Now here's an opening scene you will not
see any time soon in a mainstream American film. First, darkness and silence. Next,
the creak of a rusted metal door crashing open. A sliver of dirty light sighs
across a filthy floor. Amidst what might be stains of blood, urine or feces on
this concrete floor is the emaciated body of a naked man. His flesh, the floor,
the light, all are sepia-toned, as if in a time-yellowed painting by an old
master. This is not a crucifixion portrait; the man is horizontal on the bare
floor, not vertical on a cross, but clearly, he is being martyred. The man's
head rises from his arm, which he had been using as a pillow. He gasps for air.
He blinks. He has been in darkness so long that light, a gift of which he has
apparently been deprived for a long time, is more than he can take. He shields
his eyes. He looks down.
Two thugs drag the naked form down a
dark hall. In the distance, there are muffled screams. The naked man's flaccid
form is handcuffed to a wooden slab. A bucket of cold water splashes over him.
Another man, this one faux jolly and wearing an ostentatious coat with wide,
shearling lapels, greets his victim. The smiling interrogator in the pimp coat
asks for information. The handcuffed man says nothing. The interrogator tells
the two thugs, "Manicure." A thug turns to a table well-stocked with
tools. A door closes. Wrenching screams.
The man receiving the "manicure" is Antoni Baraniak (portrayed here by actor Artur Krajewski.) Baraniak was a Polish, Catholic bishop. His torturers were communists.
Bishop Antoni Baraniak "was imprisoned
for three years … He was interrogated 145 times sometimes for several hours in
a row. He had his fingernails pulled out and was often held for many days naked
in a freezing cold cell full of feces. In spite of cruel tortures he never
Young Americans today might think of "Uncle
Bernie" Sanders, who promises them free college, no strings attached, when
they think of communists. If they ever saw movies like Prophet they
might understand communism differently.
Prorok, or Prophet is a Polish-language
film, with English subtitles, that had a limited release in the United States
on November 15 and 17, 2022. Prophet depicts the decades-long conflict
between Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski and Polish communists who operated under the
control of the USSR. Prophet was directed by Michal Kondrat, and the
screenplay was by Katarzyna Bogucka, Johanna Dudek, and Karolina Slyk. The film
is in color and the runtime is a bit over two hours.
Prophet focuses on Wyszynski's life between his
1956 release from communist internment and 1978, when Karol Wojtyla was elected
pope. There are many scenes of Wyszynski facing off with Wladyslaw Gomulka,
First Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party of the Polish People's
Republic. Prophet argues that were it not for Stefan Wyszynski, and his
understanding of Catholicism, Soviet communism would have had a much easier
time of it in Poland, and, thus, in all of Eastern Europe. Poland
was "the second largest country in the Warsaw Pact in terms of
area, population, and military capacity." Without Wyszynski, this film
implies, communism might not have fallen in 1989.
Poland's Catholicism has often been
cited as a force that helped to bring an end to the Soviet Empire. Poland's
Catholicism might have been much less of a cultural force had it not been for
Wyszynski. Scholar Radoslaw Gross argues that Poland
was becoming more secular after WW II, and Wyszynski's efforts, efforts that
are dramatized in Prophet, reversed that secularizing course. In Prophet,
Wyszynski says that if his plans for spiritual renewal in Poland are
successful, a "strong moral force" will present Polish people with an
alternative to communism, and communism will fall on its own. He says that
without that "strong moral force," Poland would be like Hungary or
Czechoslovakia. Both countries were both less free under communism, and also
In Prophet, Wyszynski's vision is
not a of a dramatic, apocalyptic battle, but, rather, day-to-day, patient,
unglamorous, hard work and commitment. "We don't need heroic deaths in the
name of love," says the film's Wyszynski, "but rather we need heroic
work for the sake of our beloved homeland … I want this to take root in the
soul of each of you like a seed in the
ground. It must grow and bear fruit." The metaphor of sowing a seed and
waiting for harvest is used throughout the film.
