Jerzy Skolimowski: Walkover, Barrier, Dialogue 20 40 60 + Short Films [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (30th March 2024).
The Film

"Second Run presents essential early works by Polish director and iconoclast Jerzy Skolimowski, one of international cinema’s most prolific and celebrated filmmakers. This limited edition 3-disc Blu-ray box set contains a selection of 1960s feature films - Walkover (1965), Barrier (1966) and Dialogue 20 40 60 (1968) - presented from stunning new 2K restorations, plus early short films - The Menacing Eye (Oko wykol, 1960); Little Hamlet (Hamleś, 1960); Erotyk (1961); Your Money or Your Life (Pieniądze albo życie, 1961) - newly remastered in HD, and released for the first time ever on Blu-ray."

Walkover: On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, Andrzej Leszczyc (writer/director Skolimowski himself) arrives in Lódz and and by chance runs into former university colleague Teresa Karczewska (Aleksandra Zawieruszanka). Having nothing else to do and hoping to take her out to dinner, Andrzej accompanies Teresa to a massive combined housing development and factory where Teresa works as a chemist with the promise of finding him work. Upon introduction to Teresa's superior (Krzysztof Chamiec) who immediately offers him a position and living quarters, Andrzej must admit that he is not an engineer and that he had not finished his college education in the ten years since he and Teresa last saw each other and is instead offered a factory job. As the day goes on, Teresa learns that after she denounced him to the Party in school, Andrzej went into the army where he found success as a boxer and has since then been traveling from town to town competing in the "First Step in Boxing" training program under the guise of a newcomer to win competition money and prizes and has already been noticed by Coach Rogala (Henryk Kluba) who recognizes him but does not expose his scam, hoping Andrzej will become a professional boxer (just because of Andrzej's age and bearing, the young fighters naturally assume he is their better professionally and in the ring). When Andrzej makes his way up in the rankings to face off against a final opponent who is both younger and stronger than himself, he must chose between running away or settling down with Teresa even if it means his defeat in the ring.

Told in a series of extraordinarily choreographed and executed long takes on location, Skolimowski's spiritual sequel to his hybrid student film/theatrical feature film debut (more on that below) Identification Marks: None which first introduced the director's alter ego Andrzej Leszczyc, Walkover takes its title from a sports term in which a win is awarded to a fighter if there is no opponent available or if the opponent as been disqualified. It is a humiliating prospect to a proud athlete, particularly in a one-on-one sport like boxing. Although Andrzej is not exactly competing in the most noble manner, we assume that he has always won in a manner he believes to be fair and square; that is, until we learn that he wants to run because his next opponent is stronger than him, and he might have done that before going by the remarks of Coach Rogala. Although he seems to arrive in town on the eve of his thirtieth birthday to compete in the amateur boxing program, the day appears to become a decisive moment for him as he meets a possible love interest, and his other recurring encounters that day with living-by-the-skin-of-his-teeth swindler Miecio (Ashes' Krzysztof Litwin) who like Andrzej has multiple watches on his person but not as winnings, an elderly pawn broker (The Hourglass Sanatorium's Tadeusz Kondrat) eager to close down to celebrate his dog's birthday, and a former army buddy (The Cruise's Marek Piwowski) under police escort – after his own dehumanizing interrogation for running away from the scene of a car accident in a state of distraction – come to symbolize the possible outcomes of his rootless existence; that is, until he remarks to Teresa "If a president is thirty, he is the youngest in the world. Thirty in boxing means your career is over."

One comes to wonder whether his romantic interest in Teresa – who he also seems to resent for denouncing him and making it difficult to continue his education – is a test of whether he can resign himself to a kind of domesticity in which he must either resume his education years later than his classmates or learn to brush off barbs as a spouse with a more qualified mate as is the case with a woman Teresa berates who coolly replies: "Maybe you're unaware that one can fall in love, get married, have a baby…" In his prospective dirty-fighting opponent Wielgosz he might see be forced to see image of himself as a bully – particularly since they have both fought young driver Marian (Night Train's Andrzej Herder) and Andrzej tried to encourage him not to be intimidated by him while he is all but humiliated by his loss to Wielgosz – particularly with both Teresa's analogy to her abrasive behavior with her colleagues "I throw blind punches, and you? You've learned to fight but you only hit those who are weaker. When you meet someone stronger you run away," and his discovery that Wielgosz is also working the amateur boxing circuit for the prizes. Andrzej makes the decision not to run just in time to experience the walkover, and his actual losing fight with Wielgosz is not a matter of competition but of wounded pride, and he reels from a powerful blow and drops out of the frame in rhyming image to the opening one of a woman jumping offscreen in front of a train.

