Richard Lewis emerges once again to review the latest Polish movie 25 Years of Innocence, which is currently showing at Kino Nowe Horizonty with English subtitles. The true story set here in Wrocław is a chilling reminder of the systematic failings and brutality that recently occurred in our gleaming, modern city.
There’s been a lot of escapism in the rather paltry cinema offerings of late. From the Disney Mulan adventure, Christopher Nolan’s incomprehensible Sci-Fi thriller Tenet, to something about when the X-Men were children.
For me at least, it was good to feel a little more grounded in reality. It’s been a hard year for many of us, spending more time than we wished to at home under lockdown, not being able to see our friends and family, having our plans for the year ruined.
But time for some perspective please. For not so long ago, young Wrocławian Tomasz Komenda was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. The film 25 lat niewinności’ or 25 Years of Innocence’ (directed by Jan Holoubek) tells his true story.
Wrocław at the turn of a millennium wasn’t a European Capital of Culture. The film shows us times, very much in living memory when the city was colder, greyer, and had a rather more sinister air. One of the film’s greatest strengths is the attention to period detail and atmosphere as the events unfold. The movie depicts grim mid-town tenement houses, offices fogged with smoke, not to mention the decrepit Dickensian prison cells in which we are immersed.
I was reminded of how HBO’s Chernobyl meticulously sought to evoke that series’ setting through the many smaller details; the plastic cup holders, beaten up crackling old radios, that sort of thing. You can almost smell the scenes. The period setting is enriched with background TV and music references, the occasional glimpse of news bulletins and snippets of pop music.
Most starkly for those of us who live here was the conspicuous fact that this is a Wrocław movie, a story that happened in our midst. Komenda (moving played by Piotr Trojan) was man who had only a basic school education.
At the age of 23 he worked at a car wash yet didn’t own a car. He had a naivety and innocence to his personality. Despite his modest life, living with his doting mother (portrayed by Agata Kulesza, known for her leading role in 2013’s Ida) and his weedy physique he nonetheless had a charm about him that could still attract local girls. He was humble, gentle, and friendly.
Three years previously, in 1997 there was a brutal rape and murder of a 15 year old in a settlement on the outskirts of Wrocław called Miłoszyce. It occurred after a local New Year’s Eve party and with some 300 people in attendance who could testify they saw her celebrating there.
Due to a mixture of incompetence, corruption, and the malicious gossip of a nosy neighbour, the police, humiliated at their lack of a lead and under growing pressure for a conviction after so long, found themselves hauling Komenda in, dragging him from his family flat at dawn.
What follows is a grim tragedy. There could not be a greater contrast between the personality of Komenda and the brutality of what he was then to endure. From stone faced prosecutors to ogres that he languished with in cramped stinking cells, the poor fellow was abused from top to bottom of Polish society.
The acting is good, the gravity of his situation is horrifying to behold. As what in British prison parlance would be called a ‘nonce’, he was earmarked for especially brutal treatment by his crazed fellow inmates. He barely settles in to his sentence before being made aware the nature of his conviction means what they have in store for him will often take a sexual theme.
While the scenes of prison torture and abuse are many and horrifying, they stop short of depicting them too graphically. Still, I warn you there are some quite sadistic scenarios that maybe aren’t for everyone. Being a true story however, I do feel it was important that this film was made. The hopelessness and terror was only intensified by the numerous failed appeal hearings and courtroom encounters. The narrative is drawn together neatly and thanks to date markers on screen, the legal process was easy to follow.
So, without a hint of melodrama and all the realism of Alan Clarke’s 1979 British borstal in Scum, we live through the nightmare of Komendy’s incarceration and yet there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Throughout this hell, he and his mother clung to the knowledge that he was entirely innocent, and the faith in this fact is what barely kept them both going. As new evidence emerges, fresh faced young prosecutors living in the new Wrocław (now saturated in gold from the sun gleaming from office towers, and fresh faced young people embracing on refurbished streets) take own his case to try and prove him innocent.
When Komenda is for the first time transferred to an early-stage meeting with investigators he gazes out of the car window en route and probably saw people like me on their way to by a veggie burger. How can we imagine how he saw all the changes to Wrocław that happened in his absence? He hears a car SatNav for the first time (“a phone that talks”), and the pitiful shell of a man who must adjust to modern life after his eventual release after 18 years behind bars.
Małgorzata Kwiatkowska, the 15-year-old who was senselessly murdered looks also to be able to finally find justice from her grave now that the real perpetrators appear to have been found. Her plight has not been forgotten and never will be. The film pays tribute to her also.
This is a Wrocław film, the story of two cities, of two eras, and the man who transcended them. As is usually the case in our city, when one period leads to another it does not always happen peacefully and there are innocent victims along the way.