In addition to Wyszynski's headline- and
history-making negotiations with communist powerbrokers, Prophet depicts
Stefan Wyszynski the man, who was known as "the worker priest" for his commitment to
and engagement with average people, including blind children, workers, and
farmers. Intertwined subplots involve Magda, a wife and schoolteacher; Kazia, a
street urchin and shoplifter; Janek, an "artistic" filmmaker; a
priest who betrays Wyszynski to the communists; and "The Eights," a
clandestine group of Catholic women who keep the dissident presses running.
Prophet is emotionally engaging, aesthetically
pleasing, and informative. I watched it three times, and each time I watched, I
saw more to value.
Because I'm a Polish-American and
Catholic, I wanted to know what someone not of my heritage and faith would make
of this movie. I asked Otto Gross, a German-American Protestant, to watch it. I
told him nothing about it. He wrote to me, "It's a great movie. It's
important. It will be a hard sell to American audiences because there are no
car chases and no sex. It wasn't fluffy. It's what people need to see. This
movie is not just about the past. It's about now. About propaganda, about
attempts to manipulate the public, about power. It's about stubborn, unbending
belief in false utopias and the evil people do in support of those false
utopias. The film depicts the power of Christ flowing through human beings in a
I was happy to learn that not just
Polish viewers can find much to value in Prophet.
Prophet captures its era. Interior and exterior
sets, costumes, cars, trains, and even tanks are authentic-looking.
Cinematographer Mateusz Pastewska, a young man in sneakers,
admitted that the film was a "huge challenge." He has nothing to
worry about; his images vividly capture the light in torture chambers, smoke-filled
rooms of communist plotters, tear-gas-smeared riots, farmers' fields, and
church interiors. If you prefer to watch movies that look expensive, even if
they were shot on a budget – and I do – Prophet will not let you down.
In too many American dramas, I find
actors only marginally convincing when they attempt to appear as if they are
serious people having serious conversations about serious things. I see too
much of the actor beneath the pose; I see the packaging, even in performances
by acclaimed stars like Robert DeNiro.
Every performance in Prophet is
superb. Director Kondrat performed a minor miracle himself. He managed to find actors
who bear a strong resemblance to the historical figures they depict. Adam
Ferency looks like Wladyslaw Gomulka, the First Secretary of the Polish People's
Republic; Slawomir Grzymkowski looks like Stefan Wyszynski; Marcin Tronski
looks like Polish Prime Minister Jozef Cyrankiewicz.
These actors don't just look like the
characters they portray; they convince you that they are the characters they
portray. The actors playing communists are as sterile and creepy, as
alternately bullying and cringingly servile as you'd imagine they'd be when
behind closed doors weaving their noxious webs of power, deceit, and betrayal
of the working men and women in whose name they slowly strangle a nation. Even
as they make your skin crawl, you feel for them. They must believe some of the
garbage they are spewing. They are struggling to make the workers' paradise a
reality, even as they try to avoid being crushed like bugs by Moscow.
Actors populating the subplots, subplots
that depict slices of everyday life in communist Poland, are no less
impressive. Katarzyna Zawadzka plays Magda, a schoolteacher. Zawadzka radiates
maternal, feminine warmth in her job as a teacher of young children. Later,
when, pushed to the limit, she nags her husband like a shrew. He earns only
enough money for the two of them to afford a shared flat with noisy neighbors
who steal her homemade soup. Karolina Bruchnicka as Kazia, a street urchin,
shoplifter, and young lady with anger management issues, inhabits her part
seamlessly. She scared me.
Malgorzata Buczkowska plays Maria Okonska. She's not onscreen much, and
has few lines, so in a casual viewing, you might miss her. But don't. The real
Maria Okonska was as worthy of a biopic as Wyszynski himself. She got her
degree secretly, under Nazi occupation, when such education was banned for Poles and punishable with death.
Okonska participated in the Warsaw Uprising, which took the lives of about
200,000 Poles. After the war, she continued Catholic work among girls. For
this, communists arrested and imprisoned her.
