After World War II, the district of Mazury (Masuria) – which had been previously subject to strident Gemanification – is handed over to Poland. Those residents of German roots leave for Germany. If they want to remain, they have to learn Polish and get along with new Polish settlers. In the summer of 1945, Tadeusz Mazur (Martin Dorocinski), a former Army soldier who lost everything in the war, arrives in the area. The man comes to a house owned by a woman named Rose (Agata Kulesza). She speaks German and Polish as the widow of a German soldier. Tadeusz learns the dramatic story of the woman's life - she was brutally raped by soldiers and forced into prostitution by the Soviets. Rose is treated with contempt by new settlers in Mazury, who look upon her as a German. An emotional tie flourishes between the soldier and Rose. 

Polish identity examined in superb WWII drama.

Amid all this uncertainty, what is clear is the talent of its maker

POLISH FILM FESTIVAL: Rose opens in media res on a man’s bloodied face in the immediate aftermath of battle, as he comes out of unconsciousness just in time to see, a few metres away, a young woman—his wife, we later learn—being raped on a heap of rubble by a Nazi soldier. The soldier’s comrades look on disinterestedly; when he’s done, they shoot her and walk away. It’s 1944, the Warsaw Uprising—but at once we cut forward in time, to the following year, and the same man, now bearded and gaunt, making his way across Masuria, the contested border between East Prussia and Poland. And again he witnesses mankind at its most bestial: prisoners (former collaborators?) being machine-gunned en masse by partisans; thieves running from looted houses with whatever they can carry.

A priest arranges for him to be billeted with a local woman, Rose. Venturing to her farmhouse, he finds a creature even more drab than her surroundings (rendered, like the rest of the film, in a bleached-out almost-monochrome by cinematographer Pitor Sobocinski Jr.—the son of the late cameraman who shot Kieslowski’s Three Colours Red). The widow of a Wehrmacht officer, she is tightly-bound, stoic, and remote; their relationship, initially, is strained. He agrees to stay on, at least for a while, to clear her land of mines. This means long weeks of criss-crossing blasted fields with a pitchfork, walking lightly and deliberately. Gently turning clods of muddy soil to reveal whatever crude mechanism may be concealed beneath. Then disposing of these.

After one such discovery—depicted here in nail-biting real-time—he returns to the house to find Rose being raped by two passing men, possibly Russians, but more likely their own countrymen. He chases them off, but is shocked by her resignation. Rape, he realises, is nothing new to her; rather, it’s the typical fate of women during wartime. Still, the incident awakens something in him, some protective instinct he thought extinct . . .

That the stranger and Rose should fall in love is, on the face of it, so unlikely, and so predictable, that it should invite scorn. Yet the achievement of Wojtek Smarzowski’s third feature—working from a spare, intelligent screenplay by Michal Szczerbic—is to make their romance not only credible, but intensely, thrillingly real. At first glance a war movie, the film in fact hews much closer to a western: a good man comes to town and slowly wins a woman’s love—and is obliged to defend his new home, not only against sundry marauders, but also more formidable foes, from Polish nationalists eager to unite the country under a single ethnic banner, to the cold-eyed apparatchiks of the Soviet NKVD.

The result bears comparison with Cate Shortland’s recent Lore—another look at war’s messy postscript, the division of spoils and the blurring of allegiances. Here, the question is a fundamental one: what constitutes a Polish identity? Clustered along the country’s northwestern border, The Mazurians are distinct from the Poles of Warsaw or Krakow or Katowice; they observe a different religion, and speak in a regional dialect far more Germanic than Slavic. Thus, when they petition a local garrison commander for food, they find themselves violently rebuked by a Red Army officer, who denounces them as Lutherists and Nazis. Where, exactly, and to whom do they belong?

Amid all this uncertainty, what is clear is the talent of its maker. Smarzowski’s previous film, The Old House (2010), was a gripping murder mystery, split across two time-periods, that seemed poised between Greek tragedy (the lessons of history, the implacability of fate) and the nihilistic violence of Jim Thompson’s pulp-noirs. There, as here, he bought a genre filmmaker’s concern with pacing and story to more substantial themes: his films are social critiques in the guise of mass entertainment. As such, he’s one of the most interesting directors to come from Central Europe in some time, and this raw, harrowing drama—beautifully shot, and faultlessly acted—is his finest work to date.