Ryszard Kapuscinski once said that the war correspondent profession is something one can only do for a short period of time as it destroys a person physically and mentally; it sends people to places of death and human misfortune. Often, for mere tens of seconds of recording or a single exceptional photo, journalists risk their lives to show the world the true face of war. And what follows when the job is done… is a lot of hard questions. How to deal with the trauma of war? When is the right time to start or stop talking about it? What ought to be shown and what not? War journalists, like soldiers, bear the cost of bearing witness to human suffering, and their work has a huge psychological impact not only on the journalists themselves, but also their loved ones.
Wojciech Jagielski worked as a war correspondent for 21 years. During his career, he held the belief that one must aim high. Jagielski had always been impressed with Kapuscinski’s work and came to the conclusion that if he was to become a journalist, he had to be as good as Kapuscinski; and surely he became – and still is – an excellent journalist.
53 Wars, directed and written by Ewa Bukowska, a renowned Polish actress, is partly based on Grazyna Jagielska’s autobiographical book Milosc z kamienia and the emotional and psychological struggle dealing with her husband’s work.
In Bukowska’s film, instead of Grazyna and Wojciech, there are Witek and Anna, who represent the married couple in certain ways. To Witek (Michal Zurawski), work is his life; it is an adventure and an adrenaline-filled journey; to Anna (Magdalena Poplawska), his work brings unimaginable longing, fear, stress and above all, loneliness. Every time the phone rings, it makes her anxious because she is aware that she might receive news of Witek’s death. Her anxiety turns into depression, and then into a psychotic state; as a result, Anna ends up in a combat stress recovery clinic, although she was never at war herself.
Magdalena Poplawska is excellent and credible as Anna, especially in the first part of the film, when her character must stifle anger at her absent husband. Although Poplawska carries the film on her shoulders, from the first to the last minute, there are great actors supporting her performance from the background: Michal Zurawski, Kinga Preis and Dorota Kolak.
Bukowska’s film is an alluring portrait, depicting an intimate yet toxic relationship between Anna and Witek, setting it against the war conflicts that he has to face; she also perfectly captures the pain and the madness of her protagonist. The director uses close-ups to show Anna’s suffering and confusion as her room and the couple’s apartment itself slowly become a ‘battlefield’.
Even though 53 Wars is a courageous attempt, it is not necessarily a winning one for Bukowska. Sadly, her feature debut does not quite manage to bear the weight of the subject that she gave herself to direct – the narrative gets slightly lost at the end of the film. An awkward finale, which brings the viewers to laughter rather than tears, feels unsuitable. With a story that has such a serious, important and necessary subject matter, the ending lacks sensibility, which disappointed many. Although 53 Wars does build on tension and does not leave the viewers indifferent, it still does not resonate the way it could; however, it is a film that is still worth seeing, even if just for a glimpse into how much struggle war correspondents and their families face.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © Next Film (Poland)