What’s Poland Really Worth? Tied Loyalty in ‘Kamienie na szaniec’

It seems churlish to question the efforts of resistance fighters against Nazi and Soviet oppression during the 1940s and later. After all, these individuals were fighting against the tyranny of dictators and an inhuman regime, right?

Maybe. But as this 2014 adaptation of Aleksandr Kamiński’s novel, Kamienie na szaniec (1943), or Stones for the Rampart, reveals, freedom fighters aren’t always fighting for the disinterested love of human liberty. This story takes an honest look at the nationalistic interests which inspired resistance movements such as the Szare Szeregi in World War Two Poland.

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The film follows the lives of a group of young people working with the resistance, and chronicles the capture and torture of Rudy (Tomasz Ziętek), and the efforts of Tadeusz (Marcel Sabat) and his fellow fighters to get him back. Tadeusz is by far the most idealistic of the group and he sincerely believes that what he is doing is for the health and glory of Poland.

Repeatedly the film presents scenes where Poland comes to the fore, symbolised by the flag. Loyalty to Poland is uppermost in Tadeusz’s mind, and those who are part of the resistance movement appear to be locked in. In other words, the resistance movement represents a similar (though not identical) form of enslavement to those Germans in the film who work for the Nazi regime. In such circumstances, individuals don’t really exist, just as they never did exist under the Soviet banner and indeed in most forms of extremist political and social regimes.

stones for the rampart
Swearing allegiance to the resistance

As Berdyaev would say, what’s happened is that ‘Poland’ the Motherland has become a phantasm, an idol to which actual human beings are sacrificed. Nationalism makes phantasms out of the idea of the nation.

In a sense, the movement of the story represents a gradual awakening to the reality of being enslaved to the phantasm of the nation, of loyalty to ‘Poland’. When friends and lovers and sons are tortured the attention turns to Why? Why so much pain inflicted on a human being, on a person?

Tadeusz gradually shifts his allegiances so that by the end, he is fighting in order to get his friend back. When things go wrong, Tadeusz sits with Rudy’s mother as she looks at photographs of her son when he was growing up. This reminds Tadeusz that Jan is not expendable — that human lives are not to be sacrificed for a phantasm. The idea of ‘Poland’ will not heal the ache in the heart of Jan’s mother.

Yet in spite of the film’s assent to the dignity of the human person in the face of war, the spirit of vengeance is left to run riot. Tadeusz seeks a form of justice by murdering those who harmed his friend. If he has learned that people come before abstract principles or ideas, he is still confined within a deadly cycle of vengeance which knows no escape.

What’s missing from the film is a portrayal of true resistance — resistance to the base instincts in the human psyche: the desire to avenge. Commitment to the utmost value of the person means resistance to evil, both without and within, and the triumphing of dark with light. Stones for the Rampart ultimately remains locked in the dark. Its consolations are fairly hollow. Tadeusz replaces his lost phantasm of Poland with an archaic, pagan drive reminiscent of Greek tragedy. Death leads to death leads to death.

The only thing that will save Tadeusz is stripping away the surface scene of Nazi Germany vs. Poland — both phantasms at war with each other — and learning to live on a more spiritual level, where what’s really in conflict is dark and light. And then what he’ll realise is that beginning to sense this is in fact half way to moving towards the light.

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