In Prophet, Okonska visits the
wild young Kazia, rotting away in prison. Kazia wasn't arrested for shoplifting;
she was arrested because the secret police demanded that she invent material to
slander Wyszynski, and she refused.
In the film, Maria Okonska walks toward
the prison housing Kazia. Okonska is utterly feminine. Her jacket and skirt are
immaculate; her hair nicely done. Her high heels click as she strides. But her
face telegraphs as much determination as a ship's figurehead, daring the waves.
Her spine is straight as a ruler. You would not mess with this seductively beautiful
creature, however much you might want to.
In the lock-up, sad young Kazia
complains about how hard it is to be imprisoned unjustly. In an American film,
Okonska would have hugged young Kazia and reassured her. But this is a Polish
movie. Okonska, her face stern and clinical, says, "You're strong. You can
take it. I've been in prison, too." And then this elegant female displays
her skills by smuggling, through the prison bars, a letter into Kazia's hands.
Krystyna Tkacz, as a nun who swats
anyone who messes with her cooking; Kazimierz Mazur as Stash, the chauffeur;
Daniel Guzdek, as the guy in the basement running the reel-to-reel recording
device for the secret police; the impatient post office worker; the big guy at
the riot who carries off Kazia … I know these people. I met them in Poland.
Even these small parts are rounded characters.
The film depicts the little miseries of
everyday life in communist Poland. Kazia and her chronically ill mother share an
apartment with several other people. The inhabitants are not friends; they just
have no place else to go. No one in that apartment appears to like anyone else.
People dress in underwear and speak rudely. The masses whose souls both
Catholics and Communists wrestle over were not always noble. Some of them were
Magda is fired from her teaching job
because of her association with Wyszynski. Janek, the "artist," is
slowly sucked into selling his soul to the communists. He wants to get Magda
out of that shared apartment where only a glass door separates them from the
losers they have to live with.
I was especially impressed by the film's
handling of Bishop Antoni Baraniak, and Artur Krajewski's performance. Baraniak
is a torture survivor, and the film makes no attempt to depict him as a happy
fella revived by a Christian miracle. Throughout the film, he appears wasted,
overwhelmed, angry, suspicious, and sad. He acknowledges that expensive booze
is one thing keeping him going. But that's just it. He just keeps going, in
spite of his apparent PTSD; this is a very Polish thing to do. I fear that in
an American-made Christian film, a Baraniak character would be forced to flash
a big, toothy smile and declare, "God
is good all the time!"
In a just world, Slawomir Grzymkowski,
who plays Wyszynski, would be onstage at the next Oscars accepting his award
for best lead actor. It's not easy to convey the quiet strength of a man who
responds to his friend's being beaten to death in the street by communist thugs
by saying, "I will pray." That's not an action hero thing to say. But
Grzymkowski convinces the viewer that that response, so often mocked by
sneering Christophobes and Atheists, "I will pray," is an immensely
Director Kondrat received transcripts of Wyszynski's
conversations with Poland's communist leaders and used those transcripts in
recreating scenes. Even in these talky scenes, the type of scenes that action-movie
fans despise, there is quiet action. Before the movie's timeline, Wyszynski had
had to hide out from Nazis. Nazis murdered almost twenty percent of Polish clergy. Wyszynski
was a special target because he had published anti-Nazi material. After the
war, Wyszynski was imprisoned by communists for three years. "How many
divisions has the pope?" Stalin asked. Wyszynski has no weapons. Gomulka
has the USSR behind him. Even so, Grzymkowski imbues his portrayal of Wyszynski
with quiet power, even in such small gestures as simply leaving rooms when he
feels he has said what needed to be said, and not waiting to be dismissed.
Wyszynski's meetings with Gomulka are a
teeter-totter ride. Each side flaunts its own weapons of choice, and signals
exactly how much he is willing to surrender to reach an agreement. Sometimes
one or the other is on top or on the bottom. The Pope warns Wyszynski that some
think he is giving too much to the communists. The communists worry that
Wyszynski "grabbed a finger and took a hand."
