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June 16, 2024
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The Archeology of Memory

Memory is heritage recognition. It helps us find each other.

Who are we without memory? Three new, noteworthy films help in answering this question. Małgorzata Szumowska, “There will never be snow again,” the Polish candidate for the Oscar, presents a landscape without memory: a vast estate of luxurious identical mansions, tasteless monsters, built by insatiable developers for the elite of the Third Polish Republic. With some sympathy for her protagonists, the film director describes their lives’ emptiness with a camera. There are jogging, bicycles, gym, sex or doggies that replace relationships with people. There is no faith. There are fashionable surrogate events, like a Halloween party with adults pretending to be kids. Somewhere in the background a Christmas tree on which one needs to hang colorful lights. There is only a fleeting moment that the inhabitants of the estate live, from which they want to sap  as much as possible and as quickly as possible. They turn away from death, that comes anyway. Without memory, without history, without culture – that is, without the work of generations that can enrich us spiritually if we undertake this task with reverence. Is this how it is with us? Massages are necessary – for tired spines, for stress, for senselessness. Only the immigrant masseur from the ghost-town Pripyat has his memory – after Chernobyl. A Wizard from the East, always surrounded by a mystical aura among those who have cut themselves off from their own cultural roots – is this the only hope? A somber comedy.

Agnieszka Holland will also compete for the Oscar with her latest film but as a representative of Czech cinematography. Her “Charlatan” is a traditionally told story of a certain Mikolášek, a herbalist and healer from Rokycany. With his methods, he treated hundreds of thousands of people in the pre-war republic. Then, under the German occupation, he treated, among others, Martin Bormann, the head of the Third Reich’s office, and after the communist “liberation,” President Antonin Zapatocky. There is no shortage of memory here and seems the Czechs are caring for it better (they certainly do it better in the film than Poland after 1989). It is a memory of the roots and traditions of the Czech countryside. The province is good; at least there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. It gives the hero the strength and faith (also, paradoxically, the religious, Christian one) to treat his healing gift as a mission. There is also the memory – invoked with all real terror – of the communist system destroying people and their consciences. The final trial of Mikolášek after his highest-ranking patient’s death, the brutal investigation, humiliation – this is a history lesson. This would be of great use to today’s followers of fashionable communism, which is being reborn among part of the younger generation whose memory of the People’s Republic of Poland, the times of Bierut, Berman, and Moczar,  has been erased from their minds in the Third Republic. The indigestible pill of political correctness added to this film – the aggressively shown homoerotic thread – is perhaps intended to counterbalance the bitter pill of remembering the experience of living under real totalitarianism.

The third film‘s subject is archeology: the passing of people and the duration of material traces, and patient work to discover our ancestors in these artifacts, striving to find one’s place in time among the successive generations. This is the basis of the latest Australian Simon Stone film, “The Dig,” which was broadcast by Netflix at the end of January. It is based on a true story of the discovery in 1938–1939 of an Anglo-Saxon treasure from the 6th century on a private property in England’s east. The narrative of the film takes place in the shadow of the impending war. Clearly, it reminds – through interviews of archaeologists, radio messages – who attacked whom then: the Germans (not any Nazis) attacked Poland. Warsaw is bombarded by its neighbors. Warsaw is not bombing its neighbors … Somehow, it comes out so naturally. There is no problem with this fact, the recollection of which causes some discomfort in today’s Polish “culture.” The essential problem that the film discovers is elsewhere, of course. It is in the search for meaning and meaning of individual human life in passing. It is beautifully filmed and played. It is worth adding that in the films by Szumowska and Holland, the acting is also of the highest order. The discreetly shown desire for love and the sense of serving something more significant  than individual appetites are entwined around the symbol of memory. It is a massive boat in that film, buried with treasures and human ashes, and reverently discovered by the two main characters after 1,500 years. They consider this boat and its spiritual contents to be their heritage. The physical objects they donate to the museum.

Memory is heritage recognition. In recent years, the great Russian writer Sergei Lebedev has poignantly presented this concept as an ethical duty in his novel “The Border of Oblivion.” It deals with the legacy of evil, the Gulag in his homeland, being pushed into oblivion. Moreover, he discovers that even one man’s memory is not a wretched boat but an ark. It saves from the flood of oblivion, both the torturers and the victims. And those to whom we owe gratitude. It helps us find ourselves. •

The original article in Polish can be found here:


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