Polish Cinema: Samson (Andrzej Wajda, 1961, Poland)

               Arriving shortly on the heels of some of Wajda’s greatest films (Ashes and Diamonds, Innocent Sorcerers), Samson is an interesting if somewhat flawed exploration of the Jewish experience in Warsaw prior to and during World War II. Based on a novel by Kazimierz Brandys, Samson lurches along at a slow pace, its lugubrious setting and characters expressing a deep sense of fatalism. The film is also quite heavy on biblical allegory – even featuring a scene in which our titular Samson (the film’s central character, Jakub Gold) gets his hair cut by a romantic interest, effectively losing some of his symbolic strength.
               Samson is perhaps the earliest narrative film to portray the Warsaw ghetto, and perhaps the first to examine the Jewish experience in Warsaw during the war. At the beginning of the film, Jakub – played by Algerian French actor Serge Merlin – is a student at a local university before the world. We witness the humiliation and violence he experiences at the hands of his classmates – violence which ultimately culminates with Jakub murdering another student in a fight. Once Jakub escapes prison at the outset of WWII, he enters life in the Warsaw ghetto. In one single powerful take, Wajda shows the construction of the ghetto – a group of Jewish residents staring at the camera, slowly covered up by the ghetto walls until we can no longer see them.
               The film falters somewhat in its latter half, as Jakub leaves the ghetto and begins to explore life beyond. While the film’s exploration of the emotional connection many Jews had to the ghetto is thoughtful, the often static, tableaux-like shots and slow pacing begin to drag the film. Wajda himself admitted in an interview that the film lacks some intensity, and it is evident on the screen. Still the film is interesting as Wajda’s first exploration of a theme he would often return to – the Jewish experience in Poland.


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