A history lesson sapped of energy, Ryszard Bugajski’s “General Nil” relates in blandly conventional terms the final years of WWII Polish freedom fighter Gen. Emil “Nil” Fieldorf, an enemy of both Nazis and Soviets. That Fieldorf led the antifascist underground during wartime proves meaningless to the invading Soviet masters, who deem him persona non grata — and worse — for leading a guerrilla fight against the occupiers from the East. History buffs will take some interest in a figure little known beyond his native land, but they’ll have to wait for the DVD.
A flash-forward to a Siberian-bound train in 1947 establishes the film’s lumpy back-and-forth narrative structure, showing Fieldorf (Olgierd Lukaszewicz) ailing under severe conditions and aided by young supporter Michal (Maciej Radel). Bugajski, whose international rep rests on his 1982 drama, “Interrogation,” proves to be a solid handler of action, as Fieldorf is seen in 1944 Warsaw devising a bold daylight attack against Nazi HQ.
A vague jump in time situates Fieldorf in the midst of a conspiracy against the new Soviet threat (the rebel operation is codenamed “No,” with Fieldorf known as “Gen. Nil”). Fieldorf’s worry that a lack of Allied support for Polish resistance to USSR occupation shadows the rest of the film’s dramatic beats as the action finally settles in for a year-by-year account of Fieldorf’s new postwar life from 1947-53. Standard biopic devices the general’s difficult domestic life with wife Janina (Alicja Juchiewicz), who has chafed under the strain of his long absences from home, and efforts by friends, who urge him to emigrate, join the establishment or form some sort of resistance.
Since a tragic fate is a foregone conclusion, even for viewers with no knowledge of Fieldorf’s career, “General Nil” becomes a stodgy account of early Cold War politics, and betrays the whiff of a patriotic, nationalist brand of cinema. It hardly helps that Lukaszewicz is not the kind of actor to command attention the way Fieldorf commanded men; a strange lack of charisma hinders the actor’s ability to transcend the material’s mechanical nature.
Production values are topnotch in the old-school “tradition of quality” mode, including a chiaroscuro tone informing Piotr Sliskowski’s cinematography and a wide range of historically authentic settings designed by Aniko Kiss.