An adaptation of socialist writer Andrzej Strug’s 1910 novel The Story of a Bullet (1), Agnieszka Holland’s Goraczka. Dzieje jednego pocisku (Fever) – which shifts emphasis to the “life” or “biography” of a bomb – could just as easily have been retitled The Story of a Bomb in the hands of an uninspired producer. The film opens with its credits superimposed over the construction of a bomb and ends with the bomb’s detonation. This “biography” is imperfect, however, and strays from the life of the bomb itself to other characters whose lives are independent of it. Leon (Olgierd Lukaszewicz) and Wojtek (Adam Ferency), perhaps the most interesting human characters in the film, are both introduced before they encounter the bomb. Fever, then, is the story of the individuals who encounter the bomb, not the bomb itself. The film focuses on their existence as members of a group, one to which they surrender their identities. This emphasis is important when placing the film in its political and cinematic context.
Fever is an explicitly political film that was released at an important moment in Polish political history. By the time the film was featured at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 1981, the strikes in Lublin, Gdansk and other cities had led to the rise of the Solidarity Movement (2). Following anti-communist strikes analogous to the anti-Tsarist strike depicted in the film, the Polish government began to discuss the possibility of imposing martial law. Two months after Fever’s domestic release, martial law would be invoked, leading to a Poland-wide halt in film production. These circumstances also led to Holland’s emigration and the shelving of Fever in the director’s home country (3).
This political context colours the film’s interpretation. As Halina Stephan notes, Americans of the Cold War-era welcomed the exiled authors of Poland “as […] anti-Communist [… and his or her works were] originally contextualized within the dissident tradition, regardless of the actual position of the writer v. the political power in the home country” (4). According to Maria T. Stalnaker, Holland’s later films are marked by a pattern of “wholeness, destruction and rebuilding of the individual” (5). She worries that American critics missed this element of Holland’s World War II films, Bittere Ernte (Bitter Harvest, 1985) and Europa, Europa (1990), because they were “trained to read Eastern European directors’ films […] as having a political context” (6).While she does not deny the presence of the political in Holland’s work, she worries that this subtext completely envelops the reception of the text. This essay seeks to remedy this common reading by placing Fever in its cinematic, rather than its political, context. Reading the film in a purely cinematic context, it argues that Fever exhibits characteristics of both the “cinema of moral concern” and the Czechoslovakian New Wave, without perfectly fitting into either movement.
Holland is most often described as part of the Polish “cinema of moral concern”. Typical features of this school included “documentary realism, dealing with everyday issues and displaying explicit political commitment” (7). Fever’s historical focus and emphasis on meta-narratives distinguishes it from the moral concern films.Dina Iordonava is probably right to distinguish the film from Holland’s work within this movement (8).
Importantly, however, the terrorists do resemble the heroes found in the “cinema of moral concern”. The intertitle at the beginning of Fever clearly labels socialist militants as the film’s heroes. It is tempting to suggest that this description of heroism is ironic, particularly given the film’s political context. These so-called revolutionary actors resemble bunglers. The credit sequence ends with a close-up of the bomb-maker’s face as he sucks blood from his own finger; the bomb has cut its own creator, inflicting damage on the revolutionary himself. This prefigures the fate of all those who come into contact with the bomb.
Fever is a unique film in Holland’s oeuvre. Unlike the later films Stalnaker describes, the characters in this film (and their political identities) begin as wholes, face destruction, and then remain in tatters. Nothing is “rebuilt”. Those who try to use the bomb are unable to do so; one succumbs to madness and another is savagely beaten. Other individuals who simply hold on to the bomb and never even attempt to use it share similar fates: Leon is incarcerated and Wojtek is hung. The would-be terrorists’ lack of success could be read as an ironic indictment of socialism. Leon and Wotjek’s direct manner is nevertheless consistent with the “hero of a film of moral concern” who “faces his problems” and “fights them head on” (9). The possible irony is complicated by the film’s placement in cinematic, rather than political, history.
Holland’s links to the Czechoslovakian New Wave are also relevant. Blacklisted from the National Film School in Łódź due to her father’s arrest in 1961, Holland attended film school at FAMU in Prague where she was taught by the leading filmmaker of the Czechoslovakian New Wave, Milos Forman (10). Her focus on group psychology rather than the psyches of individuals is consistent with this New Wave (11). No one in Fever dominates the story (except the bomb); the human cinematic protagonist exists as a collective. Furthermore, the film’s most positive moment occurs during a workers’ rally focusing on shared joy and many of the film’s key scenes take place at political rallies where the power dynamics are frequently shifting (even if Leon is often at the helm).
It is ultimately this very focus on the group that links the film back to the political and invites its common interpretation as a film largely reflective of its political context. Early in the film, Leon’s sex with his companion is followed by a close-up of her smile. She caresses his hand and an edit brings us back to her smile as she looks across a political meeting at Leon. The individual and political are equated here and it is the latter that ultimately wins out; her insanity and his cruelty are the results of their sheer commitment to the political (12). After the meeting, she refuses sex with someone else due to other socialists being in prison: “What has that got to do with it?” he asks, “You cannot spend your whole life on a pedestal”. Pure ideology is ultimately her undoing. The film’s political commitment is made clear by the consequences of this outlook. Placing this commitment within two cinematic traditions that highlight the political gives it greater resonance.
- Boleslaw Michalek and Frank Turaj, The Modern Cinema of Poland, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1988, p. 71.
- Andrzej Chodakowski and Andrzej Zajackowski’s Workers 80 (1980) documented post-Gdansk negotiations between the workers and the government; Michalek and Turaj, pp. 74-75.
- Maria T. Stalnaker, “Agnieszka Holland Reads Hollywood”, Living in Translation: Polish Writers in America, ed. Halina Stephan, Rodopi, Amsterdam, 2003, p. 318 and 79.
- Halina Stephan, “Introduction: The Last Exiles”, Living in Translation: Polish Writers in America, p. 16.
- Stalnaker, p. 320 (concerning her World War II films), p. 325 (concerning Total Eclipse , her biography of the poet Arthur Rimbaud).
- Stalnaker, p. 320.
- Dina Iordanova, Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film, Wallflower Press, London and New York, 2003, p. 110.
- Iordanova, p. 122. In Poland, Holland “directed some remarkable films of the ‘moral concern’ strand, and a key subversive feature exposing the moral faults of Community Ideology (Fever, 1981)”.
- Michalek and Turaj, p. 73.
- Stalnaker, p. 316.
- Stalnaker, p. 316.
- While the emphasis on group dynamics is characteristic of the Czechoslovakian New Wave, the interplay between the personal and the political is a feature of the “cinema of moral concern” of Krzysztof Zanussi. Zanussi’s moral concern films “focused on problems arising at the intersection of personal interest and socio-political demands” and the dilemmas of trying to correlate them. Zanussi often emphasised the former in his work. See Iordanova, p. 109.
Goraczka. Dzieje jednego pocisku/Fever (1981 Poland 122 mins)
Prod Co: Film Polski Film Agency/Zespól Filmowy “X” Dir: Agnieszka Holland Scr: Krzysztof Teodor Toeplitz, from the novel The Story of a Bullet by Andrzej Strug Phot: Jacek Petrycki Ed: Halina Nawrocka Prod Des: Andrzej Przedworski Mus: Jan Kanty Pawluskiewicz
Cast: Barbara Grabowska, Adama Ferency, Olgierd Lukaszewicz, Boguslaw Linda, Tomasz Miedzik, Aleksiej Awdiejew