Andrzej Leszczyc returns in Barrier… or does he? Jan Nowicki (The Third Part of the Night) is a medical student who is never named but is very Andrzej Leszczyc-like. He has become fed up not with his studies – depicted as liturgical recitation and memorization of all of the body's major and minor muscle (appropriately in Latin) – and the too-distant promise "to drive a car like that with a hot girl next to me." He would rather do things the other way around: live now and give up his life for his country when he is fifty. He leaves the cloistered existence of the university dormitory with just his suitcase and a piggy bank holding the remainder of his scholarship money – which his roommates toss down to him when they cannot agree to split it between them – and visits his father in a rest home where his fancy car is a motorized scooter that gives chase to his attendants. He attempts to assuage his father's disappointment by announcing his impending marriage, and his father gives him a letter to deliver that sets him on a journey of escalating Fellini-esque absurdism involving a World War I saber, a lusty older woman (Malgorzata Lorentowicz), and tram operator (Skolimowski's wife Joanna Szczerbic) he plans to introduce to his friends as his fiancee whether she likes it or not.

"Even in our cynical and hopeless generation, there are still acts done in the heat of passion." Whereas Walkover was told in a series of balletically-choreographed long takes ambitiously shot on location, Barrier favors visually-striking compositions, sets, and dressed locations to weave a more "consciously" internal journey in which other characters do not come to represent aspects of himself but a quotidian reality he is attempting to transform. Rather than articulating what he is resisting beyond the opening scene, the student sets about dismantling his reality starting with imaginative (and destructive) uses for his saber – a gift from his father intended to represent status and his only reason for refusing an easy sale of it is to not give in to bourgeoisie temptation in the form of seduction – carrying around a suitcase that never stops smoldering (a hot coal that burned its way through the shell likely destroying all that is inside), and "serving up" the piggy bank as the main course at his engagement dinner. Once the tram operator decides she actually wants to be fiancee to a man with more imagination than prospects, the focus of the film shifts towards her as she attempts to escape her own circular reality hopping on and off tram lines, only to find that there there may be nothing remaining of him, not even a name (although he does briefly "become" Andrzej Leszczyc late in the film if only for a moment).

The ideal companion piece to Walkover and Barrier would be either Identification Marks: None or Skolimowski's final and most overtly critical Andrzej Leszczyc film Hands Up!; but, alas, the rights to those are still with The British Film Institute who released the pair on Blu-ray last year. Instead, Second Run offers up what Skolimowski himself described as a "kind of filmic joke" in Dialogue 20-40-60, a Slovakian (and Slovak-dubbed) production in which Polish director Skolimowski, Slovakian director Peter Solan (Before Tonight is Over), and Czech director Zbynek Brynych (The Fifth Horseman is Fear) create an experimental take on the portmanteau film using a fixed "script" consisting solely of dialogue and using it to explore relationships from the perspectives of six couples, respectively twenty years old, forty years old, and sixty years old. In Skolimowski's segment Jean-Pierre Léaud – who had previously appeared in Skolimowski's French-language Belgian production Le départ plays a pop star who has the adoration of all the girls he wants but is fixated on Magda (Barrier's Szczerbic), all-too-readily rising to the bait of her infidelity when he accosts a couple (The Devil's Trap's Jirí Vrstála and Jana Glazerová) lent the use of his bed by Magda for a bit of role-playing. In Solan's piece, a magician (The Day That Shook the World's Jirí Holý) and his girlfriend/wife (Viera Strnisková) put an even more fatalistic spin on the same verbal sparring with the help of sleight-of-hand illusions and a very real pistol. Finally, in Brynych's take Jozef Kroner (The Shop on the High Street) plays a theatre prompter for whom the content of a stage performance "prompts" memories of what may or may not have been a real relationships with a past actress (Jana Beláková).

Since all three directors had creative license in everything apart from the dialogue script, one can only judge the three takes against one another in purely subjective terms; while one can opine that one or another of the directors has made more "effective" use the dialogues, one cannot necessarily judge who made "correct" use of it. For instance, it is much funnier to hear Leaud bellow the line "Crawl... and you'll beg!" while bent double with his arm twisted behind his back by a gorilla of a man than for than the magician as he boxes the ears of a bespectacled man (Eden and After's Frantisek Gervai) he believes to be his wife's lover or the line as part of an exchange between two stage performers under the gaze of the old man in Brynych's version. Leaud was always more effective as a Truffaut stand-in in his younger roles before he was more selective in later years, and here he seems as uncomfortable as he looks ridiculous playing a pop star, and – as perhaps appropriate to a story about lovers not so far out of their teens – the argument peters out unresolved, while the middle-aged lovers of Solan's film terrify one another but ultimately seemed destined to go around in circles, and the protagonist of Brynych's film seems to be on the brink of suicide before making peace with the past and ultimately having the last laugh. Dialogue 20-40-60 is ultimately more of a diversion than a satisfying work in whole or in its parts, and probably least satisfying to the filmmakers themselves (it's actually the sort of gimmick that would probably better serve as an exercise to less-experienced filmmakers).


