Skolimowski: “Barrier” ( “Bariera”)

[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series “Voices and Visions,” April 20, 1982]

Tight shot: a man’s back, naked, bent, straining; his bands tied behind him; his head, whether yearning forward or bowed in fear and trembling, unseen. The posture faintly evokes your basic bullet-in-the-back-of-the-neck, Darkness at Noon–style execution. The Latin recitation somewhere just offscreen imparts a suggestion of religiosity to the agony. The man strains harder, balances precariously, and tips out of frame — out of existence, we might as well say, for he seems to have been lost in the white, infinite void of the empty screen.

Jan Nowicki and Joanna Szczerbic in "Barrier"

Well, forget all that, because it’s wrong. Nobody’s getting executed or awaiting the zealot’s lash, and the infinite whiteness is just the bare wall of a room in a university dormitory shared by four premed students. They’ve also shared a ritual, over the years, of collecting their spare change in a piggybank, and now the time has come to see which of them gets to keep it. They could cut cards or play one-potata two-potata, but where’s the perversity in that? No, they turn it into a ritual ordeal, wherein each aspirant assumes the aforementioned position kneeling on the edge of a table, leeeeeeeans forward, tries to pluck up a matchbox, poised about two feet out, with his mouth, and (that’s not all, no, that’s not all, that would be too easy), having plucked it, seeks to resume his former kneeling-upright position as opposed to falling very painfully on his chin, nose, brow, or all three once they’ve been compacted into a single pulpy mass. First guy to succeed wins the piggy.

It’s that simple. In fact, quite often in Barrier things prove to be that simple, although we need a little time and a little looking-around before we can appreciate the fact. What seems weird, freaky, outré frequently turns out to be just the way things are in this neighborhood. That screaming of a soul in torment as the hero roves about a strange, shrouded white corridor? Well, you see, next door there’s a dentist’s office; and the shrouds, that’s no big deal — some students are supposed to come over later and clean the place up, and I mean, we wouldn’t want the antlers (huh?!) getting dusty….

But let’s back up a bit, because in Barrier it’s also often that complex, too. Those overtones in the opening scene aren’t out of place. The students themselves have introduced the mock-religious note into their ritual — it’s one of them who’s chanting in Latin, and the matchbox is supported on the hand of an anatomy-class cutaway mannequin cheekily posed as some Madonna*-like dispenser of grace. And it just may be that the note of mockery is a safety valve: they’re pretty wound up, after all, about the fate of their collective savings, and if they can have a little fun by stylizing their agony, why not? Then too, what is ritual but an expression of, or substitute for, religious form? And these people are always engaging in some kind of ritual, communal or private. How self-consciously they communicate and define themselves through, for instance, playing with cigarettes — awarding them, symbolically sacrificing or saving them, using them as bombs. There’s a lot of looking for meaning in this movie, which is about a world where received meanings — religious, political, traditional — appear to have betrayed anybody who trusted in them.

The movie was made by Jerzy Skolimowski, who, for a while there in the mid-Sixties, looked like the successor to Roman Polanski as the most exciting young director the Polish cinema had produced. Indeed, a writer in the respected film magazine Sight and Sound called him “probably the most explosive and original filmmaker in Eastern Europe.” Whereas Polanski made only one Polish feature, Knife in the Water (on which Skolimowski worked as a writer), and used it as his “ticket to the West,” Skolimowski stayed in his homeland long enough to generate a significant body of work: four features that explicitly addressed themselves to the political and psychological crises facing Polish young people “today.” Three of these starred Skolimowski himself: Rysopis (Identification Marks: None), which he made clandestinely over the four years he spent in the Lodz film school (1960–63), as an audition piece to demonstrate he was worthy of being entrusted with a feature movie; Walkover, his first professional feature; and Hands Up, an overtly political film that was, and continues to be, banned by the government. In between Walkover and Hands Up he made Barrier and also a Belgian-based comedy, Le Depart. This last film is especially significant, not only in constituting a direct acknowledgment of the crucial influence of the French cinéaste Jean-Luc Godard (its stars, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Catherine-Isabelle Duport, and cameraman, Willy Kurant, were all enlisted from Godard’s Masculin-Féminin), but also in pointing the way Skolimowski’s career would lead. Like Polanski, after all, Skolimowski was to leave Poland and become an international filmmaker. He has enjoyed nothing like Polanski’s big-time success (or his notoriety), has gone long years between pictures and made some scrappy ones (the Conan Doyle swashbuckler The Adventures of Gerard is a typical international-coproduction shambles, if more likeable than most, and unfailingly handsome). But he has achieved at least one masterpiece**, the 1970 British–West German Deep End, that ranks among the great modern films; and his provocative, idiosyncratic talent is amply evident in his most recent work, The Shout, with Alan Bates, Susannah York, and John Hurt.

