Necrobusiness

A docu about how funeral directors in Lodz, Poland, may have conspired with ambulance drivers to cull more corpses sounds like miserable viewing. But Swedish co-helmers Fredrik von Krusenstjerna and Richard Solarz's "Necrobusiness" reps a surprisingly entertaining, very watchable docu.

With:
With: Monika Sieradzka, Witold Skrzydlewski, Jacek Tomalski. (English, Polish dialogue)

A docu about how funeral directors in Lodz, Poland, may have conspired with ambulance drivers to cull more corpses sounds like miserable viewing. But Swedish co-helmers Fredrik von Krusenstjerna and Richard Solarz’s “Necrobusiness” reps a surprisingly entertaining, very watchable docu. Told with black humor and skill, and featuring subjects who could serve as models for a Polish version of “The Sopranos,” the film explores a true-crime story that made local headlines a few years ago. Airplay on posh TV stations looks a dead certainty, with some chance of a fest career before that.

Polish investigative reporter Monika Sieradzka acts as a guide to this shady netherworld. Pic starts out with her following the trial of Jacek Tomalski, a schlubby-looking mortuary worker who was accused of hiring a hitman to off local bigwig Witold Skrzydlewski. A ringer for James Gandolfini, but with more hair, the latter owned the biggest chain of funeral parlors in Lodz.

Eventually, evidence mounts that Skrzydlewski, Tomalski and various paramedics were previously in cahoots to skim money off state subsidies for funerals. They perhaps even went so far as to kill off people in ambulances to create more business.

Although Sieradzka never quite elicits a full confession from Skrzydlewski, the pic’s most flamboyant figure, she and the filmmakers do get him relaxed enough in front of the cameras to capture his true sleazebag nature. Among the best scenes are those in which he tells a client how to fiddle with the funeral expenses to get the client’s wife a new pair of shoes, or when he joshes with his employees about sending people to gas ovens (a bit close to the bone in Poland). Secondary characters, such as a paramedic who thinks he’s a superspy and an evil, corpulent doctor, add further color.

Jaunty brass-band score by Julius Hjort goes far in setting the slightly irreverent tone and helps defuse some of the story’s grimness. Meanwhile, use of cranes, good-quality film stock and fancy lighting give “Necrobusiness” a classy, upmarket look that sets it apart from so many recent digital docus. It’s only a shame that the final reel ends on a flat, underwhelming note.

Necrobusiness

Sweden

Production: An FvK Film presentation, in association with Fine & Mellow, with participation of BBC, Arte, SVT, Swedish Film Institute, Flanders Audiovisual Fund, Danish Film Institute, DR, Nordisk Film & TV Fund, YLE, Media Program. (International sales: FvK Film, Stockholm.) Produced by Fredrik von Krusenstjerna. Executive producer, Ingemar Persson. Co-producer, Thomas Gammeltoft. Directed by Fredrik von Krusenstjerna, Richard Solarz. Written by Monika Sieradzka, von Krusenstjerna.

Crew: Camera (color), Richard Solarz, Artur Fratczak, Sebastian Blenkow, Jan Roed; editors, von Krusenstjerna, Solarz, Anders Refn; music, Julius Hjort; sound (Dolby), Andrzej Zabicki, Tadeusz Laszczewski, Zofia Kucharska-Kowalik, Jedrek Kowalik, Boguslawa Klopotowski, Jozef Sikora, Wieslaw Nowak; sound designer, Michal Kosterkiewicz; animation, Stefan Vermeulen. Reviewed on DVD, Hoveton, U.K., Dec. 7, 2008. (In Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.) Running time: 95 MIN.

With: With: Monika Sieradzka, Witold Skrzydlewski, Jacek Tomalski. (English, Polish dialogue)

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