It’s no coincidence the sombre war films win the Oscars, and by the end of The Battle for Warsaw (aka Stones for the Rampart) you think it might have a chance. For the first half, however, it winds its audience up with an overly jocular tone and a particularly annoying techno riff.
We’re in the Second World War – the Nazi occupation of Poland to be precise – and the film’s initially keen to stress the spirit and energy of the youthful saboteurs sticking two fingers up to their German occupiers. In another film in another time, they could be scabbing off their community service or pinching a policeman’s helmet on Boat Race Night.
The seven or eight second riff that accompanies so many of the lads’ antics (and sounds like the Hollyoaks exit music) trivialises their actions; they may be the good guys, but they’re also risking their lives and those of their families. Sophie Scholl similarly dealt with a group of young radicals and found a young audience, and it did it by being as compelling as the story it was based on.
Things improve dramatically in the second half, as the film begins to respect its subject matter. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman brings out a deliciously noir-ish pallet – blues, blacks and browns for the streets and buildings drained of hope, luscious reds still breaking through in the opulent chocolatier – and delivers some impressive set piece sequences as the resistance members go about their plots.
Lead actor Marcel Sabat is also able to take the centre stage as the overcrowded cast thins out. He’s a sort of Polish Matt Smith, not only in looks but also in his ability to convey a still fury. He’s an exciting talent and hopefully he’ll get a chance to show it in a higher profile movie.
The script also matures, resisting the temptation to make a city under occupation a wholly hopeless place. Balloon sellers and secretaries can still ply a trade; policemen are still helpful. Life is resilient, but things are worse than they were, below the surface. The question is whether you are willing to make life harder by resisting crimes that are more easily ignored.
The Battle for Warsaw is a chilling portrait of the corrupting nature of violence, and of the true hopelessness one is faced with in resisting an evil so much stronger than oneself. It’s a shame some stupid decisions in the first half mean many won’t stick with it. The film is worth your patience.
The Battle for Warsaw is released on DVD in the UK on 10th August.