2016 Film Essays

Kinoteka Polish Film Festival: Jerzy Skolimowski’s ‘Barrier’ and the Sneaky Cameo

Among the many highlights of this year’s Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in London is a curated retrospective of Jerzy Skolimowski’s work, more specifically, the efforts as a director, as his screenplay contributions to the likes of Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water and Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers have been excluded. Skolimowski himself has been on hand to introduce some of the films or participate in post-screening Q&As, and I personally found it a great honour to briefly be in the company of that one Russian general Scarlett Johansson beat up at the beginning of The Avengers.

I caught Skolimowski at a 35mm screening of his 1966 film Barrier, a characteristically surreal tale of a rebellious student wanting to go about erasing all the perceived barriers in his life. Forewarning of possibly less than stellar English subtitles, the director assured the attending audience that, if the film seemed to be suddenly taking an upswing in lightness of tone, it was definitely okay to commence laughing. Aside from the laugh that got, the most interesting titbit the man offered was regarding how he snuck himself into the film despite instructions from the Polish Secretary of Culture at the time.


Skolimowski’s prior directorial efforts were 1965’s Walkover and Identification Marks: None, both of which featured him as the primary protagonist, with both roles concerning young men adrift in society and bearing considerable cynicism. That characteristic is definitely carried over to Barrier’s male lead, but the powers that be in the communist Poland of the time enforced the restriction that Skolimowski himself would not be the visible mouth for articulations of the political and psychological crises facing young Poles. How he got around this is perfectly befitting of the cheeky energy that fuels the fever dream qualities.


Near the hour mark of Barrier comes a moment where the protagonist (Jan Nowicki, credited as ‘Protagonist’) has said something to Joanna Szczerbic’s tram driver/love interest that she finds contentious. The woman slaps Nowacki’s character, and then places upon his head, covering his face, a crown assembled from a poster that had been seen earlier in the film. What we see on the protagonist’s face is now a large picture of Skolimowki’s own face, which stays on his head as a helmet of sorts for much of the remainder of the scene.


With Skolimowki’s face upon his own, the protagonist, with sword in hand, declares, “Man built this to detach himself from earth for a few seconds.” He then mounts a suitcase and rides it like a sled down a steep structure and onto a hill. The contents within his suitcase explode, and he is sent rolling down. As he staggers up and away, the face of Skolimowski remains his helmet, until it briefly comes off. He puts it back on, only this time it’s in reverse, displaying another part of the poster. The image we now see is of a finger pointing directly at us. If some of the political nuances of the rest of the film may confound non-Polish viewers, this scene seems pretty clear; it may not be Skolimowki’s middle finger that’s being pointed, but the intent seems similar.

Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.