What you need to know
Below the Surface is agit-prop filmmaking for a regrettable cause that besmirches the reputation of the real-life sailors it portrays.
No torpedoes are fired in this submarine film, not even by the enemy, yet the Orzeł (Eagle), the WWII Polish sub at the center of writer-director Jacek Bławut’s Below the Surface (2022), sinks anyway. That’s not a spoiler if you (or your phone) can read Polish: The original title is Orzeł. Ostatni Patrol — The Eagle: The Last Patrol. In fact, I might have enjoyed it better with more suitable expectations. (The Taiwanese title 鷹勇潛艦 translates to “heroic submarine,” with “eagle” smuggled in via homophone.)
This film has but one purpose: to stoke nationalist fervor through martyrdom. Set just after Hitler takes Poland, it follows Captain Jan Grudziński (Tomasz Ziętek) and his crew, including some British communication officers (played by Ryan Ralph Gerrard and Edmund C. Short), as they set sail from Scotland under orders from the Royal Navy to head off German convoys escorting two dreadnoughts.
Like Das Boot (1981), the film eschews fast-paced thrills for repeated reminders that a submarine, at its core, is an underwater tin can with a revolving ear. The hostile environment of the sea might as well be outer space. In addition to the creaking and groaning (echoed in the low moans of the soundtrack) are VFX shots made to seem like they’re looking in from a porthole (cinematography by Jolanta Dylewska; VFX supervised by Krzysztof Złośnik), though of course submarines have no portholes. The soundtrack for these shots are muffled as well (sound effects designed by Michał Fojcik). These shots are employed for no rhyme or reason apparent to me (edited by the duo Piasek & Wójcik).
As luck would have it, the Orzeł is always discovered before it can attack, and most of the film is spent playing cat and mouse with limited air and even less battery power, to say nothing of diesel fuel. And this particular mouse can only play dead, sometimes on the seabed, and for such a long time that we (and the crew) begin to think that the “playing” might turn real. There’s the requisite hull breach, as well as the kitchen fire. But instead of someone being pinned down by a dropped torpedo, the film follows K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) in giving us a dangerous rescue mission with casualties, replacing nuclear engine radiation with toxic gas from the battery.
It’s a good thing there are so many clichés, as the small-scale filmmaking borders on the inept. The shots are often obstructed or canted, conveying little visual information, and there’s no perceptible sense of space — the individual compartments fail to add up to a whole ship. This is likely a casualty of the drive for verisimilitude: Marketing materials note that a scale replica of the boat was built to serve as the set (production designed by Marcelina Początek-Kunikowska). A WWII-era sub can barely fit its own crew, let alone an additional film crew. I appreciate the claustrophobic effect, but I would’ve appreciated coherent filmmaking more.
All of this is especially baffling in that the true story of the Orzeł, insofar as it’s known, makes for exciting Wikipedia reading. It survived attacks by two minesweepers. It was impounded in Estonia and had to make a daring escape without its navigational charts or a working radio (as depicted in another Polish film, 1959’s The Eagle), following which it basically had to feel its way to Scotland while escaping both sides for lack of a radio identifier (hello, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October!). And then, during the period portrayed in the film, it actually sank a troop carrier, delaying the German invasion of Norway.
Only after all this did the ship meet its demise, though nobody knows how, and the wreckage is still lost. The film chooses to depict the most cynical possibility: not by sea mine, as the ship successfully sneaks through a minefield, but by friendly fire from a British plane. It thereby cements its central message that nobody can be trusted, not even one’s supposed allies. Only Poland’s own armed forces, commanded by the ruling Law and Justice party, can protect you from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
The heroes of the Orzeł deserve better than this.
Below the Surface is in theaters.
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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)
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