They don't hand out best actress awards at Cannes for nothing, and in "Interrogation" (at the Nuart) Krystyna Janda--who won that distinction this year--pulls out every stop, doing everything but playing the spoons.
Before this film, set in a political prison in Poland during the Stalinist 1950s, Janda was probably best known to American audiences for her work with director Andrezej Wajda in his 'Man of Marble" (1976) and its sequel, "Man of Iron" (1980). In that role, as a chain-smoking, abrasive documentary filmmaker, relentless in her zeal to uncover her country's repressive past, Janda gave a performance one critic called "almost unbearably kinetic." For "Interrogation," erase the almost .
As Tonia, an arbitrarily arrested cabaret performer, Janda rages and paces, sings, howls, is kicked, dowsed by high-pressure hoses, spits and is spat upon. It becomes an exhausting star turn, its excesses exaggerated by the claustrophobia of its prison settings. The effect is like confining an arc light in a closet; it doesn't take much for white-hot incandescence to become painful.
The film's own history has been no less intense. Actually shot in 1981, during the short-lived thaw provided by Solidarity, "Interrogation" was completed in 1982 and summarily banned by the Ministry of Culture for being "anti-socialist."
In 1985, its writer-director, Richard Bugajski, emigrated to Canada. In 1989, the Toronto Film Festival showed "Interrogation" on video, giving the world a taste of the film, although to the disadvantage of its fine, muted cinematography. Illegally taped cassettes had circulated in Poland since the film was banned, but last December, after the dramatic change in world politics, "Interrogation" had its first public screening on its home soil. It went next to Cannes, back to the Toronto Festival in its film version this fall.
As "Interrogation" begins, the extravagantly emotional Tonia is performing a bawdy song-and-dance in a cabaret when she decides her husband is getting far too friendly with a fellow performer in the back of the hall. In retaliation, she lets two young fans take her out after the show for a few dozen drinks, in a laughing-through-tears sequence. But at dawn, the fans, who are actually security police, take her not home but to jail, where she's held incommunicado as a political prisoner.
Tonia's arrest may be due to a long past one-night stand she had with a Col. Olcha, once highly placed and now considered one of the hundreds of shadowy enemies of the state. Her two interrogators grill her about him relentlessly, yet her connection with Olcha, and with the various men with whom she had passing affairs, turns out to be irrelevant. It is writer-director Bugajski's point that she remains imprisoned for the next five years solely because of her unquenchable spirit of resistance.
This has been the stuff of political films for years. What sets "Interrogation" apart is the sparring, testing relationship that develops between Tonia and Lt. Morawski (Adam Ferency), the junior of her interrogators. Morawski, an Auschwitz survivor and a confirmed Communist, becomes fascinated by the will of this apolitical woman who "has no cause to nourish her," yet refuses to give in to their demands.
Tonia's various cellmates include a remarkable peasant woman who took an ax to the commissar who had come to expropriate her land, and the gentle Mira (Anna Romantowska), whose torture seems even more rigorous than Tonia's and whose eventual fate is even more surprising. There's also a character, well-played by the noted actress-director Agnieszka Holland, called simply the Communist Woman.
This loyal Stalinist shows Bugajski at his most Kafkaesque. A tour guide, she was ordered to escort a visiting comrade on an inspection of her region, then was subsequently arrested as an American spy when her visitor turned out to be one himself. Sorrowfully, she explains to Tonia that she understands her guilt, although she was "a spy objectively but not subjectively."
Holland and especially Romantowska are proof that enormous gradations of feeling can be expressed discreetly and without the need for skyrockets, announcing that capital A for Acting is in progress. Janda does amp down a little near the end of the film's two hours and becomes more effective as a result, but it's ironic that "Interrogation's" biggest selling point--her high-profile performance--is also the reason some audiences may remain emotionally distanced from it.
A Circle Releasing Corporation release of an Andrezej Wajda Film Studio presentation. Executive producer Wajda. Producer Tadeusz Drewno. Writer-director Richard Bugajski. Camera Jacek Petrycki. With Krystyna Janda, Adam Ferency, Agnieszka Holland, Anna Romantowska, Janusz Cajos.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
Times-rated: Mature (violence, nudity)