Jan Nowicki in "Barrier"

All of Skolimowski’s early films are about “the end of something,” in the Hemingway sense — the end of something, and an uneasiness about whatever new beginning lies ahead. Rysopis (which I have not seen) recounts what happens to a student on the day he is leaving his old life behind to begin his military service. Walkover picks up the same fellow on a crucial day half a decade later; he is now a boxer (as was Skolimowski), pushing 30 and having just stepped off a train to take part in what may be his last fight. Barrier, too, is confined to only part of a weekend (Holy Week). Its hero (not the same fellow as in the earlier films) has determined to throw over fifteen years of student life and a programmed future in socialized medicine, to try making it big in the private sector. His comrades don’t know this, and as the moment of decision about the piggy draws nigh, each declares his intention to share the wealth around if he should win. Nowicki (I use the actor’s name for convenience’s sake) feels otherwise, and he wins. Skolimowski employs one of his favorite mannerisms — a quick zoom-out from the hero as he suddenly finds himself in new circumstances — at the moment Nowicki snaps back onto the table with the matchbox in his mouth. But though Nowicki has won, and though he indulges in a young man’s customary bluster about what’s wrong with the world around him and how he intends to go right, we can’t help noticing that he’s rather lost out there. He’s not as cocksure as he affects to be (who can blame him?), and in fact is oddly susceptible to taking others’ leads, whether it’s his father sending him off to claim an old sabre he can’t possibly have use for, or a playful older woman who proposes he needs a bath.

The viewer is likely to feel every bit as adrift as the hero. Skolimowski moves through his film-world at his own pace and with his own crazy spider’s notion of linear progress. His spaces keep surprising us. After the fate of the piggy has been settled, the strained community of students sorts itself out and the individual members repair to their chosen corners. Nowicki climbs into his old upper bunk at top screen-right and is utterly hidden from view by his mattress, which is already turned up in anticipation of his departure. We are left with one of those stark, unparaphrasably funny East European scenes (funny/peculiar and funny/haha, as Andrew Sarris would say) — white wall, hard frames, alienated people, the empty glow of an unseen out-of-doors … and this weird black rectangle, center-screen, featuring a pair of white hands. Are they raised in aspiration or surrender? Don’t know. After a moment Nowicki’s own disembodied hand reaches out — from offscreen within the screen, as it were — and takes the picture down. A few minutes later, against the similarly stark walls of what proves to be an old-folks’ home, he approaches an odd motor scooter, absentmindedly honks the horn — and his father rises into view from behind the vehicle, heretofore unsuspected and unseen by us but (he must have been) seen by Nowicki. But the logic of Skolimowski’s mise-en-scene possesses its own validity; it does add up and he does play fair with us. Everything seems screwball-comedy pixilated when Nowicki steps into a lighted phonebooth in the middle of nowhere, calls his mother, then hails this darling streetcar driver he has just met and says the call is for her. How many how-was-that-again adjustments we have to make here: the girl is able to steer her streetcar right over to the booth; the call can’t be “for her” because he made it, yet in a poetically appropriate sense it is for her, because a guy has to introduce his girl to his mother; the girl doesn’t climb down to take the call, but simply leans out the window of her conveyance like the independent spirit that she is; and afterward, as she steers her streetcar still further to curve across the foreground of the shot (and this has all been one carefully designed shot), we are provided a glimpse of Nowicki’s preposterously large white suitcase still sitting inside the car, and we know that these characters must be reunited before the film has run its course.

