One of the few surviving silent films made in Poland, A Strong Man (Mocny Człowiek) is also one of the most stylistically advanced. It opens with a stately pan along the riverfront of Warsaw—capital of the nation’s film production—blending into a montage of majestic old buildings. But something quickly goes awry: the images begin to overlap and fragment, dissolving into a confused blur of urban modernity. The double exposures may at first seem like an avant-garde gimmick, but they appropriately introduce a film haunted by doubles, one that will end with the eerie vision of dancers wearing masks that give them two faces. The story’s two-faced protagonist, Henryk Bielecki (Grigorij Chmara), is a would-be writer whose ambition vastly outweighs his talent. Obsessed with fame, he filches a manuscript from another writer and passes it off as his own, first helping the sickly author to die by supplying him with morphine. Bielecki winds up caught between two women, the long-suffering girlfriend who knows his secret, and a friend’s wife, whom he steals while the friend is tied up in boozy “conferences” with an actress. Cheating and fakery are rampant in a world of glitter, indulgence, and empty celebrity that feels all too close to our own.
Director Henryk Szaro, who adapted the story from a novel by Stanislaw Przybyszewski, draws liberally on German Expressionism, Soviet-style montage, and good old-fashioned gothic melodrama in bringing it to the screen. Though many scenes are shot outdoors, in the city and the countryside, the film has a claustrophobic and feverish subjectivity, as though everything is playing out in the warped brain of Bielecki, a man consumed by his own sense of resentful entitlement. Chmara, a Ukrainian actor born in what was then the Russian Empire, got his start in the Moscow Art Theater as a pupil of legendary acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski and has a potent intensity that turns this shabby fraud into a compelling antihero. In a career that spanned fifty years and at least four countries (and a variety of spellings of his name), Chmara played the title role in Raskolnikov, Robert Wiene’s German Expressionist adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Jesus in the same director’s I.N.R.I. (both 1923). He appeared in G.W. Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925) with Greta Garbo and his then-paramour Asta Nielsen, sang gypsy songs in cabarets, emigrated to France in the 1930s with actress Lila Kedrova, and made his final appearance in a French TV adaptation of Crime and Punishment in 1970, the year he died. He has the fierce gaze of a bird of prey and the furrowed brow of a habitual malcontent.
The first time Bielecki smiles in the film is when, with calculating malice, he tells his tubercular friend Górski (Artur Socha) that his just-finished novel is “mediocre,” driving the poor man to suicidal despair. The lurid scenes of his morphine overdose and Bielecki’s subsequent theft of the manuscript are submerged in murky, noirish shadows, complete with an electric sign blinking fitfully outside the window. We never know much about the stolen novel, though its title—A Strong Man—invokes Nietzsche’s übermensch, a concept with obvious appeal for the arrogant Bielecki. The individual set apart from society by his genius or his demons was a fixation of Przybyszewski, whose scandalous writings, filled with lurid decadence and extreme psychological states, belonged to the innovative, modernist Young Poland movement that flourished around the turn of the twentieth century.
It is easy to imagine that the purloined novel, which becomes a sensation, is just such a work; the one excerpt that makes its way into an intertitle suggests that the book’s popularity lies in its titillating steaminess. Indeed, once Bielecki moves from brooding in smoky cafés to hobnobbing at the racetrack in a sea of summer hats, sex takes the place of ambition as the plot’s driving force. Tired of his live-in lover, the loyal but sullenly reproachful Łucja (Agnes Kuck), Bielecki is instantly smitten with the sensual, dark-eyed Nina (Maria Majdrowicz), his friend’s neglected wife.
With her entrance the film opens out from its cramped urban settings and takes on a more fluid, organic naturalism. A stroll to a ruined fortress in the country is thrillingly animated by wind that shakes the wheat fields and ripples through the leaves, snatches at Nina’s scarf and flattens her diaphanous white skirt against her legs. The cinematography by Giovanni Vitrotti makes each image seem at once freighted with meaning and quivering with life. Like Chmara, Vitrotti represented the internationalism of silent cinema: starting in Italy, where he was known for his pioneering use of traveling shots, he worked on German films throughout the 1920s, including the 1924 Italian coproduction of Quo Vadis? starring Emil Jannings, as well as shot movies in Russia and Poland.
The film shuttles between city and country, sometimes distilling familiar visions of the two and sometimes playing against expectations. The metropolis is a kaleidoscopic whirl of nightclub signs, champagne bottles, leggy chorus lines, and twitchy jazz bands—all the classic symbols of sin—but it is in the countryside that lust and violence break loose. In a memorable set piece, Bielecki takes Nina to a large, gloomy mansion where the furniture and chandeliers are swaddled in white dustcovers, and an old, forbidding housekeeper comes to the door with a candelabra. Suddenly we are in the realm of gothic romance, presided over by a sinister, Munch-like painting of lovers that hangs above the fireplace. The torrid love scene accompanied by a raging thunderstorm must have been a cliché even then, but this instance is so superbly crafted that it feels fresh. A rapid, rhythmic montage of wind tearing at trees, clouds boiling, curtains billowing, and rain hammering the street is intercut with images of Bielecki feverishly kissing Nina’s leg, their embrace lit by strobe-like spasms of lightning. A sharp cut reveals the abandoned Łucja sitting at home, waiting, with the pendulum of a clock slicing the foreground of the shot.
The last part of the film brilliantly uses such bold juxtapositions and counterpoint to illustrate the way everything falls apart for Bielecki, whose betrayal of the woman who knows his secret and threatens to expose him crowns his self-destructive hubris. The final unraveling coincides with the premiere of a play adapted from the novel A Strong Man. Szaro’s theater background is evident in his richly detailed presentation of the backstage world. Early in his career, Szaro had studied in Moscow with the groundbreaking theater artist Vsevolod Meyerhold, whose influence is evident in the experimental stage production, with its stylized makeup and costumes, constructivist sets, and masked dancers with faces on both sides of their heads. The successful premiere, which should be his ultimate triumph, is ruined for Bielecki who can’t take his eyes off a single empty seat in the audience. The contrast between the elaborate spectacle onstage and his anxious fixation on Nina’s absence illustrates how false glamour crumbles at the touch of real feeling. Posters for the play multiply, its title taunting the man whose own weakness is now laid bare.
The film’s jagged, bitter depiction of a society that has lost its moral bearings feels even more consequential given the horrors that consumed this part of the world within the next decade. Vsevolod Meyerhold, a mentor to Sergei Eisenstein, was tortured and killed in the Great Purge of 1940, his theater productions already suppressed by Stalin. Henryk Szaro, who was born Henoch Szapiro, was interned and then killed in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. World War II decimated Polish cinema—the industry had been heavily Jewish—and A Strong Man was believed to be lost until a print turned up in the Royal Film Archive of Belgium in 1997. The rediscovery of this film, with its heat-lightning energy, emotional resonance, and Art Deco swank, resurrects a lost world. Its message, that lies in the end will unmask themselves, has not lost its relevance.
Presented at SFSFF 2017 with live music by Guenter Buchwald and Sascha Jacobsen