Global Dispatches: Poland — Transition Cinema

February 22, 2011 Updated: April 10, 2011

WARSAW, Poland—Another weekend, another classic of Polish cinema under my belt. Over the past few weeks I’ve been riding the wave of an as-yet ill-defined cinematic genre: something I’m calling “transition cinema.”

Ok, I admit it. I just made that term up. But doesn’t “transition cinema” seem to describe the filmmaking that arises out of, is inspired by, and exposes the pathologies that accompany political transformation in countries emerging from repressive regimes whose human rights violations are, or were, the daily bread of the state security forces?

In my last contribution to the Epoch Times, I wrote about Man of Iron, a fantastic Polish film—also transition cinema—that won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1982.

This weekend, the Polish cult-classic Psy was on the menu. Released to critical acclaim three years after the fall of communism in 1989, it too was widely awarded. The literal translation of Psy is dogs, but a more accurate one is probably pigs, or any other pejorative term for the police.

The film follows a group of communist-era state security agents as they try to find a place for themselves in a new, democratic Poland. And as such, this film is much more than an action flick; it is a poignant reference to a dilemma that all state security apparatuses experience as they traverse the path of systemic transformation.

In a post-communist reality, state security forces turn their attention from protecting the regime against its own people to focusing on protecting the new system against mostly external threats. Under communism, security agents wield largely unchecked power and considerable influence—and enjoy the spoils of these, but as sentinels of democracy they must operate under a whole new set of constraints; they must obey the law and be accountable.

Moreover, former communist agents must undergo a verification process, typically some kind of vetting procedure, to absolve them of any communist-era crimes that would preclude them from being operative in the new society.

These two factors are an incentive for agents to look for alternative employment. Some of the agents from the highest echelons, with the best contacts and the greatest capabilities go on to become successful businessmen. Some others also become successful businessmen, but on the wrong side of the law.

In many instances, as was the case with Poland particularly in the first several years of transformation, agents who chose the wrong side of the law could have a crippling effect on the new, legitimate security apparatus because many former colleagues suddenly became adversaries.

This is the shadowy world that Psy forays into. A disturbingly entangled web that is actually not that far removed from the lived reality of those days.

At the beginning of the film, the aforementioned spooks are engaged in systematic file-burning midnight missions (things like that actually happened). As the records that might implicate them are set ablaze at a garbage dump, one of the old hands stumbles on a keen young police officer taking incriminating pictures, and threatens to execute him, saying:

“What do you think this is? […] Some playground contest for power? This is life and death, understand? […] You want to incriminate thousands of agents and informers? When you grow up, you’ll understand that politics is not what you see on the 6 o’clock news. Politics is us. Here. At this garbage dump. And we either make it out here, or we get buried here forever!”

An interesting little epilogue is that the communist-era secret service files in Poland, kept at the Institute for National Remembrance, have not been made public to this day.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek has a broad background in journalism, deposit insurance, marketing and communications, and adult education. The best writing advice he's ever heard is from Roy Peter Clark: 'Hit your target' and 'leave the best for last.'