JOHNNY AQUARIUS

(Jancio Wodnik)

Directed by Jan Jakub Kolski. Poland. 1993.


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Asked to name a Polish film-maker, many movie buffs will go for Kieslowski or Polanski, some for Wajda or Zanussi, a few for Agnieszka Holland or Andrzej Munk. Very few, however, will have heard of Jan Jakub Kolski, despite his huge popularity in Poland; as far as I know only four of his films have ever been publicly screened in the UK, all in a single week of 1996 in Cambridge.  Thanks to a course I attended that year I had the opportunity of studying on video his 1993 film Jancio Wodnik, known in English as Johnny Aquarius, as well as seeing his earlier work Gravedigger, and this article is based on notes I made at the time.

Born in either 1956 or 1957 (sources disagree), Kolski can perhaps be described as a “magical realist”, to use a term generally associated with South American novelists; indeed Gabriel Garcia Marquez is said to be among his favourite writers.  Brought up in a rural village, he comes from three generations of Kolskis involved in some way with the cinema.  His films have been described as “mysterious, childlike, strange”. They tell stories, but they are like fairy-stories, where bizarre things happen as if they are perfectly natural.  Unlike the work of almost all other Polish film-makers they bear no obvious relevance to either politics or history.  Instead they are set in a timeless world, a rural fantasy-land.

In Johnny Aquarius the peasant Jancio Wodnik suddenly becomes endowed with miraculous powers after a tramp’s curse (“may you bear the devil”) in the prologue.  He can bring on the rain at will, heal the sick, raise
the dead, and cause water to flow upwards.  This comes to the attention of the fraudulent “miracle-worker” Stigma, who assumes that Jancio is, like himself, just another clever conjuror exploiting the people’s credulity.  Jancio then decides to try and turn back time by sitting in the same spot for 5 ½ years, after which his wife gives birth to a baby with a devil’s tail, fulfilling the tramp’s curse.  Jancio’s powers have disappeared.

Johnny Aquarius can be enjoyed simply by surrendering oneself to its magical world, accepting the bizarre events in a childlike way just as, for the most part, the characters do.  But there is a lot more going on here, and Kolski is clearly trying to express some of his ideas through this fantastical story.  Polish viewers are certainly at an advantage; as with most Polish films, there are culturally-specific references which are liable to escape other viewers.  I would tentatively suggest three broad ideas which Kolski may be advancing.

First, attitudes towards mysterious events.  The characters in the film generally accept these at face value, even the impossible ones such as the upwards-flowing water.  The one exception is the character Stigma, who regards Jancio’s “miracles” (which are genuine in the context of the film) as clever conjuring tricks.  Is it being suggested that Poles are particularly credulous towards charlatans claiming supernatural powers?  In one scene Stigma
leads the villagers to pay homage to Jancio after a particularly spectacular healing; a church is seen in the background, the only time in the film, but the people have their backs to it.  Is Kolski suggesting that Poles are turning away from orthodox religion in favour of “signs and wonders”?

Secondly, the question of Polish nationalism.  It should first be explained that there have always been two broad strains of opinion among Poles about their attitude towards the various invaders who have regularly occupied them over centuries (Germans, Russians, Austro-Hungarians).  Some believe in fighting to the death, exemplified by the Warsaw Rising, while others believe in making the best of a bad job.  The specific period of 5 ½ years during which Jancio unsuccessfully tries to turn back time by sitting in the same spot happens to coincide with the
period of Nazi occupation of Poland, when the Resistance was in effect trying to turn back time to pre-1939.  Is Kolski suggesting that “fighting to the death” is simply a waste of time as it is bound to fail?

Thirdly, in the film good deeds lead to more good, evil deeds to more evil; this is actually stated in the dialogue at one point.  This rather deterministic idea is also explored by the much better-known director Robert Bresson, in a film like L’Argent (1982) in which the passing on of a forged note leads to an ever-increasing cycle of evil.

The strange treatment of time in Johnny Aquarius is noteworthy.  Jancio’s attempt to turn back time has already been mentioned, but in addition the water which flows upwards is actually flowing backwards in time.  This notion has been explored in two other films I particularly admire: Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), where the hero tries to wipe out the night’s events and restore things to their previous state (he succeeds, but only because the night’s events are his dream), and Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), where the characters trapped in a room by a mysterious force can escape only by returning to the positions they occupied when they first became trapped, in other words by turning back time.

Polish films seem to have disappeared from UK screens in recent years.  It was particularly disappointing, for example, that two major epics of the late 1990s, Andrzej Wajda’s Pan Tadeusz and Jerzy Hoffmann’s With
Fire and Sword, both huge critical and commercial successes in their native land (outgrossing Titanic) and both the subject of enthusiastic articles in The Guardian, have not received a single screening anywhere in this country, not even at the London Film Festival.  For those of us who regard Polish national cinema as among the most interesting in the world, it is to be hoped that this eclipse is just a temporary phenomenon; perhaps Poland’s imminent entry to the EU will change matters.  And for me, on the basis of Johnny Aquarius, Kolski is among the most interesting of film-makers.

Alan Pavelin

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