Directed by Jan Jakub Kolski. Poland. 1993.
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
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
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
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
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