65th BFI London Film Festival: “Leave No Traces” Review

When WWII ended, Poland was thrown into another brutal fight, this time not against Nazis, but against communism, which took over the country from 1947 until 1989. While the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were unsettling, it was the 1980s that many consider to be the most significant time in the lives of Poles. Martial Law was declared in December 1981 and lasted until July 1983, during which vicious attacks on both the opposition and the supporters of the Solidarity movement (Solidarność) occurred. 

Image © Aurum Film 

It was May 12th, 1983, when 19-year-old high school graduate, Grzegorz Przemyk, the son of the opposition poet Barbara Sadowska, celebrated his final exams in Plac Zamkowy in Warsaw. He was stopped by the Citizens’ Militia and, as he was without documents, he was taken to a local police station where he received 40 blows with a baton to his shoulders and back, and a dozen or so blows to the stomach. After being taken to the hospital, the young student died two days later. His funeral became one of the biggest silent demonstrations against the authorities.

While the prosecutor’s office initiated an investigation into Grzegorz’s death, the government took steps to protect the policemen from being punished. They insisted on putting the blame on the paramedics who took the student to the hospital. What’s more disturbing is the fact that the case file included a note from the then head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, General Czesław Kiszczak: “There is to be only one version of the investigation – paramedics.” This thesis was discussed in the official propaganda which carried out a campaign of defamation against Grzegorz, his mother, and his entourage, including Jerzy Popiełuszko, a priest who was murdered a few months after the student’s death. 

Image © Aurum Film 

Events taking place behind the Iron Curtain have been depicted in multiple films with mixed results when it comes to historical and political accuracy. Leave No Traces is directed by Jan P. Matuszyński (The Last Family), a Polish filmmaker and producer, who, with his truly journalistic approach, decided to bring Grzegorz’s story to life. And not once did he lose sight of the subject he was discussing. The film depicts a profound, heart-rending tale, with a cleverly written narrative by Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk. Inspired and based on Cezary Łazarewicz’s reportage, Matuszyński and Krawczyk-Wnuk brought a powerful story onto the big screen. There aren’t any unnecessary shots in the film, even though the length of the film is 2 hours and 40 minutes and, being part of the audience, I was hungry for more. 

The film opens with a scene at Barbara Sadowska’s (Sandra Korzeniak) house. Her son, Grzegorz (Mateusz Górski: Thou Shalt Not Hate), while celebrating the completion of his high school exams, talks about going on holiday and studying. Filled with youthful optimism and energy, Grzegorz is about to face the worst day of his life. Together with his friend, Jurek Popiel (Tomasz Ziętek: Corpus Christi), he ends up being arrested by the Citizens’ Militia and transferred to the police station. There, they are both beaten up, with Grzegorz being physically abused to the point of being admitted to the hospital, where he dies two days after the beating. Jurek becomes the only witness to his friend’s cruel treatment. From this moment forward, although Grzegorz’s character is the subject of the film, Jurek becomes the protagonist of the story.

Image © Aurum Films

After the death of the student, foreign media began to spread the word, including BBC Radio. As the “good” name of the Citizens’ Militia was at stake, General Czesław Kiszczak (Robert Więckiewicz: In Darkness) was determined to shift the blame onto someone else. Jurek became the most wanted person in the city, if not the country itself. Although pressurised by the officials and even those close to them, Jurek and Grzegorz’s mother decided to take on the authorities and uncover the truth. 

Jurek’s character was loosely based on one of the friends that was with Grzegorz at that time, however, the student’s name was changed in the film. Ziętek is mesmerising in the role of Jurek, he elevates the film throughout and, on top of this, he and Sandra Korzeniak build an incredible atmosphere in Leave No Traces, almost creating a mother-son correlation.

Image © Aurum Films

Matuszyński does his best to craft a narrative that is not to be read as a historical story, but some sort of a warning against social indifference instead. Leave No Traces could also be seen as an indirect reference to the current situation in Poland, where high courts are in the pockets of the right-wing government and where people protest the government’s interference in citizens’ lives (media restrictions, the abuse of women’s rights, and the power and corruption of the police). 

While Matuszyński allowed himself more artistic freedom with Leave No Traces, he still managed to show the cynicism of the communistic authorities, as well as the powerlessness of those involved in the case of Grzegorz, with great accuracy. The film not only reveals the system of lies that was in force throughout the duration of communism in Poland, but also proves that the truth is stronger than that. Nevertheless, the end of the film leaves the audience with a sense of bitterness that lies continue to triumph over the truth, even in current times. 


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Written by Maggie Gogler

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

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