The haunting case of Polish student and poet Grzegorz Przemyk dominated the country’s national media throughout 1983. It divided Poland into an Us vs Them scenario as the nation was still in the grips of heavy Soviet influence and struggling to survive in a stratocracy. Jan P. Matuszynski’s Venice Film Festival competition entry, Leave No Traces , puts the entire case of Przemyk’s death and all those involved on display by showing how far military and crooked politicians will go to circumvent responsibility by using threats and intimidation to keep a witness from testifying in court.
Good lengthy movies have a purpose of existing that way. Every hour is utilized to keep the story moving forward. Leave No Traces (which clocks in at 2:45) could have been a film with a powerful statement about state-sanctioned violence. In the end, it’s just an overstuffed slog that could have benefitted from a stronger emphasis on character development.
The film begins as best friends Grzegorz (Mateusz Gorski) and Jurek (Tomasz Zietek) are celebrating their last days in high school and doing well on final exams in the town square of Warsaw. They are festive and loud, but they’re not disruptive. The Polish militia approach the duo and ask to see their IDs, and while Jurek complies, Grzegorz refuses.
The young men are then taken to a police station where Grzegorz is badly beaten within an inch of his life, and Jurek can do nothing to stop the abuse. He is repeatedly kicked in the stomach to avoid leaving evidence of the beating. Afterward, the two friends are taken to a mental hospital where Jurek explains what happened, but they find no bruises when Grzegorz is examined. His mother, poet and activist Barbara Sadowska (Sandra Korezniak) appears and demands her son be released. However, while at home, his condition worsens.
He is rushed back to the hospital, where he dies from his injuries, and Jurek is the only witness to how that happened. He and Barbara fight to bring Grzegorz’s killers to justice. It won’t be that easy as the entire Polish government aims to squash any chance of the only witness testifying in court and bringing the country to ruin.
Researching the actual events of young Przymk’s cast confirmed it is as convoluted as the film portrays. The militia exercised every avenue of deflection to stop Jurek from having his day in court, including wiretapping, social engineering, lying, fabricating documents, blackmail, and even turned Jurek’s parents against him. Despite every roadblock, the young man still persists. The full scope of their corruption is on display, and it takes up over half of the runtime. The film stops being a character study and turns into a long advertisement on why cops/military are bad. It’s evident the lengths police go to cover up their failures. Why does that have to be the center of the narrative? It leaves Matusznski’s direction and Kacper Fertacz’s cinematography feeling formless and unremarkable.
Actor Tomasz Zietek as the naive yet fearless youth is the film’s saving grace and truly commits to the role. Jurek is rebelling against the system, and the actor knows how to emote pain, anguish, and fear in a raw and feral way that makes the viewer understand just how challenging his situation is. He is lonely but willing, hopeful and dreadful, and moves between the range of emotions with phenomenal ease.
Leave No Traces is certainly a timely story for anyone who has or knows someone who has experienced police brutality of any kind. The case of Grzegorz Przemyk flipped the country on its head and affected not just his friends and family but the oppressed people of Poland. The film had a strong start, but tumbled downhill to an unsatisfying climax that isn’t given the focus within the story it deserves — especially since the audience has to wait 2:25 minutes to get to it. The people are important. What are their experiences? That would have given the movie the spark it needed to not feel like a chore sitting through.