Risible, by David Bax
A lot of the PR around the release of Jan Komasa’s Warsaw Uprising has been about the unique back story of the footage itself. Using hours and hours of film shot during the two months in 1944 that Warsaw citizens spent rebelling against the Nazis, Poland’s Warsaw Uprising Museum has restored and, oddly, colorized an extensive documentation of a little told chapter of World War II. Colorization is usually a controversial process but this isn’t a Frank Capra classic we’re talking about. The clear intention is to increase the immediacy of the images and make them more impactful and realistic to movie-goers of today. In that – and almost only in that – the creators were successful.
The other thing that makes Warsaw Uprising unique is a confounding choice that wholly undercuts the painstaking efforts toward verisimilitude. Instead of assembling a straightforward documentary, Komasa and company have invented a narrative about three imaginary filmmakers shooting the footage, complete with actors playing the cameramen who are heard but never seen acting out scenarios while the footage rolls. Effectively, Warsaw Uprising is a fictional found-footage movie made of actual found footage.
What we have is a film that – well-intentioned though it may be – is so profoundly misguided from the very start that it’s difficult to imagine what, if anything, could be done to improve it. At times, it’s so off-kilter that it’s funny, probably the last thing the filmmakers would want this story to be. But when we hear a voice instructing the onscreen subject not to look directly at the camera and then she looks away, the obvious fact that the cause and effect were reversed makes it resemble nothing more than an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Mixing dramatizations with documentary inherently carries risks. You don’t always end up with The Thin Blue Line. More often than not, the results resemble a cheap, cable-TV, true crime docuseries. But Warsaw Uprising is a different animal entirely. Like with Vanessa Lapa’s recent film The Decent One, a full soundtrack of effects and foley work has been added in an attempt to make the experience more complete and immersive. The Decent One was more successful in this because it embraced the disconnect and the sound effects felt like something from a half-remembered nightmare. Here, it’s guilelessly in your face, like the sounds are being made on the fly by an amateur improve troupe.
So prominent is the contrived tale of the three cameramen that the film becomes less about the actual Warsaw uprising and more about filmmaking itself. We hear the characters pointing out battle footage that has obviously been staged for the camera. Their comments are left in because, in the project’s conceit, what we’re watching is not their final product. Later, we see what is meant to be their actual, finished film and it consists of footage we’ve already seen but now it’s in black and white again. It’s incredibly bizarre, like a multi-layered satire about making a movie in the vein of Synecdoche, New York.
One section of the film deals with the uprising’s weaponry. We see unexploded ordnance from enemy planes being carefully defused and the powder within being scooped out and reused in handmade grenades assembled by a line of female volunteers. It’s fascinating and it’s all the more impressive due to the fact that during this sequence, the characters quiet down, if not completely then at least enough to imagine what Warsaw Uprising would have been as a completely different movie, one that doesn’t inspire the question, “What were they thinking?”