Apart from their initial art house theatrical releases and PBS broadcasts in the United States, Walkover and Barrier have been hard to see. Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfers come from 2K restorations supervised by Jerzy Skolimowski, produced by Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych i Fabularnych (WFDiF), Poland, while the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen presentation of Dialogue 20-40-60 comes from a new 2K restoration by the Slovak Film Institute. All three films have that Eastern European sixties monochrome that favors a range of grays and whites while shadow details is subject to the degree of control in the lighting, with some moody noir close-ups of Skolimowski in Walkover compared to the night exteriors in Barrier (in which Skolimowski on more than one occasion makes use of the impenetrable blacks to create striking transitions). The work of three directors and three cinematographers – including Vincent Rosinec (Dragon's Return) who shot Solan's segment – Dialogue 20-40-60's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen transfer has a more varied texture with Skolimowski's segment favoring Barrier's approach of largely static compositions which look crisper than the more mobile work of the Solan segment, while the Brynych segment favors higher contrast imagery of silhouettes and faces half shaded in darkness to emphasize the interior nature of the dialogue as memory.


All three films are post-dubbed with LPCM 2.0 mono tracks – Polish for the first two films while everyone regardless of nationality is dubbed into Slovak in Dialogue 20-40-60 – with a general emphasis on dialogue and score over sound effects and overall ambiance. Optional English subtitles are included for all three films.


Walkover's extras start with an introduction by critic, curator and scholar Michał Oleszczyk (23:24) who discusses the evolution of Skolimowski's alter ego Andrzej Leszczyc (including his boxing) – including the two films not included here – and the discontinuity with the first film including the introduction of another love interest named Teresa, analysis of the characters including the recurring Hamlet-like aspect of Leszczyc and the prospects in a seeming meritocracy of such a character who has been shut out or rejects such advancement.

There is also a new audio commentary by film historian Michael Brooke who also contextualizes the Skolimowski's character within his filmography and various autobiographical elements including his earlier creative venture was as a songwriter whose lyrics were turned down by composer Krzysztof Komeda (Knife in the Water) whereupon he published them as poetry (including lines recited here by Andrzej directly to the camera and by the student in the follow-up film). Brooke also reveals that Identification Marks: None has been shot by Skolimowski in film school piecemeal as a series of class assignments that he planned explicitly to assemble into a feature film upon graduation. In contrast, Walkover consists of roughly thirty-five long take sequences. He also provides some interesting analysis of the corruption of the film's meritocratic system and its veneration/exploitation of youth in contrast to the scam Andrzej is running on the amateur boxing circuit.

Barrier also features an introduction by critic, curator and scholar Michał Oleszczyk (17:52) who discusses the Leszczyc-like character essayed by Nowicki and how the film reworks some of the themes of Walkover but with a lighter, more satirical and theatrical approach, the film's religious symbolism and the post-war historical context – including the significance of the saber – and the shape of the compromises required in the film for Skolimowski's "angry young man" to get just a piece of an already looted "affluent" society in the form of a fancy car and a beautiful woman.

There is also an audio commentary by film historian Michael Brooke who reveals that Skolimowski was supposed to play the Andrzej Leszczyc character again but that studio Zespol Filmowy "Kamera" insisted on another actor in Nowicki but that that compromise came with a distinguished supporting cast. He discusses the influence of Fellini and "Alice in Wonderland" as well as the stylistic departure from Walkover as well as the film's religious imagery – indeed, he describes it as an "Easter fairy tale" – and the symbolic nature of the student's various encounters.

Dialogue 20-40-60 features no introduction or commentary. The extras consist solely of Skolimowski's earlier shorts "The Menacing Eye [Oko wykol]" (2:45), "Little Hamlet [Hamleś]" (7:38) – the protagonist of which surely has a lot in common with Andrzej Leszczyc – "Erotyk" (3:12), and "Your Money or Your Life [Pieniądze albo życie]" (6:00).


The three discs are housed in individual keep cases in a cardboard slipcase, and each disc includes individual 11-page booklets with essays by David Thompson that seem as though they were intended to be one booklet or designed to be read in succession as the one for Walkover covers Skolimowski's early years and his recurring anti-conformist attitudes, and discussion of Identification Marks: None and Walkover while Barrier covers that film, its reception, and how the banning of Hands Up! lead to him leaving Poland and working in other countries. The booklet for Dialogue 20-40-60 devotes only a couple paragraphs to that film and more to the included shorts.


While rights issues presumably kept this set of Skolimowski films from thematically focusing solely on Andrzej Leszczyc (and his Barrier counterpart), the three films and their contextualizing extras as a whole depict the shared difficulties of its anti-conformist and his cinematic alter ego.


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