A nuanced and compelling historical drama/coming-of-ager, “Summer Solstice” provides a searing portrait of the summer of 1943 in provincial Poland under German occupation. The story unfolds through the eyes of two 17-year-old boys, the Polish railway worker Romek (Filip Piotrowicz) and the German military policeman Guido (Jonas Nay), who both experience a shocking loss of innocence. Bowing at the Montreal World Film Festival (where it nabbed the screenplay award) before its upcoming stops at Poland’s Gdynia and Germany’s Hof fests, this impressive sophomore effort from writer-director Michal Rogalski should be a hot title for sales agent Wide Management.
Simple country boy Romek tries to help his mother (Agnieszka Krukowna) eke out a living during this time of uncertainty and anxiety. His father, who was an engine driver for the railway, has been missing for several years. Romek works as assistant to his father’s former colleague, Leon (Bartlomiej Topa), who alternately torments and teaches the lad. Leon, an opportunist, who is keeping company with Romek’s mother, also has an eye out for the goods the deported Jews were forced to abandon along some of the track he drives.
Romek may be mostly silent and unsophisticated, but he has strong survival skills, displaying the patience to watch, wait and listen for the right moment. But unfortunately, he cannot find the right moment with pretty Franka (Urszula Bogucka), the daughter of a rich farmer.
It’s handsome Guido who tickles Franka’s fancy, even though they don’t speak the same language. He’s a sensitive city lad who is being punished for his love of jazz, bebop and swing — forms of music deemed degenerate by his country’s leader — and forced to serve in the military police where he is by far the youngest among rougher types. Guido, too, has an older mentor, Odi (Gerdy Zint), who adopts a rather laissez-faire attitude toward his duties, until their troupe comes under the command of a sadistic Oberleutnant (Steffen Scheumann) who brooks no disobedience.
In Romek’s village, a casual anti-Semitism holds sway. Early on, one of his co-workers says, “There’s no arguing about Hitler … he did free us from the Jews. Poles are going to be raising up statues in his honor.” Yet later we see that there are those who are willing to risk their lives to assist those in need.
As Romek roams the train tracks and the nearby forests to scavenge goods that might be useful for himself or his mother, he doesn’t seem to think about to whom these items once belonged or why they are abandoned. But one day he comes across Bunia (Maria Semotiuk), a young Warsaw woman who has escaped from a transport and begs for his help.
Director Rogalski, who won the Polish edition of the Hartley-Merrill competition with this complex and provocative script, also displays a keen visual sense that makes clever use of contrast. The fields of corn and hay that appear so idyllic and peaceful in the film’s opening moments turn into a shocking scene of carnage later. Likewise, the gentle river, with its many bends where one might rest and refresh, can also reveal an attacker or a dead body. And the woods where Romek is so at home also harbor Jews fleeing for their lives and dangerous Russian partisans. Rogalski also deserves praise for knowing when to cut, and letting the viewer’s imagination and an accomplished sound design conceive more powerful horrors than he could possibly show.
Mixing veterans and newcomers, the expert cast is totally in tune with the helmer’s intentions and the period setting. D.p. Jerzy Zielinski’s sun-dappled widescreen location lensing leads the top-notch craft credits.