Horror Movies

MEDIUM. Excellent horror movie from Poland

Jacek Koprowicz’s Medium (1985) is considered by many to be the best horror film made in Poland, and not without reason.

Krzysztof Walecki

23 October 2023

MEDIUM Excellent horror movie from Poland

The year is 1933, and in the Free City of Gdańsk, while the NSDAP begins to exert real power in the region, swastika flags proudly wave, and Hitler looms from numerous posters, a series of incredible events takes place during one October day. Greta, the sister of the occultist Wagner, senses the presence of a powerful medium that guides the fates of three unrelated people – Commissioner Selin, teacher Luiza, and Andrzej from Warsaw – attempting to bring them all to a certain house in Sopot. However, the contact is interrupted, and these people regain consciousness, but completely by chance, a policeman starts an investigation that could explain this fantastic mesmerization. Andrzej also wants to know how he ended up in Pomerania and, for this purpose, goes directly to Wagner. Meanwhile, Krank, who sympathizes with the Nazi regime and is Selin’s partner, uncovers the secrets of the past, suggesting who and why stands behind the supernatural threat.

It’s easy to see where the source of adoration and enduring admiration for Koprowicz’s film lies, where he was also the author of the screenplay. The text, awarded at the Mystfest festival in Cattolica, Italy, seems to be the most important element, not only by wisely placing fantastic elements in the era of the emerging dominance of the Third Reich (after all, Hitler was known for his occult interests), but also by offering the viewer a type of horror that Poland had not seen before. Up to that point, the genre was limited to costume stories, most often set in the previous century or even earlier – it’s worth mentioning the atmospheric Lokis. Professor Wittembach’s Manuscript by Janusz Majewski (1970), Andrzej Żuławski’s feverish The Devil (1972), and Marek Piestrak’s best fulfilling of the genre’s requirements, The She-Wolf (1982). Also based on Karol Irzykowski’s novel, Marek Nowicki’s The Specter (1984) and the TV movie Sara’s House directed by Zygmunt Lech (1985), although their action was already placed at the beginning of the 20th century, they were still set in a time too distant for the viewer to relate to. Meanwhile, in Medium, the Gothic setting is replaced by the specter of the slowly approaching apocalypse and the end of an era – the costume is replaced by a more recent and much closer-to-the-viewer era, one in which the consequences of the war could still be felt.

medium władysław kowalski henryk bista

Koprowicz plays with the construction of his story by limiting the timeframe to one day, not selecting a single hero, but a collective one, and making a physically incapacitated person the source of the threat, with an opponent who is virtually absent. These are elements that make Medium stand out favorably among other horror films, while at the same time demanding a lot from the viewer. The film is a puzzle, not only in terms of its plot.

Among the questions about the purpose of the titular character, their identity, and motivations, we also have difficulty identifying with the other characters, specifically with any of them. Commissioner Selin seems ideal to be our guide, but from the beginning, we know he is one of the pawns whose movements are controlled by the medium. Therefore, Luiza, Andrzej, and the hunchback Georg Netz (later revealed as the fourth victim of parapsychic control) cannot be considered fully credible and aware characters. The Wagner siblings, although most familiar with the situation and the type of threat, are too static, serving more of an informational role than an active one. Then there’s Krank, who is increasingly signaled as the only one capable of battling the all-powerful adversary towards the end, but as a Hitler sympathizer, he’s impossible to accept in the role of a hero. Ironically, in a film about controlling people, the director clearly makes it difficult for viewers to connect with his characters.

medium jerzy stuhr

Thus, Medium becomes primarily a story of helplessness. The characters are like puppets in the hands of a ruthless and powerful magician, and those not under their influence are insignificant in their game. Some lack the strength to resist it, while others naively believe they can control it in their fight. However, this doesn’t mean that we watch the uneven duel of ordinary people with an unknown power without emotion. Koprowicz keeps our curiosity engaged throughout the film. When one question is answered, another arises. The awareness of being in the orbit of supernatural phenomena turns the criminal mystery into an existential enigma, and skillfully weaving the story into politics only raises the stakes.

Some might notice that I haven’t written about fear, even though it’s a horror film. However, the director and screenwriter perceive the function of their plot and the genre they are working in differently. Medium enchants with an atmosphere of horror, which is linked to the sense of lack of control over one’s own life. This is all the more evident as it unfolds against the backdrop of events directly related to the nightmare of an impending war. The finale provides answers to most questions about the mystery of the house in Sopot and the purpose of the medium. Still, the threat seems to linger in the air, prompting even more unsettling visions in which violence and murder are the only ways to triumph. The viewer is left with a dilemma that is not easy to resolve – if they were forced to choose between fantastic evil, eternal, ruthless, unconquerable but individual, and palpable evil, known from history textbooks, human yet beastly in its brutality, which side would they take?

medium władysław kowalski michał bajor

Medium can also be seen as a metaphor where both forces are not in opposition. Isn’t it the case that Koprowicz is talking about a doomed attempt to fight the enemy who controls our minds and emotions, comparing the titular character to the Nazi invader? If this interpretation is correct, the conclusion leaves us with no hope – one order will be replaced by another because history tends to repeat itself.

The innocent child’s face in the final shot is not coincidental, and the ominous music by Krzesimir Dębski only underscores the fatalism of the resolution. Medium is an elegant, highly atmospheric thriller with a leading paranormal theme, brilliantly acted (featuring a cast including Władysław Kowalski, Michał Bajor, Jerzy Stuhr, Grażyna Szapołowska, Jerzy Zelnik, Ewa Dałkowska, Jerzy Nowak), and superbly shot by Jerzy Zieliński and Wit Dąbal. There’s not enough space here to expand on some of the fantastic ideas – personally, I’d like to hear more about the intertwined fate of one of the characters with… a sea turtle or witness a more evenly matched mediumistic duel. Nevertheless, these fantastic ideas work powerfully on the viewer’s imagination.

medium ewa dałkowska

What truly makes Koprowicz’s work a genuine horror is the implications that go far beyond the typical horror film themes, suggesting the existence of the same incarnations and events in a loop, depriving us of any control over our destinies. Even the first scene indirectly speaks to this – when Wagner pulls out a horoscope he prepared for a recently deceased person, we realize that the occultist predicted his death down to the day. If everything is predetermined, does it matter which side that final blow comes from?