Though director Jan Matuszyńki insists Burn After Reading was the single biggest influence on his sophomore feature and Oscars entry, Leave No Traces is not a funny movie beyond its first five minutes.
Following the tragic death of art student Grzegorz Przemyk in a Warsaw police station in 1983, Leave No Traces is both a historical drama about the injustices of communism and a weary nod to the present. Tomasz Zietek is the standout as best friend Jurek, whose eyewitness status makes him the most wanted man in Poland. Przemyk is played wonderfully by Mateusz Górski, a young Malcolm McDowell lookalike.
But Grzegorz and Jurek are no droogs. They are a pair of affable aspiring poets with a healthy dose of rebelliousness. But in 1980s Poland, that was enough to get you killed. What hurts Grzegorz’s cause even further is his anti-Soviet mother Barbara Sadowska (Sandra Korzeniak), a famous poet known for attending Solidarity rallies alongside Lech Wałesa and co. At one violent rally, police warn her they’ll target her son. One day Grzegorz and Jurek go out to meet friends and the teens are thrown into the back of a van.
The legal process and national scandal which resulted from Przemyk’s death that day is mostly what Leave No Traces is about, adapting a 2017 non-fiction book by journalist Cezary Lazarewicz. At a meaty 160 minutes, the procedures are presented in great detail. But what Leave No Traces really wants to dig into are the ethics of these procedures altogether. When Jurek is forced to testify in front of a kangaroo court and swears an oath to tell the “whole truth”, what could this possibly mean?
Tomasz Kot (Cold War) as an Interior Ministry official drafted in to work on the state cover-up has to deal with these questions first-hand. Alongside his boss Czesław Kiszczak (Robert Więckiewicz), they are on the frontline of an unexpected PR war which lights up Radio Free Europe and the BBC. Luckily, the Polish press is less interested. State newspaper Prawda (“Truth”) covers Przemyk’s death as a drunken accident and even mistakes his age.
Ineptitude defines the whole affair. When Kot asks whether it was their department which ordered the killing, Kiszczak says matter-of-factly: “If we really wanted to deal with him, we would have sent professionals.”
Kot’s character is the most interesting, a symbol of the white lies which became a national institution for most of Poland’s 20th century. Matuszyńki said he was forced to cut many humorous scenes – few outside Poland realise Kot is usually a comedy actor – though it’s hard to imagine what they would be like. Even still, Burn After Reading-esque humour is present in stretches of Leave No Traces, a bitterly ironic and sad film which ultimately provokes grief rather than laughter.
For Matuszyńki, it’s a solid second feature and another foray into true stories, after his debut The Last Family tracked two real-life homes going through domestic horror. Having said that, it would be nice to see such a visually creative director move toward narrative fiction, too. Poland’s new hotshot filmmaker has an Oscar entry and a Venice competition title under his belt less than a decade after leaving film school. Great works could lie ahead. Poland’s authorities may have attempted to leave no traces in their cover-up of Przemyk’s murder, but this film certainly contains traces of future promise.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution for Leave No Traces at this time.