In one scene, behind Wyszynski, there
are two small flags. One flag is Polish; the other flag is the red and yellow hammer
and sickle flag of the USSR. Gomulka attempts to manipulate Wyszynski. He
insists that he, Gomulka, wants Poland to remain a sovereign, independent
nation. If Gomulka gives Wyszynski too much, though, he implies, Soviet tanks
will roll back into Poland.
Wyszynski, for his part, commands other
forces. When Gomulka stubbornly refuses to allow Catholics to build enough
churches to accommodate parishioners, Wyszynski quietly says, "I can
permit Poles to keep the Eucharist in their private homes. You'll then have
millions of churches." In these negotiations, Wyszynski is proud, but
never arrogant. Grzymkowski walks a the fine line between life-nurturing,
paternal authority and life-destroying, oppressive domination, a balance that real
men in real life struggle to achieve.
Gomulka, when chatting alone with his
comrades, Zenon Kliszko, who was Gomulka's right hand
man, and Prime Minister Jozef Cyrankiewicz, makes clear that every
promise he makes to Wyszynski is merely a ploy to weaken Wyszynski and,
eventually, strengthen atheistic communism.
Prime Minister Jozef Cyrankiewicz was an interesting creature. His father was a
Polish nationalist and his maternal grandfather was a successful businessman.
He fought in the Polish resistance against Nazi Germany, was arrested, and sent
to Auschwitz. From that inauspicious address, Cyrankiewicz rose to power and an
elegant life of luxury in post-World-War-II, communist Poland. He was
"well-read, cultured, a bon vivant." Jan Karski said that
Cyrankiewicz helped Karski escape from the Gestapo. Karski described
Cyrankiewicz as "the most intelligent and enlightened" of Polish
All of Cyrankiewicz's human complexity
fell by the wayside when he spoke to the masses. Cyrankiewicz's words from a 1956 speech delivered after one of many
deadly Polish uprisings against communist rule make clear what kind of people
Wyszynski was dealing with. "Every provocateur or madman who dares to
raise his hand against the people's government, let him be sure that the
authorities will chop off his hand in the interest of the working class, in the
interest of the working peasantry and the intelligentsia, in the interest of
the struggle to raise the standard of living of the population, in the interest
of further democratization of our lives, in the interest of our homeland."
In short, Wyszynski was negotiating with amoral communists who lied to him at
every step and had no qualms about killing their fellow Poles.
Wladyslaw Gomulka, Jozef Cyrankiewicz,
and Zenon Kliszko were all Poles, born in Poland, but they gained power through
the USSR. Stalin said that imposing communism on Poland was like putting a
saddle on a cow. Kondrat dramatizes the communists' alienation from the
surrounding Polish population in numerous ways. The communists are shown
wearing new, high quality trench coats and fedoras, while surrounding Poles are
wearing less formal attire. Communists hold conspiratorial meetings in
spacious, dimly lit, smoke-filled rooms full of heavy, ornate, wooden
furniture. They look like Mafiosi from a Godfather movie. When Kliszko
and a fellow communist drive out into the Polish countryside, their car breaks
down and they have to walk through a field. They look terribly out of place,
and one man keeps falling in mud. "Next time we should take a tractor,"
he says. Later they have to use a public telephone. The average Poles in the
post office look quietly terrified of these communist bigwigs. Clearly these
men do not represent the "workers." Gomulka is shown swimming, alone,
in a luxurious swimming pool. He is accompanied by an attractive girl in a
bathing suit. Communist privileges like this are contrasted with the crowded
shared apartments average people must inhabit.
A couple of scenes in this movie
resonate deeply for me. Wyszynski reminisces about his wartime experience as a
chaplain to the Home Army. In this flashback, a young Wyszynski is in a trench
full of Polish soldiers strafed by Nazis. A soldier cries out that he wants to
die. Wyszynski grabs him and shouts, "You want to live!" He looks
over the rim of the trench and witnesses a fantastical scene. A peasant is
slowly striding across the battlefield, scattering seed into furrows. Wyszynski
runs from the trench, tackles the peasant, and pushes him to the ground. Both
just escape death from German fire. "We must sow," the peasant says. "Otherwise
only wasteland will remain."
