Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
COMMUNISM / The banality of evil in communist-era Poland explored through archive footage of secret police audio and film recordings.
Director: Tomasz Wolski
Producer: Anna Gawlita
Country: Poland

Tomasz Wolski’s impressive short film, which had its World Premiere at the online version of Switzerland’s Visions du Réel late April and is now screening in competition at Poland’s Krakow Film Festival, is likely to be compulsive viewing in its home country.

Found footage

An Ordinary Country is entirely made up of carefully – and cleverly – edited footage from the 1960s-1980s shot by Poland’s secret service, as they went about their business of catching ordinary people engaged in ordinary activities the communist state deemed criminal.

Here is a litany of grainy black and white visions of often shabbily dressed Poles coming and going from crumbling, unkempt buildings, and being caught for crimes of trying to find a little joy in a state who dictated that poverty for all (except the fat cat officials, of course) was the ultimate aim of socialism.

There is the drab middle-aged housewife – probably not much more than 40, but looking older – questioned about how much she paid for various household appliances, and how she could afford them on the money her husband, who worked onboard cruise ships docked in foreign (ie capitalist) ports, sent home each month.

She lists the car, the washing machine, the vacuum – the sort of consumer goods any Pole takes for granted today – before she is quizzed on what is in her weekly shopping basket. For anyone who was not alive during those days – either behind the Iron Curtain or looking on from the west, aghast at the privations and pettiness of communism, the scene is surreal. For those of us who remember, we know where this is headed: how could she afford all this opulence?

The punchline comes as the interrogator, having established that she only bought cheap cuts of meat, goes for the kill. What had happened to the expensive foreign goods, the nice blouses and other items her husband had been able to purchase with the small amounts of foreign currency he was allowed during visits to foreign ports? She still had them, she says. We don’t get to see what happens next – but it is not hard to imagine the police search of her property, going through her underwear drawer in a fruitless search for the silk lingerie she has long since sold.

Much of the film and audio archives of the secret police were destroyed between 1989 when Poland’s democratic reforms started, and the following year, when the service was disbanded. But what is left is stored in publicly accessible archives.

An Ordinary Country-POland-documentary-post
An Ordinary Country, a film by Tomasz Wolski

Surveillance state

Wolski has trawled through the archive to construct a narrative that follows an arc from the mundane housewife’s petty crimes, through the sexual misadventures of various couples not married to one another (useful to a service that was keen to recruit ordinary people to assist them through blackmail in their spying), to the profane complaints of snitches, bothered by the number of people attending a church service (which was legal). The congregation is spilling over into the streets, she complains. The point here is that private worship was tolerated in ultra-Catholic Poland, but public proselytizing was not.

It is not always clear what «crimes» those who are being followed are guilty of. What is in that packet the man in the hat holds so tightly under his arm as he walks with a friend to a bar, only to emerge later without the package. Why is the man who met a girlfriend in a park more terrified of his wife finding out than he is of signing up to spy for the secret service? What is the point of the team that goes to a hotel room to examine a recently slept in bed and take Polaroid photos of it all?

Much of the film and audio archives of the secret police were destroyed between 1989 when Poland’s democratic reforms started, and the following year, when the service was disbanded.

There is a depressing grubbiness about it all. It may all seem as if this was a long time ago. And that today it would be impossible for a service numbering 24,000 officers to recruit 90,000 collaborators among Polish citizens and many foreigners. But look around you in any country in the world, whether you consider it «free» or not – and on every lamppost, there is a camera, ever shop has dozens, every public space is spied upon.

It all makes the surveillance state of communist Poland seem quaint and somewhat amateurish.