Now here’s an opening scene you will not see any time soon in a mainstream American film. First, darkness and silence. Next, the creak of a rusted metal door crashing open. A sliver of dirty light sighs across a filthy floor. Amidst what might be stains of blood, urine or feces on this concrete floor is the emaciated body of a naked man. His flesh, the floor, the light, all are sepia-toned, as if in a time-yellowed painting by an old master. This is not a crucifixion portrait; the man is horizontal on the bare floor, not vertical on a cross, but clearly, he is being martyred. The man’s head rises from his arm, which he had been using as a pillow. He gasps for air. He blinks. He has been in darkness so long that light, a gift of which he has apparently been deprived for a long time, is more than he can take. He shields his eyes. He looks down.
Two thugs drag the naked form down a dark hall. In the distance, there are muffled screams. The naked man’s flaccid form is handcuffed to a wooden slab. A bucket of cold water splashes over him. Another man, this one faux jolly and wearing an ostentatious coat with wide, shearling lapels, greets his victim. The smiling interrogator in the pimp coat asks for information. The handcuffed man says nothing. The interrogator tells the two thugs, “Manicure.” A thug turns to a table well-stocked with tools. A door closes. Wrenching screams.
The man receiving the “manicure” is Antoni Baraniak (portrayed here by actor Artur Krajewski.) Baraniak was a Polish, Catholic bishop. His torturers were communists.
Bishop Antoni Baraniak “was imprisoned for three years … He was interrogated 145 times sometimes for several hours in a row. He had his fingernails pulled out and was often held for many days naked in a freezing cold cell full of feces. In spite of cruel tortures he never broke.”
Young Americans today might think of “Uncle Bernie” Sanders, who promises them free college, no strings attached, when they think of communists. If they ever saw movies like Prophet they might understand communism differently.
Prorok, or Prophet is a Polish-language film, with English subtitles, that had a limited release in the United States on November 15 and 17, 2022. Prophet depicts the decades-long conflict between Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski and Polish communists who operated under the control of the USSR. Prophet was directed by Michal Kondrat, and the screenplay was by Katarzyna Bogucka, Johanna Dudek, and Karolina Slyk. The film is in color and the runtime is a bit over two hours.
Prophet focuses on Wyszynski’s life between his 1956 release from communist internment and 1978, when Karol Wojtyla was elected pope. There are many scenes of Wyszynski facing off with Wladyslaw Gomulka, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party of the Polish People’s Republic. Prophet argues that were it not for Stefan Wyszynski, and his understanding of Catholicism, Soviet communism would have had a much easier time of it in Poland, and, thus, in all of Eastern Europe. Poland was “the second largest country in the Warsaw Pact in terms of area, population, and military capacity.” Without Wyszynski, this film implies, communism might not have fallen in 1989.
Poland’s Catholicism has often been cited as a force that helped to bring an end to the Soviet Empire. Poland’s Catholicism might have been much less of a cultural force had it not been for Wyszynski. Scholar Radoslaw Gross argues that Poland was becoming more secular after WW II, and Wyszynski’s efforts, efforts that are dramatized in Prophet, reversed that secularizing course. In Prophet, Wyszynski says that if his plans for spiritual renewal in Poland are successful, a “strong moral force” will present Polish people with an alternative to communism, and communism will fall on its own. He says that without that “strong moral force,” Poland would be like Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Both countries were both less free under communism, and also less Catholic.
In Prophet, Wyszynski’s vision is not a of a dramatic, apocalyptic battle, but, rather, day-to-day, patient, unglamorous, hard work and commitment. “We don’t need heroic deaths in the name of love,” says the film’s Wyszynski, “but rather we need heroic work for the sake of our beloved homeland … I want this to take root in the soul of each of you like a seed in the ground. It must grow and bear fruit.” The metaphor of sowing a seed and waiting for harvest is used throughout the film.