Skolimowski’s first two films are long on long takes, all realistically based. In Barrier he breaks through to a much richer, more inventive realm of stylistic invention. Anyone who knows Fellini’s 8½ will not be surprised to learn that it is one of Skolimowski’s favorite films. Barrier involves a reality-merging-into-fantasy dynamics similar to the Fellini film’s. When Nowicki visits his father at the old folks’ home, the mise-en-scene is a bit bizarre, but not at odds with a credible everyday reality. Then Nowicki begins to study his own reflection in a shard of mirror hanging (for whatever reason) on a machine-shop kind of wall, and in the foreground — which is to say, behind his back — a seemingly endless procession of old men files by, as if imaging the future he fears may be his. Suddenly he is against another wall — climbing it, in fact, making his dangerous way brick by brick past windows with pairs of chickens or rabbits hanging from their sills. A live goose is strung up under an overhang; the idea seems to be for him to claim this prize, but he can’t reach it, and can’t climb farther up (or down?). Cut to a longshot and there is Nowicki on the wall, being observed by a vast crowd of his fellow Poles. He repeats a line from earlier in the film: “I buggered it up — maybe somebody else may do better.” At this, the crowd panics and scurries away, as if no one dare see whether he might be that somebody. Fellini-esque whiteout, then Nowicki is seen dimly through something like fog, something like the grain in a film image, and he is part of the rat race, running round a hall of mirrors with the crowd, in an all-but-silent pan as endless as the line of old men. By now, obviously, we have moved completely into stylized fantasy. What is not so obvious is how, or at just what point, we started to get there, and when, or whether, we step in and out of it hereafter.

Just as Polanski’s grotesque fables are realized with a classical precision, so is Skolimowski’s stylization, however anarchic it may seem at isolated moments. That goose, for instance, is echoed in the live bird amid the statuary birds in the slightly pretentious apartment that turns out to be a pawnshop, and picked up again at the site of one of Skolimowski’s most astonishing integral mise-en-scene coups (the ski-run scene). This is also true of other bizarre details that gather themselves into motifs. The story itself is based on two of the most time-honored narrative forms: the picaresque journey or quest, and boy-meets-girl. Begun in a mood of cheerful cynicism, it surreptitiously evolves into a fine romance with no kisses, and no facile sentimentality either. Skolimowski never strays long or far from a comic mode, but a genuine, almost tragic fear underlies Nowicki’s and Joanna Szczerbic’s courtship. Falling in love can mean getting married, losing the dreams of success and independence they variously cling to, maybe turning into drones bent, like Nowicki’s father, on the long drift into a room with a TV, senility, and death. But it may also be the only thing that can make a difference. Nowicki hates the false sentimentality of the generation that fought the war (Ashes and Diamonds‘ Maciek would be in that pathetic chorus if he’d lived), but Szczerbic has more understanding for both generations: “One of six among them fell in the war. They sing about it. What do we sing? `I’ll manage by myself.'” This particular Holy Week, with the nuns “waiting for the Resurrection,” the lapsed student and the streetcar driver both make journeys to a decision. Both “die”: Szczerbic works herself into a stupor and collapses amid poster letters that accidentally add up to the word “DEAD,” but carries her back to the car-barn to make “LONG LIVE.” Nowicki borrows someone’s Jag for a private ritual that is a kind of suicide of his youthful irresponsibility. He lights the one cigarette he has saved, knows it will explode; runs the windshield wipers; falls “dead” among flower petals that look like snow. And from the snow, under the formal benediction of another windshield wiper, he rises again, testifying, as only Jerzy Skolimowski can, that “there’s some romance left in our cynical generation.”

Richard T. Jameson

*File under “The world moves on”: At the time this essay was written, “Madonna” with a capital M referred unambiguously and solely to the Virgin Mary.

**A second appeared months after the date of this writing: Moonlighting, Skolimowski’s brilliant take on the anti-Solidarity repression, with Jeremy Irons as the foreman of a work crew that travels to England just before the crackdown.

Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. Kamera Film Unit, 1966. Screenplay: Skolimowski. Cinematography: Jan Laskowski. Sets: Roman Nowicki, Z. Straszewski. Editing: H. Prugar. Music: Krzysztof Komeda. (83 minutes)

The players: Jan Nowicki (the student), Joanna Szczerbic (the girl), Tadeusz Lomnicki (the doctor), Malgorzata Lorentowicz (the lady), Ryszard Pietruski (the headwaiter), Zdzislaw Maklakiewicz (the magazine seller), Gustaw Nehrebecki, Zygmunt Malanowicz, Andrzej Herder, Adam Pawlikowski.

© 1982 Richard T. Jameson