Polish Cinema: The Birch Wood (Andrzej Wajda, 1970, Poland)

The Birch Wood (1970) is a lesser film in the Wajda canon, but still has a great deal to offer - especially for those interested in Polish culture. Made for television, the film is - along with Sweet Rush and The Maids of Wilko - one of three adaptations Wajda made of Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz’s work. The film expresses the often dualistic quality of Iwaskiewicz’s work - more specifically, the duality between life and death. The film also expresses an almost pagan quality, tying life and death with the course of the seasons and - as the title suggests - the natural world.
This duality is embodied in the two lead characters - brothers Stanislaw and Boleslaw. Stanislaw, dying of tuberculosis, arrives at his brother’s home prepared to die. Nevertheless, he wears a cheerful expression, plays with Boleslaw’s daughter Ola, and plays lively music on a rented piano. He also strikes up a relationship with a local village woman, Malina. Meanwhile, Boleslaw is still grieving over his wife’s death a year ago. He has a grim attitude and dour expression.
In its exploration of Eros and Thanatos, The Birch Wood has echoes of Mann’s Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti’s adaptation would be released one year later). Wajda also uses Polish Symbolist art as a reference point, in particular the works of the great Polish Symbolist Jacek Malczewski, whose Thanatos (1898) forms the visual reference point for a striking scene near the end of the film. 

The symbolic quality of the film is also perhaps its main weakness, as we feel the characters are rather stand-ins for ideas, rather than fully realized humans. The transference of Stanislaw’s life force to Boleslaw over the course of the film could also have been better realized. Nevertheless, The Birch Wood is a thematically and visually inspired work.



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