Hands Up!

Rece do góry/Hands Up! (1967/1981 Poland)

Prod Co: PRF/Syrena/Zespol Filmowy Dir, Art Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski Scr: Andrzej Kostenko, Jerzy Skolimowski Phot: Andrzej Kostenko, Witold Sobocinski Ed: Grazyna Jasinska Mus: Józef Skrzek

Cast: Jerzy Skolimowski, Joanna Szczerbic, Tadeusz Lomnicki, Adam Hanuszkiewicz, Bogumil Kobiela, Alan Bates, Jane Asher, Fred Zinnemann, Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta

Films, Jean-Luc Godard once said, can be political in one of two ways. They can reflect politics and carry a political, subversive, even revolutionary message or doctrine. In so doing, they can still be made conventionally, can arise from the mainstream of the society and the culture which produced them. On the other hand, he argued, films can also be made politically: that is, they can be political at the levels of form and style. This kind of political cinema entails a rethinking of the very practice of filmmaking, its fundamental grammar and syntax (the way Godard himself did in, say, Weekend [1967] or Sympathy for the Devil/One Plus One [1968], among numerous others).

The traumatic contemporary Polish experience has dominated the country’s cinema since World War II: from the war and resistance films of Jerzy Kawalrowicz (Prawdziwy koniec wielkiej wojny/The Real End of the Great War [1957]) and Andrzej Wajda, through Krzysztof Kieslowski’s searing stories of life under communism and martial law and on to modern explorations of new Polish capitalist fervour such as Feliks Falk’s Komornik/The Collector [2005]. However, common though political Polish films have generally remained, relatively few of them have ever actually been made politically. Rece do góry/Hands Up! by Jerzy Skolimowski is a startling rejoinder to this tendency.

Of the major directors to have emerged from the Polish New Wave of the early 1960s, Skolimowski is arguably the most eclectic and the hardest to define or categorise. He is certainly its most nomadic figure, having worked in a number of countries, styles and genres (psychological horror, sex and action comedy, historical adventure), proving adept not only as a director of fiction and documentary, but also an actor and screenwriter (he co-wrote Roman Polanski’s debut Nóz w wodzie /Knife in the Water [1962] and penned Wajda’s youth drama Niewinni czarodzieje/Innocent Sorcerers [1960]). Nonetheless, his best work is indelibly marked by a strong authorial personality, with a number of films drawing on his own experiences during and after the war (1). Hands Up!, which Skolimowski has claimed is the best of all his films, forms a loose trilogy with two preceding works – Rysopis/Identification Marks: None [1964] and Walkower/Walkover [1965] – that are linked by a character named Andrzej, played by Skolimowski himself. This third chapter was withdrawn from the Venice Film Festival and banned during the height of Stalinism in 1967. But 14 years later during the exalted, briefly liberalised climate of the new Solidarity movement in Poland, Skolimowski was invited to update Hands Up! and “re-release the film”, and in so doing return significantly to Polish cinema after leaving the country following his film’s original 1967 banishment.

The main outcome of this invitation was the addition of what is now the opening 25 minutes, for which Skolimowski removed over a third of the original film. For this reason, Hands Up! is particularly fascinating, a work that has undergone a marked reconsideration and re-contextualisation by its director. Thus, just as the characters in the main (1967) body of the narrative look back and re-evaluate their lives, actions and attendant feelings of selfhood, so to does Skolimowski in revisiting his film.

The resulting formal politicisation of his work announces a text director in search of something stable and tangible amid a morass of chaos and change – a viable, coherent sense of personal and national identity to hold against a world in flux. This helps explain the fractured style of the 1981 footage, and its juxtaposition of a number of dichotomous elements that would seem to clash with one another. It has been suggested that the 1981 footage adds or clarifies little with regard to the original 1967 work (2), but the relationship between the two sections is, in fact, revealing because of these apparent fissures. This notion is made manifest immediately in the disarming science-fiction trappings of the opening scenes, contrasted with the proto-documentary footage of war-torn Beirut. The implication is that there are discreet, mutually exclusive worlds meeting and competing in the film, and that these will structure the proceeding narrative. Indeed, it is specifically a nexus of incompatibilities that animate the 1967 drama: between past and present, between collective and individual responsibility (also symbolised in the move from golden-hued sepia to garish bright green).

This opposition then feeds directly into shots of Skolimowski working on New German Cinema director Volker Schlöndorff’s film Die Fälschung/Circle of Deceit (1981) (3), leading in turn to the introduction of ideas relating to art, filmmaking, and the politics of representation (something already alluded to in the paintings that are shown). What is stressed is both the possibilities and the limits of cinema. So we have science-fiction, a fantastically imagined anterior world, placed against a transparently searching attempt to capture the war, with the camera ceaselessly roving, panning and tilting as if searching to find its elusive subject. This is reinforced in the almost graphically-matched cut from the girl who is chased and subsequently shot to the painting of a woman in a similar pose, laying on the ground with her arm raised. Points about representation and artificiality are further underlined here by the anomalous presences of both Alan Bates and Jane Asher (two famous actors who had previously worked with Skolimowski) (4). Their cameo, character-less appearances position them precisely as actors, performers, and thus as markers of a Brechtian aesthetic that foregrounds the film’s concern with the mechanics of artistic (mis)representation.

As alluded to above, the politics of representation are not absent from the main body of the film (see the four-eyed picture of Stalin, a misrepresentation that is the focus of the flashbacks). Most overtly, though, this section plays out like a piece of experimental or absurdist theatre (something like Eugène Ionesco) on a single figurative stage, where Skolimowski thematically presents his characters-as-actors. That is, in conceiving of them as a generation (his own) who have betrayed themselves – who, for example, call themselves by the cars they each own – he symbolically reconfigures them as mere performers, facsimiles of real people, artificial entities lacking a real, definable self. As Mira and A. J. Liehm have noted, they are a generation living with their “hands up” (5), a dual image of celebration and surrender that forms the ultimate damnable evasion in this excoriating film.


  1. Even in Skolimowski’s international films, such as Deep End (1970) and the Nabokov adaptation King, Queen, Knave (1972), a thematic interest in youthful obsession, death and corrupted innocence creates a link to his more overtly personal, autobiographical works.
  2. See, for instance, Bruce Hodsdon, “Jerzy Skolimowski”, Great Directors Database: Senses of Cinema no. 27, July-August 2003.
  3. Circle of Deceit is itself a film built on a structuring dichotomy, between whether the protagonist (played by Bruno Ganz) should passively record or actively intervene in the war around him. In respect to this it is a clear precursor to Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo (1997).
  4. Alan Bates starred in Skolimowski’s horror adaptation The Shout (1978), whilst Asher was the unattainable ideal sought after by Deep End’s protagonist.
  5. See M & A. J. Liehm’s essay on Polish émigrés “Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski and the Polish Émigrés”, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. The Major Film-makers, Volume 2: Kinugasa to Zanussi, ed. Richard Roud, Martin Secker and Warburg, Great Britain, 1980, p. 783.

About The Author

Adam Bingham h as contributed several articles to Senses of Cinema over the years.

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