In addition to Wyszynski’s headline- and history-making negotiations with communist powerbrokers, Prophet depicts Stefan Wyszynski the man, who was known as “the worker priest” for his commitment to and engagement with average people, including blind children, workers, and farmers. Intertwined subplots involve Magda, a wife and schoolteacher; Kazia, a street urchin and shoplifter; Janek, an “artistic” filmmaker; a priest who betrays Wyszynski to the communists; and “The Eights,” a clandestine group of Catholic women who keep the dissident presses running.
Prophet is emotionally engaging, aesthetically pleasing, and informative. I watched it three times, and each time I watched, I saw more to value.
Because I’m a Polish-American and Catholic, I wanted to know what someone not of my heritage and faith would make of this movie. I asked Otto Gross, a German-American Protestant, to watch it. I told him nothing about it. He wrote to me, “It’s a great movie. It’s important. It will be a hard sell to American audiences because there are no car chases and no sex. It wasn’t fluffy. It’s what people need to see. This movie is not just about the past. It’s about now. About propaganda, about attempts to manipulate the public, about power. It’s about stubborn, unbending belief in false utopias and the evil people do in support of those false utopias. The film depicts the power of Christ flowing through human beings in a bad situation.”
I was happy to learn that not just Polish viewers can find much to value in Prophet.
Prophet captures its era. Interior and exterior sets, costumes, cars, trains, and even tanks are authentic-looking. Cinematographer Mateusz Pastewska, a young man in sneakers, admitted that the film was a “huge challenge.” He has nothing to worry about; his images vividly capture the light in torture chambers, smoke-filled rooms of communist plotters, tear-gas-smeared riots, farmers’ fields, and church interiors. If you prefer to watch movies that look expensive, even if they were shot on a budget – and I do – Prophet will not let you down.
In too many American dramas, I find actors only marginally convincing when they attempt to appear as if they are serious people having serious conversations about serious things. I see too much of the actor beneath the pose; I see the packaging, even in performances by acclaimed stars like Robert DeNiro.
Every performance in Prophet is superb. Director Kondrat performed a minor miracle himself. He managed to find actors who bear a strong resemblance to the historical figures they depict. Adam Ferency looks like Wladyslaw Gomulka, the First Secretary of the Polish People’s Republic; Slawomir Grzymkowski looks like Stefan Wyszynski; Marcin Tronski looks like Polish Prime Minister Jozef Cyrankiewicz.
These actors don’t just look like the characters they portray; they convince you that they are the characters they portray. The actors playing communists are as sterile and creepy, as alternately bullying and cringingly servile as you’d imagine they’d be when behind closed doors weaving their noxious webs of power, deceit, and betrayal of the working men and women in whose name they slowly strangle a nation. Even as they make your skin crawl, you feel for them. They must believe some of the garbage they are spewing. They are struggling to make the workers’ paradise a reality, even as they try to avoid being crushed like bugs by Moscow.
Actors populating the subplots, subplots that depict slices of everyday life in communist Poland, are no less impressive. Katarzyna Zawadzka plays Magda, a schoolteacher. Zawadzka radiates maternal, feminine warmth in her job as a teacher of young children. Later, when, pushed to the limit, she nags her husband like a shrew. He earns only enough money for the two of them to afford a shared flat with noisy neighbors who steal her homemade soup. Karolina Bruchnicka as Kazia, a street urchin, shoplifter, and young lady with anger management issues, inhabits her part seamlessly. She scared me.
Malgorzata Buczkowska plays Maria Okonska. She’s not onscreen much, and has few lines, so in a casual viewing, you might miss her. But don’t. The real Maria Okonska was as worthy of a biopic as Wyszynski himself. She got her degree secretly, under Nazi occupation, when such education was banned for Poles and punishable with death. Okonska participated in the Warsaw Uprising, which took the lives of about 200,000 Poles. After the war, she continued Catholic work among girls. For this, communists arrested and imprisoned her.
