Over the years, Henry Jaglom has created films that have inspired me, films that have brought me joy, films that have enlightened me, and films that have challenged me. His work allows you to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to understand them, and, perhaps, to find a part of yourself within them. True, many films are able to accomplish this to a degree, but they lack the raw intensity that Jaglom is able to capture and bring to the screen. You’ll find much of that intensity and so much more in Train to Zakopané.
Train to Zakopané is Jaglom’s latest, based on his play of the same name. It is inspired by a story that Jaglom’s father shared with him years ago. A story that is all the more fascinating because it is true. Jaglom’s father lived it. In fact, it is he, Simon Moiseivich Jaglom, who appears via home video footage at the opening of the film, right before we are transported into the past.
The story opens in the year of 1928 on a train in Warsaw, as a handsome young man named Semyon (a character clearly based on Simon Jaglom) accepts an invite to share a compartment with a priest, a former actress, and an army nurse named Katia. They strike up a bit of friendly conversation. The priest has a fatherly disposition, the actress is bubbly and full of life, while Katia sits and crochets, joining in the conversation, but noticeably reserved. Something about Semyon irks her, and she has no problem letting him know that she initially objected to sharing the compartment with him.
You see, unbeknownst to his fellow travelers, Semyon is Jewish, and as Poland was the center of much anti-semitism at the time, many Jews were forced to take on Christian names and hide their true identities in order to live peacefully.
As Semyon soon finds out, both the priest, Father Alexandrov, and Katia hold incredibly destructive anti-semitic beliefs, reducing the entire Jewish population to every wrongheaded and disgusting stereotype imaginable. Katia is the worst, casually hurling insult after insult, and sometimes in the middle of otherwise pleasant conversations with a smile plastered on her face.
Semyon is appalled, but despite his best efforts, he gradually becomes smitten with Katia. It isn’t until she spews the line, “I can smell a Jew a kilometer away”, that Semyon decides that he can pursue her and teach her a lesson at the same time. Wouldn’t it just boil her blood to realize that she had fallen for the very target of her hatred? This is the sweet revenge that Semyon plans to carry out, but ultimately, it doesn’t quite go as he imagines it.
When the train stops in the quaint little village of Zakopané, Semyon begins to woo the naive Katia, drawing her in with his good looks and otherworldly charm. Little does she know of Semyon’s secret. A romance blossoms nonetheless, and as we watch it unfold, it is both beautiful and tragic, leading to a climax that is among the most powerful moments that I have witnessed in the cinema all year long.
Train to Zakopané is one of Jaglom’s finest artistic achievements. It’s a damn near perfect film, one that left me emotionally shaken. It feels like Jaglom’s career has been steadily building towards something like Zakopané, and what a beautiful thing it is. Only Jaglom could have made this film. No one else could have been able to capture this kind of authenticity. By the end of the film, I was speechless. I cried. I wasn’t prepared for the final moments of Zakopané – so visceral and bittersweet. How can you fall in love with someone that you should hate? The film takes you to uncomfortable places in order to reveal difficult truths.
The performances are uniformly incredible. Once again, Tanna Frederick is a wonder to behold. Katia is a character that is in many ways repulsive, but the more we discover about her, the more we are able to see the humanity that lies within. It is a career-defining performance for Frederick, and one that should be studied and talked about for years to come. She never ceases to amaze me, and I wish that someone would give her an Oscar, an Indie Spirit Award, or a Golden Globe already.
Mike Falkow is unforgettable as Semyon, extraordinarily portraying the conflicting emotions that this multi-faceted character must come to terms with. Falkow brings Semyon to vivid life on the screen. Cathy Arden shines in the supporting role of Madame Nadia Selmeczy, the former actress with the attitude of pure joie de vivre, who holds a secret of her own. Arden is always a welcome presence on the screen, and this proves to be one of her strongest performances. Stephen Howard as Father Alexandrov is absolute gold. Kelly DeSarla is lovely as Katia’s fellow nurse and friend, Marusia Pachenko, and last but not least, Jeff Elam as Dr. Gruenbaum. Elam is simply marvelous here as the wise doctor and closeted Jew who holds one of many memorable conversations with Semyon throughout the course of the film. In such a short amount of screen time, Elam makes quite an impression.
Beautifully shot by Christopher Pearson, Train to Zakopané is truly one of Jaglom’s masterworks. This is a film that demands to be seen by all. It’s one of the best and most important films of 2017. I’ll never forget it.
© Written by Steven Adam Renkovish, ReelRenkovish