Leave No Traces: How Far Would You Go for a Friend?

~ by Dora Endre ~

Director Jan P. Matuszynski (The Last Family, Deep Love) and Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk (Overclockers) take us on a harsh journey in communist Poland. The creative team used reportage by Cezary Lazarewicz to tell the true story of Grzegorz Przemyk’s fatal beating. The high school student’s vicious murder at a militia station becomes a public scandal. The only witness of his killing is his best friend Jurek who gives testimony and is consequently hunted and constantly followed by watchmen of the state. Leave No Traces is a raw and urgent coming-of-age kick in the stomach.

We descend from the colorful, careless world of high school students to hell within the blink of an eye. Ten minutes into the film, we feel as if somebody would have cut the wires of the elevator we have been in. A corrupt, deceiving, brutal communist regime fabricates lies, destroys lives, disrupts families and sends black cars for people who thereupon never return. Senseless violence, hypocrisy and hopelessness rules everything and everyone.

Matuszynski’s firm directorial choices and the pulsating tension he manages to build never drops. Leave No Traces is a movie made in the vein of John Le Carré adaptations, waves reach the shore slowly and bring heavy sediment. The movie is evenly charged with emotions and intentionally long in parts. Paranoia, gloominess, intimidation and the state of numbness floating fill every scene like penetrating fog. Cold War fear meets macro-scale espionage, investigative journalism and micro-level, personal stories.

The system burns its citizens out methodically until they become completely immune to the violence and horror unfolding right in front of their eyes. There is a scene where Jurek smokes a cigarette in a restaurant full of people. Police enter the building, beat him up and drag him outside the place. It is not only that witnesses do not intervene, they do not even look or get surprised by the “incident”. Comrades, the police, watchmen – The Big Brother – are always around, watching, listening, spreading propaganda and apathy.

Leave No Traces

Jurek (Tomasz Zietek) represents the vehemence and idealism of youth. Together with Grzegorz’s mother (Sandra Korzeniak) they seem to stand against the world. Grrzegoz’s mother has strong resemblances with Aida, from Quo Vadis, Aida? by Jasmila Žbanić. Complex and strong mothers. They are wonderful at bringing people together and they fight for their family and for justice tirelessly. Harsh times turn everyday people into revolutionists.

Jurek’s friendship and love with Grzegorz (Mateusz Górski) never ends, on the contrary, it propels all his actions. It overthrows all his personal interests, his fear for his – and his family’s – safety, work, life. He honors Grzegorz by not giving. As Lao Tzu said

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”

The immaculate camera work by Kacper Fertacz (The Last Family) brings an ‘80s texture and quality to the screen, immersing us in the world of the Soviet Bloc. His camera is constantly in motion adding a documentary-esque look to most of the movie. He uses long takes in moments of dreadfulness and heated tension, preventing us from taking our eyes off of what is going on. We are stuck with these characters, unable to take a calming breath. There is great sound mixing, a captivating original score and nuanced, anti-sentimental performances that further elevate this bleak drama-thriller.

The aforementioned, documentary-like choices result in distancing us from individual characters and shift our attention on the bigger picture. More digging into the inner lives of characters, their struggles and motives would have definitely served the plot and kept viewers even more emotionally invested.

To sum up, Leave No Traces is a difficult and urgent watch that will give you an accurate historical insight and much appreciation for your personal safety. If you are lucky, and you and your loved ones live in safety. Can you imagine fearing to let your teenager son out on the street? Going to school? Riding his car to do grocery shopping? The system takes good care of “its children”, doesn’t it? Times have changed, haven’t they?

Leave No Traces plays at movie theatres. You can also watch the film on Netflix or Hulu Plus.