In Prophet, Okonska visits the wild young Kazia, rotting away in prison. Kazia wasn’t arrested for shoplifting; she was arrested because the secret police demanded that she invent material to slander Wyszynski, and she refused.
In the film, Maria Okonska walks toward the prison housing Kazia. Okonska is utterly feminine. Her jacket and skirt are immaculate; her hair nicely done. Her high heels click as she strides. But her face telegraphs as much determination as a ship’s figurehead, daring the waves. Her spine is straight as a ruler. You would not mess with this seductively beautiful creature, however much you might want to.
In the lock-up, sad young Kazia complains about how hard it is to be imprisoned unjustly. In an American film, Okonska would have hugged young Kazia and reassured her. But this is a Polish movie. Okonska, her face stern and clinical, says, “You’re strong. You can take it. I’ve been in prison, too.” And then this elegant female displays her skills by smuggling, through the prison bars, a letter into Kazia’s hands.
Krystyna Tkacz, as a nun who swats anyone who messes with her cooking; Kazimierz Mazur as Stash, the chauffeur; Daniel Guzdek, as the guy in the basement running the reel-to-reel recording device for the secret police; the impatient post office worker; the big guy at the riot who carries off Kazia … I know these people. I met them in Poland. Even these small parts are rounded characters.
The film depicts the little miseries of everyday life in communist Poland. Kazia and her chronically ill mother share an apartment with several other people. The inhabitants are not friends; they just have no place else to go. No one in that apartment appears to like anyone else. People dress in underwear and speak rudely. The masses whose souls both Catholics and Communists wrestle over were not always noble. Some of them were simply slobs.
Magda is fired from her teaching job because of her association with Wyszynski. Janek, the “artist,” is slowly sucked into selling his soul to the communists. He wants to get Magda out of that shared apartment where only a glass door separates them from the losers they have to live with.
I was especially impressed by the film’s handling of Bishop Antoni Baraniak, and Artur Krajewski’s performance. Baraniak is a torture survivor, and the film makes no attempt to depict him as a happy fella revived by a Christian miracle. Throughout the film, he appears wasted, overwhelmed, angry, suspicious, and sad. He acknowledges that expensive booze is one thing keeping him going. But that’s just it. He just keeps going, in spite of his apparent PTSD; this is a very Polish thing to do. I fear that in an American-made Christian film, a Baraniak character would be forced to flash a big, toothy smile and declare, “God is good all the time!”
In a just world, Slawomir Grzymkowski, who plays Wyszynski, would be onstage at the next Oscars accepting his award for best lead actor. It’s not easy to convey the quiet strength of a man who responds to his friend’s being beaten to death in the street by communist thugs by saying, “I will pray.” That’s not an action hero thing to say. But Grzymkowski convinces the viewer that that response, so often mocked by sneering Christophobes and Atheists, “I will pray,” is an immensely powerful one.
Director Kondrat received transcripts of Wyszynski’s conversations with Poland’s communist leaders and used those transcripts in recreating scenes. Even in these talky scenes, the type of scenes that action-movie fans despise, there is quiet action. Before the movie’s timeline, Wyszynski had had to hide out from Nazis. Nazis murdered almost twenty percent of Polish clergy. Wyszynski was a special target because he had published anti-Nazi material. After the war, Wyszynski was imprisoned by communists for three years. “How many divisions has the pope?” Stalin asked. Wyszynski has no weapons. Gomulka has the USSR behind him. Even so, Grzymkowski imbues his portrayal of Wyszynski with quiet power, even in such small gestures as simply leaving rooms when he feels he has said what needed to be said, and not waiting to be dismissed.
Wyszynski’s meetings with Gomulka are a teeter-totter ride. Each side flaunts its own weapons of choice, and signals exactly how much he is willing to surrender to reach an agreement. Sometimes one or the other is on top or on the bottom. The Pope warns Wyszynski that some think he is giving too much to the communists. The communists worry that Wyszynski “grabbed a finger and took a hand.”
