Anyone duped by the title into expecting a folksy knees-up from “Klezmer” has a sober awakening in store: The eponymous Ashkenazi Jewish musical tradition may figure obliquely into this stoic, stolid Polish Holocaust drama, but not in any context remotely resembling a celebration. Indeed, Jews are the truly silent victims in a story that instead takes the viewpoint of morally dubious gentiles, torn between mercy and the promise of blood-stained remuneration when they encounter a wounded, voiceless Jewish refugee in the woods. As his fate is dispassionately determined over the course of a single summer afternoon, playwright Piotr Chrzan’s feature directing debut offers some unusual insight into the perspectives of communities caught between the Nazis and their victims, but his script presses pretty insistently on one glum note. Culturally specific festivals rep the pic’s best avenue of exposure following its Venice premiere.
Indirect comparisons to Pawel Pawlikowski’s recent Oscar-winner “Ida” may offer the biggest shot in the arm to “Klezmer’s” slim distribution chances, though they also put Chrzan’s film — a far less immaculate work, by any measure — at a major disadvantage. Both films process the Polish population’s sense of guilt incurred by what may be perceived as passive Nazi complicity under German occupation, albeit from very different vantage points. Where “Ida” surveyed lingering damage to the national psyche two decades after the fact, “Klezmer” examines contrasting levels of awareness and compassion among its characters in 1943, as Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s extermination campaign — one that claimed the lives of approximately two million Jews — rages on in Poland’s Bialystok region.
This chosen purview makes for a frequently unpleasant viewing experience, subjecting auds to the sight of a lone Jew’s mute physical torment as bilious arguments, liberally peppered with blithe anti-Semitic epithets, swirl around him. It’s appropriately jolting to observe such abuse — including hoary stereotypical slurs relating to the Jewish culture’s supposed financial and hygienic practices — in historical situ, but hardly revelatory; proponents of media trigger warnings should consider themselves duly cautioned.
The pic opens on (relatively speaking, at least) its lightest note, as cheeky, charismatic young villager Michal (Leslaw Zurek) woos the coyly reciprocating Maryska (Weronika Lewon) in an idyllic patch of forest, eventually getting down to al fresco frisky business lensed in the buttery-soft manner of “Elvira Madigan.” This is but a fleeting flash of bucolic romanticism; Michal has actually headed into the wild for the more mundane purpose of gathering firewood. He is assisted in this regard by wily Marek (Szymon Nowak) and the hulking, mentally disabled Witek (Kamil Przystal), a kind of Lennie Small figure with an added, unpredictable streak of malice. While foraging in a shaded ravine, it’s Witek who stumbles upon the expiring body of a never-named gunshot victim (Filip Kosior), whom the men swiftly deduce is a Jew left for dead by pursuing German officers.
Cue a fractious, ongoing conversation about how to act on the discovery. Marek coldly advocates handing the body over the Germans in return for a reward — a rapidly dwindling one, given the common nature of such exchanges. Three kilograms of sugar is the going rate, we learn, as the trio discuss the dying man in their midst as if he were a produce item — and with some haste, since corpses apparently fetch nothing at all. Though no resistance fighter himself, Michal opposes the idea, given that he gains extra income by smuggling supplies to other hiders in the forest: “I trade with Jews, not Jews,” he says firmly. Back and forth the discussion goes, as the men gruelingly cart the victim to a clearing where Witus’ sister Hanka awaits them. A devout, hymn-chanting Catholic, she is the only member of the group to voice sincere sympathy for the Jews’ plight. Still, the outcome of the dilemma hangs in the balance through a growingly fraught finale in which no party is unendangered.
Chrzan’s stage background is hardly disguised in a talky screenplay heavy on ricocheting rhetoric and occasional, stylized literary flourishes. (At one point, a Heinrich Heine poem is recited for short-cut emotional effect.) The writing is intelligent, though its argument doesn’t quite sustain a compact running time; given the tight timeframe of its narrative, “Klezmer” might have carried more impact as a short film. Given types rather than complete characters to etch, Chrzan’s ensemble serves the material capably.
The tech package on this bare-bones production is accomplished. D.p. Sylwester Kazmierczak drinks in the turning shades of the late-summer foliage — a symbolically apt palette anchor, perhaps — without inordinately prettifying the rustic surroundings. Music supervisor Aleksandra Zakrzewska (also the film’s producer, with production design and casting credits to boot) again defies the suggestion of the title with a diverse soundtrack, running the gamut from ethereal Henry Purcell compositions to traditional folk marches.