Leave No Traces: impassioned, tragically pertinent political drama

Though set in 1980s Poland, Jan P. Matuszyński’s second feature is deliberately short on historical context, highlighting the universality of its themes: state violence, cover-ups, relentless scapegoating, and deadly familial dilemmas.

Tomasz Ziętek as Jurek in Leave No Traces (2021)Łukasz Bąk

A direct translation of the Polish Żeby nie było śladów, the title of Jan P. Matuszyński’s second dramatic feature (after 2016’s superb The Last Family) has a double meaning: the notion of covering up something so completely as to expunge all evidence that it ever occurred, and that of not leaving identifiable physical marks when administering a severe beating, making it impossible to attribute fatal injuries to fists, boots and batons.

The victim here was teenage student Grzegorz Przemyk (Mateusz Górski), whose spontaneous public expression of post-exam-results euphoria on 12 May 1983 was misjudged by the militia for potentially riotous behaviour at a time of high sensitivity (martial law, contentiously imposed fifteen months earlier, was gradually being wound down), for which he was arrested and subsequently beaten to death. The authorities tried to downplay this, but since Przemyk’s mother Barbara Sadowska (Sandra Korzeniak) was a prominent pro-Solidarity poet, conspiracy theories mushroomed, and Przemyk’s funeral attracted 20,000 mourners and the direct involvement of Solidarity-sympathising priest and government side-thorn Jerzy Popiełuszko (Adam Bobik), who would himself be murdered at the behest of the authorities the following year.

Sensing a PR disaster at a politically sensitive time, the government, up to and including its then leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski (Tomasz Dedek), instituted an elaborate cover-up, in which the militia (assiduously defended by the notoriously hardline interior minister Czesław Kieszczak, a lip-smackingly weaselly performance by Robert Więckiewicz) is completely exonerated, and anybody else with any connection to the events, no matter how tenuous, risks being scapegoated – including the families of “suspects”. And they’re also very keen to find the only direct witness, Przemyk’s friend Jurek Popiel (Tomasz Ziętek), who is understandably trying not to leave any traces of his own.

Although clearly set in early 1980s Poland (cinematographer Kacper Fertacz and production designer Paweł Jarzębski favour period-characteristic greys and browns), the film provides little historical context, presumably because Matuszyński was keen to emphasise the universality of his theme. (As if to underscore this, the George Floyd murder happened during the film’s production, with the ensuing trial concluding shortly before the premiere.) But unlike rather too many Polish historical dramas that assume prior knowledge on the audience’s part, Leave No Traces is commendably easy to follow, despite the multi-stranded narrative and profusion of characters.

A further aid to clarity comes with the casting of huge local stars – Wałęsa: Man of Hope’s Więckiewicz, Cold War’s Tomasz Kot, Katyń’s Andrzej Chyra – as government apparatchiks. The stand-out supporting performance is from Aleksandra Konieczna as prosecutor Wiesława Bardon, a fur-hatted Cold War caricature who seems fully aware of the absurdity of the charges that she’s presenting in court, but has to go through these farcical motions in order to further – or perhaps simply save – her own career. (Author’s note: this review was written against the backdrop of the January 6th hearings in the US, which have been exposing numerous latter-day Bardons in the Trump White House and Republican Party.)

Despite his comparative inexperience (The Last Family was a low-key family drama that mainly took place in a single flat), Matuszyński handles the larger-scale set-pieces with aplomb and is no slouch when it comes to suspense mechanics: the entire Jurek Popiel subplot is straight out of a Hitchcock “wrong man” scenario. The keen eye for odd-couple family dynamics Matuszyński showed in the earlier film is also much in evidence, with the relationship between Jurek and his father Tadeusz becoming increasingly significant (Tadeusz is an ostensibly loyal Communist torn between the contradictory demands of the state and his instinctive desire to protect his son).

By his own admission, Matuszyński was strongly influenced by Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), with which Leave No Traces shares both a lengthy running time and an appalled fascination with the complex mechanisms by which powerful organisations, be they global tobacco companies or national governments, can conspire to suppress the truth, even if the evidence is clearly not in their favour. Although working from journalist Cezary Łazarewicz’s eponymous 2017 non-fiction account, Matuszyński and screenwriter Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk don’t cleave strictly to the facts – “Jurek Popiel” is a fictional amalgam of two real-life witnesses to Przemyk’s murder, neither of whom wished their names to receive fresh publicity – but the depiction of the government cover-up, conviction of the innocent and lack of accountability for the guilty (in some cases to this day) is broadly accurate, and the film’s sense of abiding and ongoing outrage is palpable.

► Leave No Traces is available to stream via assorted virtual cinema providers.