In one scene, behind Wyszynski, there are two small flags. One flag is Polish; the other flag is the red and yellow hammer and sickle flag of the USSR. Gomulka attempts to manipulate Wyszynski. He insists that he, Gomulka, wants Poland to remain a sovereign, independent nation. If Gomulka gives Wyszynski too much, though, he implies, Soviet tanks will roll back into Poland.
Wyszynski, for his part, commands other forces. When Gomulka stubbornly refuses to allow Catholics to build enough churches to accommodate parishioners, Wyszynski quietly says, “I can permit Poles to keep the Eucharist in their private homes. You’ll then have millions of churches.” In these negotiations, Wyszynski is proud, but never arrogant. Grzymkowski walks a the fine line between life-nurturing, paternal authority and life-destroying, oppressive domination, a balance that real men in real life struggle to achieve.
Gomulka, when chatting alone with his comrades, Zenon Kliszko, who was Gomulka’s right hand man, and Prime Minister Jozef Cyrankiewicz, makes clear that every promise he makes to Wyszynski is merely a ploy to weaken Wyszynski and, eventually, strengthen atheistic communism.
Prime Minister Jozef Cyrankiewicz was an interesting creature. His father was a Polish nationalist and his maternal grandfather was a successful businessman. He fought in the Polish resistance against Nazi Germany, was arrested, and sent to Auschwitz. From that inauspicious address, Cyrankiewicz rose to power and an elegant life of luxury in post-World-War-II, communist Poland. He was “well-read, cultured, a bon vivant.” Jan Karski said that Cyrankiewicz helped Karski escape from the Gestapo. Karski described Cyrankiewicz as “the most intelligent and enlightened” of Polish activists.
All of Cyrankiewicz’s human complexity fell by the wayside when he spoke to the masses. Cyrankiewicz’s words from a 1956 speech delivered after one of many deadly Polish uprisings against communist rule make clear what kind of people Wyszynski was dealing with. “Every provocateur or madman who dares to raise his hand against the people’s government, let him be sure that the authorities will chop off his hand in the interest of the working class, in the interest of the working peasantry and the intelligentsia, in the interest of the struggle to raise the standard of living of the population, in the interest of further democratization of our lives, in the interest of our homeland.” In short, Wyszynski was negotiating with amoral communists who lied to him at every step and had no qualms about killing their fellow Poles.
Wladyslaw Gomulka, Jozef Cyrankiewicz, and Zenon Kliszko were all Poles, born in Poland, but they gained power through the USSR. Stalin said that imposing communism on Poland was like putting a saddle on a cow. Kondrat dramatizes the communists’ alienation from the surrounding Polish population in numerous ways. The communists are shown wearing new, high quality trench coats and fedoras, while surrounding Poles are wearing less formal attire. Communists hold conspiratorial meetings in spacious, dimly lit, smoke-filled rooms full of heavy, ornate, wooden furniture. They look like Mafiosi from a Godfather movie. When Kliszko and a fellow communist drive out into the Polish countryside, their car breaks down and they have to walk through a field. They look terribly out of place, and one man keeps falling in mud. “Next time we should take a tractor,” he says. Later they have to use a public telephone. The average Poles in the post office look quietly terrified of these communist bigwigs. Clearly these men do not represent the “workers.” Gomulka is shown swimming, alone, in a luxurious swimming pool. He is accompanied by an attractive girl in a bathing suit. Communist privileges like this are contrasted with the crowded shared apartments average people must inhabit.
