J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Stanislaw Lem on Film: The Investigation

The word mystery has several connotations, but they are largely incompatible for Scotland Yard Inspector Gregory. He catches criminals—period. Questions of truth and metaphysics are way outside his comfort zone. Unfortunately, he will be forced to go there in Marek Piestrak’s adaptation of The Investigation, which screens as part of Stanisław Lem on Film, the upcoming retrospective survey of cinema based on the work of the great Polish science fiction writer.

It started weirdly. Various provincial morgues and funeral parlors started reporting instances of corpses being tampered with. However, just as Gregory takes the lead on the serial corpse-mover investigation, it escalates to include full-fledged walking dead. Of course, Gregory does not believe anything supernatural could be afoot. It is all just part of some eccentric criminal’s plan to sow chaos and confusion amongst the populace. He will never accept any outlandish or uncanny explanations, even when he maybe possibly sees one of the missing dead people riding the bus.

Unfortunately, science does not do him any favors either. Dr. Sciss is a statistician volunteering his services with Scotland Yard, but all he offers up is a correlation between areas of reported dead body activity and significantly low rates of cancer. Almost perversely (from Gregory’s standpoint), Sciss starts pushing him to think about the problem in more cosmic terms. As a result, he starts to suspect the statistician of being his super-villain.

The Investigation is a sly and heady novel, but it would be a challenge to adapt it dramatically. Nevertheless, Polish television took at least two cracks at it. Piestrak and co-screenwriter Andrzej Kotkowski are remarkably faithful to its somewhat loose narrative and rigorous philosophical inquiry. To make it even stranger, The Investigation boasts a massively funky soul jazz soundtrack by Włodzimierz Nahorny that feels completely at odds with the film’s Bertrand Russell-esque logical-epistemological gamesmanship, but holy smokes, does it ever sound fantastic.

Like a good soldier, Tadeusz Borowski tries to make Gregory more plodding than Maigret. However, Edmund Fetting gives the film some edge as the Inspector’s arrogant but more politically astute commander, Sheppard. As a pseudo-surrogate for the filmmakers, Sheppard clearly has little faith in the bureaucracy’s chances of saving the day.

The early 1970s TV film totally captures the look of its era, but Nahorny makes it sound timeless. Although Lem’s short novel was originally published in 1959, his philosophical provocations have not been undermined by advances in forensic science. In short, it all holds up jolly well. Highly recommended,
The Investigation screens this Wednesday (11/1) and Saturday (11/11) as part of Anthology Film Archive’s Lem film series.

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