Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Deluge

Potop; historical film/ drama, Poland, 1974; D: Jerzy Hoffman, S: Daniel Olbrychski, Malgorzata Braunek, Tadeusz Lomnicki, Kazimierz Wichniarz, Wladyslaw Hancza

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1655. Andrzej Kmicic is an unpredictable and wild colonel, and his soldiers are even more savage. Therefor, noblewoman Olenka is not at first pleased about her arranged marriage with him. When his companions get killed in a tavern quarrel, Kmicic takes revenge by pillaging the village of the Butryms. However, this is all overshadowed by the Deluge, the event in which Carol Gustav ordered the Swedish army to invade Poland. By a trick, Hetman Janusz Radzwill makes Kmicic promise his loyalty to him - but Kmicic regrets his promise instantly when he hears that Radzwill betrayed the Polish king Jan Casimir and instead changed his loyalty towards Gustav. Kmicic still manages to save his friends who stayed loyal to Poland and were sentenced to death by Radzwili, but because of that Kmicic is considered traitor on both sides. He takes up the name Babinich and saves a monastery from the Swedish siege. He goes to Silesia and persuades king Casimir to return to Poland. Together with mercenaries, such as the Crimean Tatars, the army defeats the opposing forces. Kmicic is rehabilitated and reunited with his beloved Olenka.

Jerzy Hoffman's film "The Deluge" is one of the few cinematic depictions of the rarely talked about historical event known as Deluge - the 17th century invasion of Swedish army of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which, combined with the Russian invasion, may have caused up to a million dead - based on the Polish novel with the same title by Henryk Sienkiewicz, yet even though it was one of the most popular movies in Polish cinemas and was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign language film, today it is a rather dated and stiff achievement. A huge blow to its level of enjoyment is the slow pace - which is not a problem on its own, but since "The Deluge" has a running time of 5 hours (!), such a choice is detrimental. By watching "The Deluge", you start appreciating other epics like "Gone with the Wind" and "War and Peace" even more because they struck a correct chore and knew exactly how to be monumental 'the right way', without turning lax, overlong and stiff like here. The fictional hero Kmicic is an allegory of a patriot who always stays faithful to his homeland, in a story in which, faced with a strong invading army, some Polish nobles took the easy route and decided to switch their allegiance towards the Swedish forces and betray their homeland, and thus enabled an exploration of the theme of such a rift between integrity and pliability, which combined with opulent set-designs, thousands of extras and high production values gave the film high ambition.

Unfortunately, many sequences feel too often staged, and too rarely genuine - especially the paper-thin love story between Kmicic and Olenka - and some are even unintentionally comical (Kmicic is deadly shot, stabbed and injured five times during the film, and always somehow survives), whereas there is always an hour between the battle scenes, which in turn seem often sparse (the exception is the Swedish siege of a monastery, and Kmicic's suicidal assignment of planting an explosive device under the strongest cannon at the gates). One of the few truly excellent characters is the chubby Zagloba, who gives the only funny moment  of the entire film, when - while captured and escorted in a waggon by guards - he persuades his captor, the naive officer Kowalski, that he is his uncle, gains his trust, makes him drunk and then takes his clothes when the latter falls asleep. Some details are also quite realistic (men without shirts washing themselves in the exterior by putting snow under their armpits during winter; Kmicic using his own blood as ink to write on paper). Overall, "The Deluge" is a good film, yet one cannot shake the impression as if all the great moments were put aside, making this a standard depiction of a story that could have been much greater.


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