Part of our ongoing Film Portal series, Anna Siemienkiewicz brings us Bartek Tryzna’s short film Franek (2013), a visually striking short film that explores the effects of WWII on two Polish boys.
Young independent filmmaker Bartek Tryzna has created an impressive short film, Franek, which won a 2013 Polish competition at Take It & Make It, along with the audience’s hearts. A little boy without a name tells us about his best friend, Franek, as we follow the 8-year-old friends lazily and playfully moving through the days in the Polish countryside during the outburst of World War II.
One day Franek’s dying grandma tells him to write down a dream to pursue. The boys decide to follow her advice, but the meaning of their dreams transform by the end of the film. The dreams serve as a wonderful and unnerving metaphor about their evolving perspective on the world and their loss of innocence. These emotionally charged mere six minutes are beautifully touching and unpretentious, and encourage us to press replay for new doses of chuckles and tears.
The rough cinematography along with the children’s perspective expressed through the unsophisticated narration creates an imaginative, touching vision; a vision underlying the beauty of the little things in life and the perks of upholding child-like innocence as long as possible, especially in the face of harsh circumstances. Children’s imagination in the face of the disturbing realities of WWII creates both an alarming and amusing alternate world. The playfulness of youth goes along with the scenery of a seemingly peaceful Polish countryside in 1939. Time stands still, and the kids are left to themselves without much guardianship. Only limited information about the war reaches them, which then gets processed through their innocent reasoning and as a result cones turn into grenades, stolen possessions into souvenirs, and travelling by train to a concentration camp becomes a nightmare fulfilled.
The brutality of the world exposed through the eyes of the innocent youth is not a new concept in the world of cinema and has been used time and again to criticize war, evoke deep empathy, and propagate certain political ideologies. Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Elem Klimov’s highly disturbing Come and See (1985) are only a few examples out of many. Nonetheless, Franek seems to be more light-hearted than most, with its cinematography and sense of humor bringing to mind such popular titles as Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (2001) and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012).
In fact, the nostalgia achieved in Franek through symmetrical shots and lists of items and places can be found in both of the mentioned examples. All shots are captured by a perfectly motionless camera, making them look almost like old photographs with descriptions scribbled on the back and read by a narrator. These still shots—disrupted only by the shadow play, windblown grass, and the boys’ lively bodies—emphasize the distorted progression of time experienced by the youth. The film is almost entirely made up of short, heartwarming moments, and immature jokes with simple, yet funny, punch lines. The kids have the challenging task of filling their imaginative minds with something more than just resigned, bitter people from their neighborhood who are filled with hatred for one another, a scenario further reinforced by the choice of filming in black and white. The kids succeed, for the most part, in coloring this world.
Everything apart from nature and the boys’ mobility is quiet, colorless, and still. The really disturbing events, however, stay off-camera. The filmmaker keeps them away from the explicit narrative and shots of peaceful countryside setting. Things are not spelled out here: we understand what’s going on but our characters don’t. They are too young to fully comprehend what patriotism, communism, or even war means, and as a result they apply their own definitions to these overheard terms in their innocent games. Their imagination can make a boring, scary, or sad world look beautiful, hopeful, and exciting. But for them, too, comes a time when they can no longer absorb the brutal reality without scars.
Two points in the film where the fourth wall is broken mark crucial moments in the narrative and the irreversible changes inflicted on the kids’ mentalities. First to lose his innocence is Franek, whose father is attacked by his neighbors, who cut his fingers off, for being an “enemy of communism.” Franek freaks out, ashamed of humanity and its wicked ways, and says straight into the camera “I’d prefer to be a pig.” This moment of crisis marks the child’s realization of the weight of reality he can no longer ignore, the wicked reality outside of fun and games.
The ending of the film is also quite puzzling. The final comment from our narrator, followed by a long gaze straight into the camera, can be found really disturbing. It might stress the absurdity and futility of war, and ultimately deprive us of the “life is worth living after all” feeling that most dramas leave us with. It seems like Franek’s friend became immune to certain emotions and longings, which could have made life a better experience otherwise. He hardens and realizes, even if subconsciously so, how disappointing dreams can be once fulfilled, and how they’re not even worth chasing after. The expression on his face when he’s breaking the fourth wall to stare at us can be read both ways: I prefer to see a cold, almost cynical half-smile, but it could be as well an innocent, ignorant smile, not comprehending the true meaning of his words and simply “moving on.” Either way, the face along with the commentary leaves quite an impression, and not a lighthearted one.
Undoubtedly, the film is much more than just an ironic, “be careful what you wish for” lesson. Depressingly, it underlines how wicked forces can destroy the simplest, most innocent desires. The simple dreams born in children’s inventive minds turn to something dark and morbid when they clash with the realities of the brutal world around them. No matter the setting, it seems to be a part of growing up.
Tryzna accomplished something that some filmmakers with more experience strive for their entire careers: a perfect balance between depressing and amusing, sentimental and pragmatic, witty and cheesy. The film is simply beautiful and painfully honest, and that’s why it can speak to a broad audience, with all backgrounds and tastes.
Watch Franek here.
Author: Anna Siemienkiewicz is a senior at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) where she studies English and the Moving Image Arts. This Spring she is the Programs Assistant Intern at Facets.