A couple of scenes in this movie resonate deeply for me. Wyszynski reminisces about his wartime experience as a chaplain to the Home Army. In this flashback, a young Wyszynski is in a trench full of Polish soldiers strafed by Nazis. A soldier cries out that he wants to die. Wyszynski grabs him and shouts, “You want to live!” He looks over the rim of the trench and witnesses a fantastical scene. A peasant is slowly striding across the battlefield, scattering seed into furrows. Wyszynski runs from the trench, tackles the peasant, and pushes him to the ground. Both just escape death from German fire. “We must sow,” the peasant says. “Otherwise only wasteland will remain.”
I don’t know if this scene is meant to depict a real event or if it is a visual metaphor and fantasy sequence. As someone familiar with Polish history, I found it deeply moving. Life can be very hard, and yet, even in the worst of times, “we must sow.” Indeed, Wyszynski repeats the “sowing” metaphor at other points in the film. Too, there is a Polish song, “Musimy Siac,” whose lyrics insist,
We must sow, although our land is poor,
although we lack plows and harrows for plowing.
We must sow, although the wind carries away the seed,
although flocks of crows follow the sower.
Part of Wyszynski’s plan to revive Polish spirituality is a pilgrimage of a copy of the famous icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Villagers parade with the image, singing hymns. In real life, and in the film, communists arrested the image. This is ironic, of course. As atheists, they insist that God does not exist and that religious art has no meaning or power. And yet they felt the need to arrest an image.
The film opens, as mentioned above, with Bishop Antoni Baraniak, an abused prisoner of Soviet communism who has been almost blinded by that abuse. In an intended or accidental parallelism, the film’s conclusion includes an abused prisoner of Soviet communism who was almost blinded by that abuse. General Wojciech Jaruzelski (Krzysztof Dracz) makes an appearance toward the end of the movie. After invading Poland in 1939, the USSR deported over a million Poles to Siberia and other remote locations. Jaruzelski was deported as a teenager. He suffered snow blindness and had to wear dark glasses for the rest of his life. In spite of this victimization at the hands of the USSR, Jaruzelski became “A tragic believer in Communism who made a pact with the devil in good faith” according to Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic. The metaphor of blindness and light is obvious. Baraniak chose one light; Jaruzelski, another.
Another intentional or accidental bit of parallelism. In the opening torture scene, the interrogator is wearing a coat with wide, shearling lapels. In a scene close to the conclusion, a character who has sold his soul to communists for financial gain is wearing a coat with wide, shearling lapels.
I liked the soundtrack – as the soundtrack of a different movie. Prophet is, for the most part, a quiet film, and the soundtrack is intrusive and bombastic, more suited to an action flick. Given how many storylines the film is juggling, editing could have been handled more smoothly. Scenes are cut abruptly.
I wish the film had mentioned the 1968 Polish crisis. Students and intellectuals rose up against communism. Part of the ruling communists’ efforts to quell these protests and to suppress dissidents was a government push to scapegoat Jews and drive them out of Poland. The cynicism of Poland’s communist leaders is exemplified by Gomulka. Gomulka’s own wife, Zofia, was a Jewish woman.
Wyszynski saw through the communists’ anti-Semitic attempt to manipulate the masses. He wrote, “In fact, everything must be attributed to the internal games within the government of the Polish People’s Republic. The political authorities at the present time want to limit themselves to a crackdown on ‘Zionism’ and ‘warmongers.’ They want to outmaneuver the academic youth, the workers, and the Church.”
Further, “In his homily on 11 April 1968, he mentioned the duty to love everyone, regardless of speech, language, or race. ‘The former Chief Rabbi of Poland, Zew Wawa Morejno, thanked Primate Wyszynski for this attitude toward Jews, both in 1968 and 1971,’ … During the Six-Day War in 1967, the Cardinal, in contrast to the authorities of the Polish People’s Republic, who supported the Arab side, supported Israel.”
These criticisms aside, Prophet is an excellent film that exposes viewers to some of the realities of life under communism, and that inspires the viewer with the life of a beautiful man. I don’t know how mass American audiences will be able to see this film. As mentioned, so far, it has been shown in the US on two days in November, 2022, only.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery