsmanship, evoking the period and recalling the best of the pre-color era in film and television. Except for a few heartstring-tugging moments near the end, perfs, especially from the two young boys at pic’s center, steer clear of emotional self-indulgence, making re-creation of events more believable. Pic, which took home an armload of prizes from the Polish national film fest, should find admirers among politically savvy upscale TV and arthouse auds.
Spare, cool opening intros main characters and sets mood with a direct and simple statement: “It was an extraordinary day. Nothing much has happened to me since.” The day in question is June 28, 1956, when a workers’ strike protesting low wages is mirrored by a class of schoolchildren refusing to sit down to their lessons. Director Filip Bajon masterfully intertwines personal stories and the worlds of children and adults.
Kids’ teacher is the apolitical g.f. of strike insider Zenek (Michal Zebrovski), who in the course of the day takes young narrator Darek (Arkadiusz Walkowiak) in his charge. Darek teams up with classmate Peter (Mateusz Hornung), and together they dodge parents, police, thugs, bullets and explosions in their journey through the quick-moving events. Boys’ families include Darek’s secret police dad and Stan (Tadeusz Szymkow), the heroic strike leader and father of Peter. The impotent intelligentsia is represented by a quintet of professors ensconced in a stalled train who can’t admit, even to themselves, the brutality they witness.
Early events are presented with documentary precision, the morning’s timeline fading away as the chaos of street warfare darts through the city and the losing strikers start fighting amongst themselves. Boys’ adventures carry story through numerous tumultuous events before winding up at the hospital and secret police headquarters, where the fates of the various characters are resolved that night.
Along the way there are eerily quiet moments: a visit to the near-empty trade fair, where Peter savors his first taste of a banana — an action with tragic consequences; an oblivious group of Young Pioneers (the Communist version of Scouts) singing “Frere Jacques” as they march through the rubble; prison keys tossed skyward to oblivion; and Darek’s own numbed wanderings through the fighting.
Production values are first-rate, with a finely detailed re-creation of the mid-’50s. Expressive camerawork and editing find numerous ways of reinforcing the remembered quality of the story: blurred scans, stop-action slow motion, mirror images juxtaposed against primary action, fogged fadings in and out. Cool , jazzy overtone to Michal Lorenc’s music deftly steers pic away from what could have become weepy material.