I’m guna talk about stuff to do with cultural lenses and background material, and I’m going to talk about a Polish movie and a Polish book series, as a non-Polish person who has almost no grounding in that space. That means that by necessity, the ways I discuss this are going to be from an outsider’s perspective, making comparisons to media I do know, and that’s how it’s gunna be. It’s also going to be about a serial-killer based crime drama with some medical trauma and poverty themes, so like, before we go on, let’s start with a big ole Content Warning.
Content Warning: This is a serial killer horror story, this is a crime story, this is a story with some graphic visual effects, and it’s a Polish movie being talked about by a dude who cannot reliably say he’d find Poland on a map.
The Plagues of Breslau is a thriller movie set in the Polish city of Wroclaw, which was, once upon a time, known as Breslau. It opens with our protagonist, Helena Rus, a down on her luck cop with social problems and no respect in the police force, being called to a scene at a public market where someone was murdered and stitched up into a leather sack before being left in a public market. What ensues is subsequently appropriately horrifying and awful as she tracks a set of serial killings on a schedule that take a variety of methods, painting the narrative of a killer who has a message to send and an intention about how to send it.
The movie is loosely based on a series of novels by Marek Krajewski, who made a fairly large number of novels in the same general vein of gory crime drama serial killer nonsense. I understand it’s common to call these ‘airport novels,’ where we get a whole genre of ‘serial killer with a weirdo point.’ I have been told that the movie is more ‘inspired by’ than ‘actually built on,’ but I mean, how much of an expert on that matter could I be.
I watched it subtitled so I’m sure there’s a lot of art in the language that I’m not going to be able to appreciate. It’s a dark narrative, even in the space of horrifying police thrillers with gory serial killings. There’s this undercurrent of the impoverishment of a nation in the name of serving external ideologies – of maintaining appearances rather than achieving proper aims. There’s some medical bankruptcy, there’s some disability abuse, there’s some classic political corruption and some police corruption to boot.
Now, this is where I have to open up a jar of ‘comparisons to Western media,’ and the thing is, that comparison is always going to be unfair. After all, for comparison, in 2010 the Polish movie industry was worth around 703 million Polish zloty, or a shade over a quarter of a billion dollars AUD. By comparison the Australian movie industry is about four times the size, at 1 billion AUD, and the American movie industry is about fifteen billion AUD. This is going to have an impact – the visual styles and choices about how things get made, the variety and source materials – they’re all going to be affected by the sheer fact of ‘doesn’t have as much money.’
With that in mind, before I tell you what I thought of this movie, before I make comparisons so you can decide if you like it, understand that this movie is really good at doing what it’s trying to do. Could it be better? Sure! But this movie seems to have been made with the budget of maybe a few episodes of an American prestige show, maybe even just one if you pick the right show, and that means that there’s a lot of times where style and effort carry you so far but things like ‘we can light everything at the right angle for every shot’ are going to be able to get you a result that looks better.
Okay, that’s enough preamble. Look, this movie is if someone tried to make Se7en with a tiny budget, twenty years later, with half the infrastructure. The overall storytelling and direction, with the ‘everything gets worse at every step’ kind of procession and the ‘twist’ of the finale feels very well, Dan Brown novel, where the villain’s plot maybe is a little bit much, but the general idea, the motivation for why is something that actually makes some sense.
I was a little undecided on whether or not I should talk about The Plagues of Breslau because, you know, it’s a fairly decent b-tier movie without much of a surprise to it. Like, it looks like what it is and it executes on what it is. None of what it’s doing is that remarkable, really, and I might imagine that to fans of the genre, it’s Just Another One.
But it’s some good Spook Month media, and it’s being made by people who normally get ignored. If you have Netflix, you can go check it out, and I recommend you give it a shot.