After the Communist dictatorship collapsed in Poland, the new government opened some of the Communist archives, including those concerning human rights abuses. Journalist Cezary Łazarewicz wrote a book, Żeby nie było śladów (Leave No Traces), about the 1983 case of Grzegorz Przemyk, an 18-year-old student who was beaten to death by members of the Polish national police force, the Citizens’ Militia. Film director Jan P. Matuszyński read the book in 2017 and decided to make a film about the case.
In the film Leave No Traces, best friends Grzegorz (Mateusz Górski) and Jurek (Tomasz Ziętek) are goofing off in a public square when they are suddenly grabbed by police and hauled off to a police station. Grzegorz, the son of a well-known opposition poet, refuses to produce his ID card. Two police officers begin beating him with batons, punching and kicking him. When Jurek objects, they beat him and restrain him. A sergeant enters the room and orders his subordinates to stop striking Grzegorz on the back and to beat him instead on the stomach because it leaves no traces (thus the title). Once Grzegorz is completely incapacitated, the sergeant orders the police to call a hospital and say that the victim is crazy because that way the hospital will send orderlies, but no doctors.
The orderlies transport Grzegorz to the hospital. His mother, Barbara Sadowska (Sandra Korzeniak), brings her son home. However, his condition deteriorates, so she brings him to a different hospital, where he dies. Tens of thousands of people attend his funeral, and the case attracts international media attention. Confronted with a potential public relations disaster and worried about the rise of Solidarity, the grass-roots opposition, Internal Affairs Minister General Czesław Kiszczak at first chooses the “bad apples” defense. Jurek is allowed to view a lineup of police officers and identifies the sergeant and one of the police who killed his friend.
But Kiszczak changes his mind and decides that even a bad apples defense would make his militia look bad. He orders his department to convince Jurek to withdraw his testimony. When Jurek refuses to do so, Kiszczak’s tactics turn increasingly harsh. Jurek’s mother is forced to close her beauty salon and Jurek’s father, a former militia officer himself, is confronted with financial collapse. Still, Jurek will not relent.
Now Kiszczak, with the support of notorious Polish dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski, ups the stakes by creating a false narrative: blame the orderlies for Grzegorz’s death. This version is so obviously absurd that even the nation’s chief prosecutor objects. So Kiszczak has him fired. Eventually Kiszczak’s thugs break down one of the orderlies by torturing him and threatening to kill his child. Given a prepared script, the orderly gives a false confession.
What is disturbing about Leave No Traces is how many people agree to take part in the cover-up on so many levels. Even more disturbing is the fact that even though the story deals with Poland in the 1980s, so much of it is painfully universal. The bad apple defense? It is used today all over the world. Create a false narrative and stick with it no matter what? How many people who supported Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine knew that Putin’s portrayal of Ukraine’s government as pro-Nazi was ridiculous, but spread the fake story anyway and even gave up their lives to protect the lie?
Think back to the presidency in the United States of George W. Bush. He and his minions ordered the invasion of Iraq by creating a completely false narrative that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons. They knew there was no evidence to support this false narrative, but they supported it anyway.
Watching Leave No Traces as the Polish thugs torture the orderly and threaten to kill his child, one would like to think that such a thing “couldn’t happen here.” But wait. Back to George W. Bush again. At “black sites” and at Guantánamo, Americans tortured prisoners, threatened to commit violence against their children and forced them to make false confessions.
Leave No Traces is a long film—160 minutes—not because of directorial self-indulgence, but because it is packed with detail and sub-plots, such as the fact that Jurek and Barbara Sadowska were lovers before Jurek met and became friends with Grzegorz.
In the end, Leave No Traces is noteworthy because its portrayal of a police murder in 1983 Poland isn’t just about what happened in Poland in 1983.