Jerzy Kawalerowicz is known for his attention to detail, and in Death of a President (1977) the textures are so clear that a casual viewer ignorant of cinema history might be forgiven for assuming it was a contemporary biography, despite its release more than half a century after these events, of Gabriel Narutowicz, the first president elect of the Second Polish Republic, who served only a few days before his assassination in 1922. Cold War Poland’s political climate was a nervous one, skirting the line between open criticism and self-expression, and maintaining an acceptable degree of political obsequiousness. The Polish Film School’s break from the Social Realist movement that dominated much of the Eastern Bloc’s artistic discourse would, until the institution of martial law in 1981, allow for a close examination of Poland’s own relationship to its history and mythology, as well as indirect criticism that challenged Poland’s place in the Eastern Bloc.
Death of a President exists within this historical context, but also provides post-Bloc viewers a chance to pick apart any Cold War subtext that may be lurking in a subject that predates the fall of the Second Republic. Yet Kawalerowicz maintained in an oft-cited 2001 interview with Ray Privett that this slice of history was “based on very precise and accurate documentation of political events”, going so far as to “[copy] what people said in real life. So the history is shown day by day, exactly as it was.”
Yet were the Socialists blameless in the escalation that lead up to clashes during the President’s inauguration? Were the Nationalists in lockstep, instigating so readily as in the film? Perhaps, but remembering when the film was made, our contemporary biases may twist the details. Is Kawalerowicz interpreting the documents for us? Does he emphasize Narutowicz’s atheism, for example? Narutowicz may very well have been atheist, or alternatively this could have been mere slander used by traditionalists. Atheism might have been more acceptable in 1977 (despite the predominantly Catholic Polish resistance to Marxist ideals). So when Narutowicz ‘s atheism is portrayed – for example, he alone doesn’t sing in church following his swearing-in as minister – it becomes a virtue.
It is through these potentially divisive layers that we view Death of a President, yet the President himself is depicted as a living compromise, living apart from the Absolutists surrounding him. Narutowicz gains prominence in part because of his agreeableness. After the death of his wife he leaves Switzerland, where he had spent most of his life after a convalescence there when he was young. He went on to serve in the ministry of Poland’s transitional government, following its liberation and the founding of its constitution. He is thrust into higher office despite having no desire to run; the factions of the left see him as inoffensive and capable.
From Election Day through to his contested inauguration, the transfer of powers, and finally an innocuous tour of an art gallery, Death seem to be closing in on the capital. This ominousness is underscored by our knowledge of Narutowicz’s fate, explicit in the title; it is no spoiler, but the heart of the machine that grinds toward him. It is the source of dread that, despite getting to know little of the stoic Narutowicz, evokes sympathy. Kawalerowicz sympathizes too: Narutowicz delivering lines of wisdom and ill-omen, eschewing the chance to buck tradition during his swearing-in, discarding a pistol he’d had while in Switzerland, and not bothering to address extremists whose rhetoric drives an idealist to strike Narutowicz down.
What we learn of the assassin Niewiadomski – who curiously spends more time giving speeches than his victim – is contradictory and unflattering. He believes in strong leaders, yet his original intended victim is former Chief of State, Józef Piłsudski, an unelected marshal who commanded strong respect following his helping oust the Soviets only a few years earlier. He states during his trial that he respected Narutowicz, but not what he represented – as if the two were separable. Niewiadomski’s post-facto speeches are intercut with the daily events leading to the assassination that are the majority of the film —made all the more grave from the near lack of a score: other than the opening credits, we hear droning percussion as the camera zooms in on Narutowicz exchanging glances with Marshal Piłsudski, as though he sees his doom after Piłsudski hands over power.
The comparison to Christ may not be germane, but engrained as it is in a Christian-influenced culture it’s difficult to wend away from. Narutowicz symbolically asks his attendant to look after his charges should anything happen to him, as if knowing what would come next. Yet this isn’t prophecy, as he expects to meet with a friend of his on a hunting trip that was postponed after his unexpected accession.
At no time do we see shots that feel ungrounded; the hand-held camera adds immediacy and weight. The attention to incidental details like the winter clothing, the withered stone streets, and the period furniture cement us in the moment. Even the choice of film is significant– when talking about his lauded Mother Joan of the Angels Kawalerowicz said that he couldn’t “…imagine this film in color. Color lends a certain banality.” This supposed banality of colour, used here, allows the film to document the resonance of the period better than reconstructive wide shots or special effects could have done.
There is no escaping a sense of distance in Death of a President. We cannot know the totality of the real-life events that occurred, even if source documents were religiously adhered to. We bring our prejudices, as did the protestors, the politicians, the police who failed to restore order, and the filmmakers who attempt to recreate the events in question. Now approaching one hundred years since Gabriel Narutowicz’s assassination, we are allowed a glimpse of a man as he flickers briefly through the imperfect lens of film, before Death peels back the veil and removes him from our sight.
Death of a President (1977 Poland 137min)
Prod Co: KADR ManagingProd: Urszula Orczykowska, Zygmunt Wójcik Scr: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Bolesław Michałek Dir: Jerzy Kawalerowicz Phot: Witold Sobociński, Jerzy Łukaszewicz Ed: Wiesława Otocka Music: Adam Walaciński
Cast: Zdzisław Mrożewski, Marek Walczewski, Henryk Bista, Czesław Byszewski, Jerzy Duszyński