“We can find something better than death everywhere”, the motto of Grimm’s fairy tale Bremen Town Musicians also seems a programmatic starting point to Slawomir Fabicki’s debut feature Retrieval (Z Ozysku): The first sequence is set in the surreal interior of an industrial chimney. Two men wearing goggles and masks hammer concrete slabs off the walls. When one of them loses his safety rope and takes a fall, the other one â€” after having ascertained his friend’s death â€” surfaces to daylight and gasps for air like a drowning man.
Despair forms the background on which Fabicki develops his main character’s moral dilemma: Wojtek (Antoni Pawlicki), the surviving worker, a sensitive man of nineteen, has to make up his mind. Will he go on risking his life in the cement works? There are not so many alternatives in his small hometown in Silesia, Southern Poland, former mining territory where real jobs are scarce. Will he shovel pig’s dung in a nearby farm, as his grandfather proposes? Will he go on boxing for a small price? Or will he accept the offer, that a man in tie and suit makes to him at ringside and start to work as a security guard for his company?
In the tradition of existential moral parables like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) or more recently the Dardenne brother’s Rosetta and Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources (Ressources humaines), Fabicki’s Retrieval starts at a point in the protagonist’s life, when work becomes a conditio sine qua non for survival, while morals appear a luxury that not everyone can afford: Wojtek has to decide between necessary work and seemingly unnecessary ethics.
Fabicki’s film only hints at the specific sociopolitical background, showing us an area of the former Eastern block drained of all institutional powers: We see a school, but no teachers, a hospital, but no doctors, a giant pig farm, but not its owner. Crime is everywhere, the police are absent. When his grandfather, who still attaches great importance to traditional values like continuity, stability and honesty, hard work, at some point reminds Wojtek, that “once something is started, it needs to be finished”, Wojtek gets out of his car and slams the door as a reply. He knows that times have changed. For him, it’s no longer about building up something solid brick by brick.
Wojtek gets involved in the security business. Soon he starts wearing a black anorak, later he’ll wear a gun. His boss takes a liking to his integrity and loyalty and soon trusts him with jobs more delicate than guarding the go-go-dancers at a discotheque: Together with a friend from the boxing club he heads off in the bosses black BMW to bully the small entrepreneurs of his town for protection money. Laying out the complexity of the situation, Retrieval doesn’t allow us to make an easy moral judgment: The motive that drives young Wojtek is his love for a slightly older Ukrainian woman, Katja (Nataliya Vdovina), a single mother. He takes on responsibility and tries â€” with the help of his apparently almighty boss â€” to set up a home and get official papers for her.
This conflict between wanting the right and doing the wrong thing is dramatically presented as what might be called an inverse Bildungsroman: time passes, and Wojtek is increasingly intrigued by wealth and power.
Watching Fabicki’s film at the festival in Bratislava was a somewhat eerie feeling. It’s a town where security guards are omnipresent, standing in that statuesque pose â€” legs slightly spread, hands folded in front â€” in hotel lobbies, public places and restaurants, guarding other men in expensive suits to the backseats of black BMW’s with tinted windows.
But Retrieval not only refers to a concrete phenomenon, it works on a more general level, establishing a parable on what might happen if a state backtracks from its initial responsibility, leaving a void of power. The beauty of Fabicki’s script (in cooperation with Denijal Hasanovic and Marek Pruchniewski) is that it denounces none of its characters, but instead digs deeper, finds all kinds of existential angst as the motivation that keeps the system of mutual oppression upright. The camera meanwhile comments subtly on the mental (and moral) state of the protagonist. As the hero searches for a gardener, another of his bosses supposed “debtors”, the camera tracks swiftly and nervously over the leaves in the greenhouse â€” taking on the subjective gaze of a hunter as well as the hunted.
(Published on FIPRESCI homepage, January 07)