Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bloodthirsty Christians and a Polish Beaver

Here's a movie I can't imagine has ever been very popular in Germany--1960's Krzyzacy (The Teutonic Knights) concocts a fantasy around one of the many wars between Poland and the Teutonic Knights, in this case the war where the Christian military order was permanently crippled in the Battle of Grunwald, one of the largest battles of the mediaeval era. Over 15,000 extras were employed in a decent depiction of the battle but most of the movie concerns a more romantic, fictional story of a young nobleman and his attempts to rescue his beloved from the hands of the Teutonic Knights. The characters are charming if somewhat broadly performed and written--the film's greatest virtue is in some beautiful visual compositions.

Shot in colour, the lighting for interiors is often bright but with a great deal more shadows than the Hollywood colour film of the time which typically attempted to obliterate shadows entirely, regardless of whether or not it made sense.

Whites in Krzyzacy tend to have a faint blue light giving everything a sort of otherworldly iciness. This is contrasted with a lot of muted reds, like the bricks of castles and the linings of the knights' cloaks.

Filmed just over a decade after the end of World War II, the film seems to be a Polish rallying cry against the Germans. It plays like propaganda--its heroes so absolutely good and the villains, the Teutonic Knights, invariably evil. Except one, the aged head of the order who appears in just one scene and urges his brethren not to go to war with Poland (again) because, "Christ converted with a word not a sword." But then he dies apparently from being frightened by a rather disturbing looking Fool at a banquet.

If you search for "Polish-Teutonic War" in Wikipedia, you end up at this page asking you which of the nine Polish-Teutonic Wars you might be referring to--all of them took place between 1308 and 1521. The one Krzyzacy is concerned with began in 1409 and is distinguished by an alliance between Poland and Lithuania cemented by a Polish Duke marring a Lithuanian Duchess, these two being minor characters in the film.

It's the Duchess Anna Danuta (Lucyna Winnicka) who seems more sympathetic to the protagonist, Zbyszko (Mieczyslaw Kalenik), possibly because the woman Zbyszko is in love with, Danusia (Grazyna Staniszewska), was lady-in-waiting to the Duchess. The Duke (Tadeusz Bialoszczynski) seems reluctant to believe plot points of the knights kidnapping Danusia or murdering officials for some reason. It seems unlikely given the apparently perpetual two century animosity but this gives our young hero an obstacle.

The movie begins with the knights sacking the town ruled by Danusia's father, Count Jurand (Andrzej Szalawski), and murdering Danusia's mother by putting a rope around her neck and dragging her from horseback. The violence in the film isn't usually very convincing but sometimes the frequent use of dummies is actually effective. When the Count goes to the Teutonic castle to try to retrieve his daughter he faces a council after being relieved of his weapons. When it looks like he's not going to get anywhere through talk, he picks up a nearby knight and throws him at the council, a genuinely badass moment that gets off the action sequence that follows to a nice enough start you don't quite notice the too slow choreography and guys falling dead from swords clearly not hitting their marks.

Danusia spends most of the film held captive so Zbyszko finds another love interest in Jagienka (Urszula Modrzynka), a canny huntress who works with him to track bears for their fat which they needs as a salve for Zbyszko's wounded uncle.

After not having any luck finding bears, Jagienka says beaver fat might work too. She kills one and sneaks off to disrobe before swimming to retrieve the beaver's body. And that's how we get this image:

So it's a naked woman with a beaver. I think I'd better stop there.

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