Wojtek Smarzowski is the film director of the grotesque films "Wesele" and "Dom zły", films which take an unflinching look what life in Poland can bring. Certainly, Wesele may be somewhat OTT, but themes of alcohol, corruption and social hypocrisy regarding sex can be features of life in Poland (though of course this isn't limited to Poland!). Dom zły also shows the abuse of alcohol and corruption (this time at the state administrative level), while dealing with difficult historical areas (the militia and secret police and their abuses).
Róża is also uncompromising. Certainly, the first scene of the film sets the scene for the film in that it shows a rape and murder of a Polish woman by a German soldier during the German counter-attack during the Warsaw Uprising, watched by her husband, Tadeusz.
The film is based around the figure of Róża, a woman who suffers all manner of abuses during the film, and is set in Mazury, an area which used to be part of East Prussia (part of Germany) and became Polish possession towards the beginning of the film. Now, ethnic groups in Poland are quite a complicated business (despite what many will say, talking as they do of "proto-Germans" and "proto-Poles"); you just need to know that Masurians have a mixed ethnic background, and tended, by the 20th century to be German speaking Lutherans, though, as the film shows, many could also speak Polish, as Róża does in the film, as well as the other main character, Tadeusz. Some define themselves as being Masurians, not German or Polish.
That she is not seen to be Polish and lives alone on a farm leads to terrible events for Róża, including being raped and beaten many times, despite the attempts of Tadeusz to (occasionally successfully) fight off those who attack her.
The film has two main plots: Róża and the attacks on her (as well as those on the German speaking community in the village) and the story of Tadeusz. With the former, it shows what happened to the areas which had been in Germany, the discrimination towards Germans (not being given food, having their possessions being plundered, being beaten by Soviet and Polish militia, being raped), as well as the "repatriation" of Poles from the east of what was pre-1945 Poland (a family speaking the dialect of eastern Poland appears to live in and eventually take over Róża's house). To add to that we see Germans being forcibly expelled to the new borders of Germany.
Regarding Taduesz, he had fought in the Armia Krajowa partisan army. Now, members of the Armia Krajowa were viewed with suspicion by Soviet and later Polish authorities (the later Polish communist head Władysław Gomułka said "Soldiers of AK are a hostile element which must be removed without mercy"). For this reason Tadeusz tries to keep his head down to avoid being detected. He eventually meets someone who had also been "in the woods" (euphemism for being a partisan) who urges him to declare his past to the communist authorities, something he declines to do (something that results with Tadeusz being arrested, tortured and imprisoned).
In doing so, the film deals with a few essential themes, relevant for modern Poland.
Rape is a key feature of the film. As I said, one sees a Polish woman raped at the start. Róza is raped many times, as is the Polish woman who comes to live with her. Like as shown in the film Anomyma, the rapes were perpetrated by members of the Red Army (one mass-rape by Red Army soldiers is also shown in the film). However, the film also shows the rape of Róża by Poles. This is a very important issue. The film was made by a Pole, and is, as far as I know, the first film made in Poland to thematise the abuse of German woman by Polish men.
It's a similar case with the discrimination towards Germans, showed in their eventual expulsion towards the new version of Germany. The film shows Polish officials and militia organising and carrying out that expulsion. The depiction of rape follows the line of Anomyma which came out in 2009 was the first film in Germany to bring the attention of the mass rape of German woman by Soviet soldiers (certainly, Die Blechtrommel in 1979 did contain a rape scene; however it wasn't the main story of the film) shows that this is a sensitive theme that is only now being addressed openly (this was a repressed theme in the GDR, and in the BDR the official myth of German victimhood during and after WWII was dominant, though that was heavily challenged in the 1960s).
Róża is therefore a contribution towards the efforts of Germans in coming to terms with their past (following a Czech near-equivalent, Habermann in 2010 which partly deals with Czech abuses of Germans, including their expulsion from the Sudetenland after the end of WWII. Thanks to a reader for that tip). This is a healthy development at the mass level, supported by smaller initiatives, such as this talk between a German woman who feared for being raped in Wrocław* after the end of WWII and a Polish former forced labourer; as well as that by Karta, who have organised meetings between German expellees and Poles who are now living in the towns the Germans used to live in, Poles who themselves had been expelled from areas now in Belarus and the Ukraine.
While the film may prompt debate in Germany, I am interested as to what impact the film will have in Poland. As I wrote here, there is a tension in Poland regarding the themes of the rape of German woman by Polish men, the expulsion of Germans, as well as, to a smaller degree, Stalinist terror in Poland from 1944. Despite the views of some foreigners, Poland is more than Warsaw and the issues of the Nazis and the communists; the issue of the "reclaimed territories" is a big issue not often dealt with in a productive way.
Is the film any good? Well, for someone like myself aware of the context of tensions in Poland and Germany about these issues, it was interesting. Generally the film is difficult. While murder is commonly shown in films, rape is not. For that reason, perhaps, I found the rape scenes to be horrific (of course, rape is horrific, but we are less sensitised to the depiction of it in films than with murder). Otherwise, the acting in the film is very good.
I therefore can recommend the film.
* Of course, the story of Mazury is similar to that of Lower Silesia, whereby Germans (and, regarding stealing and rape, Poles as well) faced similar ordeals.
"On February 6th, at seven o'clock in the morning, Renata B. a girl of fifteen, who was on the way to the children's mass in [...] the church of St. Mary-on-the=Sand, was stopped by a Polish militiaman. He dragged her into a demolished building, raped her, and stole her clothes"
From an eyewitness account by a Polish man, quoted in "Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City" by Norman Davies
I watched the film in a cinema containing a high proportion of elderly people, people old enough to have been those expelled from the east to Wrocław, and old enough to have experienced those times. If only there had been an open discussion about the film afterwards.