From their first moments onscreen, it’s evident no good is going to come to teenagers Jurek (Tomasz Zietek) and Grzegorz (Mateusz Górski). Jan P. Matuszyński’s unsparingly bleak period feature Leave No Traces (Żeby nie było śladów) — based on the real-life police beating, in Poland circa 1983, of high school student Grzegorz Przemyk — opens with a complex single shot that ominously captures the calm before the storm.
Grzegorz and Jurek wake up in the former’s bedroom, gray light streaming through the window, a pet turtle crawling across the floor, the friends’ idle chitchat mundane to a fault. Cinematographer Kacper Fertacz’s camera eventually becomes more mobile, moving with the boys as they walk back and forth through the bustling apartment of Grzegorz’s mother, Barbara (Sandra Korzeniak), a poet and opposition activist whose hectic bohemian lifestyle often spills into her home. This is the only sequence in the two-hour-and-forty-minute film where it feels like life is truly being lived and not trampled underfoot. Once Jurek and Grzegorz head into the local square, things take an oppressive turn.
Leave No Traces
Too torturous by half.
A pair of policemen ask Grzegorz for his ID. He refuses because the nearly two-year period of martial law that began in 1981 has recently ended. The cops arrest him anyway, then take him and Jurek to the station, where several officers beat Grzegorz senseless. “Leave no traces,” says one of the troopers, instructing his underlings to kick Grzegorz’s stomach to avoid visible bruising. Within a day, Grzegorz is dead, and Jurek is the only witness to the crime.
From here, Matuszyński — working from a script by Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk, who adapted a book by Cezary Łazarewicz — rigorously details the systemic atrocities that undermine any possibility of justice. The goal, quite simply, is to sow doubt and despair in anyone who could testify to the truth of Grzegorz’s murder, crushing their will in the process. Death thus proves as much a spiritual possibility as a corporeal one.
Jurek is the film’s conscience, and his efforts to remain steadfast against impossible odds are never less than gripping. This is especially true of the interactions between Jurek and his dad (Jacek Braciak), a former soldier whose blind patriotism is played on by government operatives so that he attempts to sabotage his son’s moral compass. Sacred family bonds exploited with business-as-usual unscrupulousness by people in power? That’s enough drama for a movie all its own. But Matuszyński, who in pre-premiere interviews has drawn parallels between Grzegorz Przemyk and George Floyd, is hunting bigger game.
For better and for worse, he’s attempting to diagnose the ills not only of a specific society at a particular moment in time, but of a wider world that trends repeatedly toward tyranny. At this Matuszyński is only somewhat adept. Government officials are presented in ways that are at once chilling and comical, not always intentionally so. One scene involving the Polish People’s Republic’s de facto dictator, Wojciech Jaruzelski (the performer playing him is overshadowed by the character’s freakishly oversized spectacles and obvious baldpate skullcap), has the feel of an Armando Iannucci sketch, even though the machinations being devised are hardly a laughing matter.
In straining to make a broad statement, Matuszyński dilutes the power of Jurek’s singular quest to stand up for his friend’s memory, with several should-be-complicating character shades (such as the possibility that Jurek was romantically involved with Grzegorz’s mother) feeling like afterthoughts.
What we’re left with is an unwieldy tapestry that leans hard into hopelessness. Absent a more dexterous grasp of the story’s larger themes, Leave No Traces grinds down its audience as much as its characters.