Chiledoc Berlinale 2024

Coming full circle

JUSTICE / Poland’s populist nightmare seen through the unprecedented pressure judges are now under in an EU state fast becoming a pariah.
Director: Kacper Lisowski
Producer: Iwona Harris
Country: Poland

Kacper Lisowski shows senior members of Poland’s judiciary as you’ve never seen them before in Judges Under Pressure. From the moment the film’s opening titles squeeze a broad font title into a small, constricted space, this is a film with the tempo of a fast ticking clock.

Pivoting around Judge Igor Tuleya – who is facing disciplinary proceedings from an illegally established Supreme Court panel – Judges Under Pressure is an intimate portrayal of the unexpected heroes of the resistance by many Poles to the extreme right-wing measures introduced since the election of the Law and Justice Party in 2015.

Judges Under Pressure, a film by Kacper Lisowski
Judges Under Pressure, a film by Kacper Lisowski

Shocking disregard

The shocking disregard of populist politicians such as the country’s president, Andrzej Duda, and Law and Justice party head Jarosław Kaczyński, for Constitutional niceties makes Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, look like a rank amateur when it comes to political corruption.

Like Johnson, who suspended the British parliament when it attempted to stop him from implementing Brexit and then vilified judges for slamming his actions at illegal, Poland’s ruling party is leading a pogrom against judges that make rulings it does not like.

The growing stand-off between civil society and the bile-driven proponents of Polish populism has put the country at loggerheads with the European Court of Justice, which has ruled its judicial Disciplinary Chamber illegal. Poland’s Constitutional Court – now stuffed with Law and Justice Party cronies, has declared that Poland is no longer subject to European law. The country is currently on a collision course for what judges have defined as a possible Polexit – withdrawal from the EU – on legal grounds.

Judges Under Pressure, a film by Kacper Lisowski
Judges Under Pressure, a film by Kacper Lisowski

The inner world

Lisowski’s disturbing but very human story invites viewers into the inner world of dozens of judges, with Tuleya and a couple of others opening up their home lives, views, and emotions to his camera.

Tuleya is an engaging chain-smoking character in his 40s, who, when dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt, is indistinguishable from the youngsters he meets and gives workshops to at summer music festivals.

The growing stand-off between civil society and the bile-driven proponents of Polish populism has put the country at loggerheads with the European Court of Justice

A key member of Poland’s association of independent lawyers, Tuleya’s «offence» in the eyes of the illicit disciplinary chamber is a procedural one. Still, the true reason for his persecution is revealed in the rabid parliamentary speeches by Law and Justice MPs denouncing judges as an elite.

Independence and fealty to the Constitution – in a country only some 30 years free of Communism and 77 years liberated from the horrors of Nazi occupation – is now viewed by the ruling party as an obstacle to its getting its authoritarian way.

Judges like Tuleya know what they are up against and find the whole process both frightening and wearisome, but fight on, supported by faithful friends at every pointless court appearance.

Judges Under Pressure, a film by Kacper Lisowski

Separation of powers

Striking the right balance between a critical analysis of the position the beleaguered judges find themselves in – the film opens with a statement from 18th-century French judge and philosopher Montesquieu on the importance of the separation of powers between the executive, legislature, and judiciary – and a more emotional human-interest story, the director supports his argument that Poland is rushing headlong into authoritarianism with his engagingly intimate portrayal of the erudite and engaged judges being stream-rolled by the besuited parliamentary thugs of the Law and Justice Party.

We see the nervous board meetings of the independent judges association, as they discuss what they are up against and the tactics they will deploy; we are inside the Polish parliament’s Hall of Columns as chaotic scenes erupt when smooth-talking MPs introduce a bill seeking to strip away the independence of judges, and Lisowski’s camera is in the thick of it at the demonstration, declared illegal by the police.

The Kafkaesque nightmare quality of it all is not lost on the judges, who repeatedly petition the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg over the outrages being committed against them by a ruling party intent on unimpeached power.

The Kafkaesque nightmare quality of it all is not lost on the judges

There is no happy ending here. Judge Tuleya is suspended on 75% pay and loses his immunity from prosecution. With an existing medical condition exacerbated by the stress of fighting the political machine, the head of the prosecutors’ association resigns. The Supreme Court sticks two fingers up to the EU’s top court – the body that regulates the set of laws that maintain the community of 27 member states, and Poland’s future remains balanced on the edge of a precipice.

As a student journalist at Nottingham University in the early 1980s, I published an interview with a young Polish woman and fellow student, a member of Solidarity, who had been exiled while studying in the UK, by order of the Communist regime headed by General Jaruzelski. A few years after graduation, Poland regained its independence. The young Polish woman returned to her home country. I wonder how she feels today… in a state that seems to have come full circle.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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