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Set in military barracks in a small town during World War I. The soldiers herded in the barracks are 'politically suspect' mix of characters from all over of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Czechs, Jews, and even Italians, but officers in charge are Germans. A new lieutenant arrives with the mission to bring order to the unit. He is the sadist, enjoying humiliating the men. Fed up with his behaviour the lower ranks kidnap him one night and string him up in a public toilet. They also make sure that he fouls up during the inspection. Eventually the five ring leaders are imprisoned. They escape and end up in Budapest posing as guards as guards of veterinary surgeons. They are caught and sent back to face a court martial and their old tormentor. Written by
Polish Cinema Database <http://info.fuw.edu.pl/Filmy/>
If all wars were fought like this, everyone would be a lot happier
Based on a novel of the same name by Kazimierz Sejda, C.K. dezerterzy (known as "H.M. Deserters" in English) is a Polish film telling of the misadventures of a quintet of Austro-Hungarian soldiers during World War I. It has been compared to Robert Altman's MASH (1970) and Mike Nichols' Catch-22 (1970). It does have similarities to both of those more well-known films, as C.K. dezerterzy is also a "war comedy" (in which there is little if any fighting), but for that matter, you could make a comparison to any war comedy centered around a ragtag ensemble, including "Hogan's Heroes" (1965) and McHale's Navy (1964), as that is a relatively thinly populated genre. C.K. dezerterzy has a strongly distinct style, different from the other works it is frequently compared to, and the second half of the film also mixes its comedy with the "road movie" (with the transport being trains) subgenre of adventure.
The story begins in what is described in most synopses as an Austro-Hungarian prisoner-of-war camp. That may be the case. Although it's not stated in the English subtitles for the film, there could be visual clues or something in the Polish dialogue indicating this setting. At any rate, it's amusing that there only seems to be one man present who is clearly a prisoner of war, an Italian who is taken off of janitorial duty and adopted as the personal assistant of the new Lieutenant, von Nogay (Wojciech Pokora). Von Nogay even has the Italian taking care of his parrot, to whom he teaches anti-war, or at least anti-Austro-Hungarian phrases. Still, the rest of the soldiers on base are usually called "politically suspect" in most synopses, and it's at least clear that they're an ethnically diverse group (accurate for the demographics of Austria-Hungary at the time) of layabouts and troublemakers. In fact, their reputation for being an undisciplined group of partiers and subversive practical jokers is what precipitated von Nogay's appointment to the base in the first place. Von Nogay is a tightly wound German, as were most officers in the Austro-Hungarian army, a strict disciplinarianhe's almost abusive, who dedicates himself to getting the troupe back into shape. He's outraged at their facial hair. He's outraged that they do not know the German anthem. He's outraged by just about everything he sees, and he probably has a right to be.
Of course, von Nogay's approach doesn't go over very well. Before long, the base's main pranksters and a couple newfound friends--Kania (Marek Kondrat), Haber (Wiktor Zborowski), Benedek (Zoltán Bezerédy), Baldini (Jacek Sas-Uhrynowski) and Chudej (Róbert Kolati)--have plotted von Nogay's downfall. The plan works beautifully. The pranksters initiate a further chaos-inducing scheme that enables them to take off, deserting their positions and avoiding detection--at least temporarily. The rest of the film is a series of misadventures as the five try to make their way to Vienna.
Although Pavel Hajný and Janusz Majewski's (who also directs) screenplay adaptation of Sejda's novel is certainly entertaining and funny, what really makes C.K. dezerterzy succeed is the way that the ensemble meshes. They have clearly delineated personalities, appearances and dispositions that complement each other well, yet they're similar enough that it's believable that they're all soldiers on the "same team".
C.K. dezerterzy is unique in that it's not really pro or anti-war. Even outside of the quintet that is the focus of the film, the military men depicted seem primarily concerned with their own issues and desires. For example, Von Nogay is a thinly veiled sadist who just wants to control and dominate others. His position gives him that opportunity, and seems to be the only reason that he holds it. As for our heroes, they just want to have a good time. They're much more concerned with getting laid (the film begins with a love scene between Kania and his girlfriend, and later scenes occur in a whorehouse, a risqué bathhouse, and so on), getting inebriated and pulling stunts just for the fun of it. Of course they don't want to fight in the war, but not so much because it's war as because it's work and they'd have to be disciplined and responsible. The entire base that von Nogay takes over has a similar attitude, but Majewski wisely narrows his focus.
Although there are occasional moments approaching slapstick, C.K. dezerterzy is more a comedy of situations. The quintet just wants to be left to their own devices, but in an environment/social milieu that's under wartime security and a bit chaotic, they have a difficult time being left alone, and end up with a number of people chasing them/on the lookout for them, especially as they make their way across Europe on a series of trains. They get into trouble when they try to travel. They get into trouble when the try to stop for recreation. Their bad luck is only tempered by their skill at pulling off relatively innocent cons.
The technical elements are handled well. Strikingly poetic and atmospheric cinematography appears more often than you might expect. The production design authentically sets the film in the right historical era. Majewski's mise-en-scène is admirable. But again, the ensemble performances and writing are the real attractors.
This may have been my introduction to "authentic" Polish cinema--I can't recall seeing any other Polish films that were primarily marketed to Polish audiences. C.K. dezerterzy is no masterpiece, but it's a very good, funny and enjoyable film that has me looking forward to watching more Polish cinema.
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