“According to one definition, a terrorist is someone, who wasn’t able to negotiate to get what they wanted”
Patryk Vega’s Polish crime thriller film Plagues of Breslau (2018) introduces us to Helena (Małgorzata Kożuchowska), a homicide detective with the cloudy, disentangled aura of David Fincher’s 2011 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – with a haircut to match.
Working alongside the broody detective we have unkempt Magda (Daria Widawska), who appears out of thin air to help shed some light on the bewildering murders taking place every day after 6pm. While delving into the possible ethical reasoning behind the perpetrator’s crimes, the two leads reveal their own traumatic pasts, dragging each other into a limbo of morality.
The film starts off promisingly. In fact, the ominous music thundering in the background, composed by Łukasz Targosz, never ceases to inject suspense into the otherwise bland story. The Plagues of Breslau seems to lose its serious edge – as well as its understanding of storytelling – after the first twenty minutes, following a sharp nosedive into the kind of gore that earned the film its 18+ content rating.
The raw autopsies are not nearly as upsetting as the visual reenactments of the ancient, and medieval, torture methods that served as inspiration for the film’s murders. Dismemberment and death by burning may seem like a tantalising watch, but when inserted simply for their shock value, they only serve to put you off your snacks.
Those unfamiliar with Polish productions may be find the acting, shifting from overblown to pike-stiff, rather jarring. Not to mention the shaky camera that ends up nearly scraping the noses of the actors on a few occasions. Visually speaking, the scenes feel so candid, that you are left believing that they were filmed by a bystander. And not intentionally. Towards the end, they leave you perplexed. Like you have just watched a compilation of in-game screenshots with an underwhelming twist.
Possibly the most disappointing part of the entire experience was having the whole mystery revealed in a poorly executed monologue. Clearly, the “show, don’t tell” principle must have floated down onto the cutting room floor. The action fades quickly, revealing a skin-peelingly unoriginal drama about the subjectivity of truth and justice.
The grey-faced, brusque female leads have all the characteristics of their male peers. And none of them make them relatable as women, much like David Leitch’s 2017 Atomic Blonde (2017). Which, coincidentally, is why they seem to be shown respect by their burly counterparts. To drive the point home, we meet Nastka (Katarzyna Bujakiewicz), the weeping, tender girlfriend of one of Helena’s colleagues.
Her role is boiled down to that of a distraught mother, lost without her unconscious partner. The pearly tears lodged somewhere behind her eyes never see the light of day, possibly because her character does not seem very engaged, either.
Generally speaking, the plot of the film transforms into a parody of itself often enough to leave you itching to start scrolling through Netflix again, long before the film’s end.