On Hitler’s Highway

The second part of Lech Kowalski's Wild Wild East trilogy (after the punk cobblers of "Boot Factory") is a trip down Hitler's Highway, a notorious stretch of road built by der Fuhrer. Casual road movie approach initially disguises pic's cumulative impact. A worthy addition to Kowalski's down-and-out canon, docu should develop a reputation on the fest circuit (it won a Special Jury Prize in Amsterdam) before possible cable play.

With:
Narrated by Lech Kowalski.
(Polish, Bulgarian and German dialogue with English narration)

The second part of Lech Kowalski’s Wild Wild East trilogy (after the punk cobblers of “Boot Factory”) is a trip down Hitler’s Highway, a notorious stretch of road built by der Fuhrer (according to rumor, over the bodies of the Polish workers who died constructing it). The thoroughfare facilitated the invasions of Poland and Russia and, then as now, linked East and West. Casual road movie approach initially disguises pic’s cumulative impact. A worthy addition to Kowalski’s down-and-out canon, docu should develop a reputation on the fest circuit (it won a Special Jury Prize in Amsterdam) before possible cable play.

Pic is structured with savvy to appear passive. The camera-voyager seems content to go wherever the road leads him, and ostensibly lets people along the route determine his agenda. Thus, a one-legged old peddler selling mushrooms inches away from speeding traffic launches into a passionate disquisition on frying vs. boiling the fungi — the precariousness of his survival is more obvious for not being voiced.

Also encountered all along the way are passels of Bulgarian prostitutes. The girls discuss their angry pimps and their dwindling clientele in a language Kowalski later deciphers as a dialect of ancient Turkish.

A young couple professes to know nothing about the highway, but admits great familiarity with another local tourist attraction, Auschwitz. Auschwitz is the couple’s hometown and, while they commiserate with the horror, they wish they could have a disco. Cut to the interior of a crematorium, followed by the poem of a tattooed survivor.On the next turn-off into a gypsy village, a man whose father was killed by the Nazis asks Kowalski take him on a journey. The last stop on the gypsy’s quest is another concentration camp, Gross-Rosen, where stones used to construct the road were quarried.

One detour leads to an abandoned Soviet airfield and hence to an empty missile silo and the squat of some displaced Ukrainians.

Oddly, Kowalski’s one foray into familiar punk territory, the catacombs of connecting underground concrete tunnels built by the Nazis where disenfranchised “bunkerites” now hang out, is fleeting, but the eerie long-shot glimpses of what lies beneath Hitler’s Highway linger in the mind.

Like so many documentaries nowadays, “Highway” belongs to the personal diary genre, Kowalski’s voice-over narration supplying not only occasional history lessons, but a running commentary on what he’s doing and why (journey reps a pilgrimage to his parents’ birthplace).

Tech credits are fine and the music selections, as usual for a Kowalski opus, are pitch perfect.

On Hitler's Highway

France

Production: An Agat Films production in association with Arte France. Produced by Blache Guichou. Directed, written, edited by Lech Kowalski.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Kowalski; music, Sal Bernady, XYZ. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (competing), April 25, 2003. (Also in Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival.) Running time: 81 MIN.

With: Narrated by Lech Kowalski.
(Polish, Bulgarian and German dialogue with English narration)

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