I don't know if this scene is meant to
depict a real event or if it is a visual metaphor and fantasy sequence. As
someone familiar with Polish history, I found it deeply moving. Life can be
very hard, and yet, even in the worst of times, "we must sow."
Indeed, Wyszynski repeats the "sowing" metaphor at other points in
the film. Too, there is a Polish song, "Musimy
Siac," whose lyrics insist,
We must sow, although our land is poor,
although we lack plows and harrows for
We must sow, although the wind carries
away the seed,
although flocks of crows follow the
Part of Wyszynski's plan to revive
Polish spirituality is a pilgrimage of a copy of the famous icon of the Black
Madonna of Czestochowa. Villagers parade with the image, singing hymns. In real
life, and in the film, communists arrested the image. This is ironic, of
course. As atheists, they insist that God does not exist and that religious art
has no meaning or power. And yet they felt the need to arrest an image.
The film opens, as mentioned above, with
Bishop Antoni Baraniak, an abused prisoner of Soviet communism who has been
almost blinded by that abuse. In an intended or accidental parallelism, the
film's conclusion includes an abused prisoner of Soviet communism who was
almost blinded by that abuse. General Wojciech Jaruzelski (Krzysztof Dracz)
makes an appearance toward the end of the movie. After invading Poland in 1939,
the USSR deported over a million Poles to Siberia and other remote locations.
Jaruzelski was deported as a teenager. He suffered snow blindness and had to
wear dark glasses for the rest of his life. In spite of this victimization at
the hands of the USSR, Jaruzelski became "A tragic believer in Communism
who made a pact with the devil in good faith" according to Croatian writer
Slavenka Drakulic. The metaphor of blindness and light is obvious. Baraniak
chose one light; Jaruzelski, another.
Another intentional or accidental bit of
parallelism. In the opening torture scene, the interrogator is wearing a coat
with wide, shearling lapels. In a scene close to the conclusion, a character
who has sold his soul to communists for financial gain is wearing a coat with wide,
I liked the soundtrack – as the
soundtrack of a different movie. Prophet is, for the most part, a quiet
film, and the soundtrack is intrusive and bombastic, more suited to an action
flick. Given how many storylines the film is juggling, editing could have been
handled more smoothly. Scenes are cut abruptly.
I wish the film had mentioned the 1968 Polish crisis. Students and
intellectuals rose up against communism. Part of the ruling communists' efforts
to quell these protests and to suppress dissidents was a government push to
scapegoat Jews and drive them out of Poland. The cynicism of Poland's communist
leaders is exemplified by Gomulka. Gomulka's own wife, Zofia, was a Jewish
Wyszynski saw through the communists' anti-Semitic
attempt to manipulate the masses. He wrote, "In fact, everything must be
attributed to the internal games within the government of the Polish People's
Republic. The political authorities at the present time want to limit themselves
to a crackdown on 'Zionism' and 'warmongers.' They want to outmaneuver the
academic youth, the workers, and the Church."
Further, "In his homily on 11 April
1968, he mentioned the duty to love everyone, regardless of speech, language,
or race. 'The former Chief Rabbi of Poland, Zew Wawa Morejno, thanked Primate
Wyszynski for this attitude toward Jews, both in 1968 and 1971,' … During the
Six-Day War in 1967, the Cardinal, in contrast to the authorities of the Polish
People's Republic, who supported the Arab side, supported Israel."
These criticisms aside, Prophet is
an excellent film that exposes viewers to some of the realities of life under
communism, and that inspires the viewer with the life of a beautiful man. I
don't know how mass American audiences will be able to see this film. As
mentioned, so far, it has been shown in the US on two days in November, 2022,
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery