Polish Police Thriller Operation Hyacinth | Familiar Territory, Masterly Control

Operation Hyacinth (Hyacint) is an assured, understated police procedural set roughly between 1985 and 1987. During this period, Polish police created a database of known or suspected homosexuals and, through violence and blackmail, sought to spread terror through, and exert control over, the community. This will be explained through on-screen text at the end of the film but isn’t necessary in appreciated the film as it unfolds. While some of the story beats are by-the-numbers, director Piotr Domalewski constructs atmosphere with masterly control.

Robert (Tomasz Zietek), a principled young militiaman, is assigned to a high-profile homicide case. The victim, a wealthy man called Gregorczyk, was discovered near “The Mushroom,” a well-known cruising spot. When Robert and his partner, the boorish Wojtek (Tomasz Schuchardt), discover a compromising videotape during an illicit search, the promising young detective is thrust into the murky waters of Party conspiracy. His career is one of great promise. His father (Marek Kalita) is an apparatchik in the police forces. In a professional capacity, he looks out for his son. When the investigation into the murder of Gregorcyzk is concluded unsatisfactorily, Robert, the natural police, will put himself at odds with his father on both personal and professional grounds.

When Robert meets Arek (Hubert Milkowski), a gay university student, during a raid on “The Mushroom,” the film sets off into familiar territory. As Arek introduces him to the world hidden by the hastily closed investigation, Robert loses himself by being true to himself. Despite threats and protestations from above, he continues his investigation. It’s not long before Robert discovers that he’s being tailed. After a night with his fiancée, Halinka (Adrianna Chlebicka), he looks out from a balcony and catches someone photographing him. There is a motif of image creation, of surveillance in the film. It’s in these that Domalewski finds a rich cinematic expression of paranoia and state control.

There is violence in recording images. It’s not that anything violent is reproduced in these images, but rather that the act of surreptitiously having your photo taken is one of violence. The evidence that sets the investigation in motion is a videotape and it’s a videotape that is kept hidden to avoid a public scandal. Robert feels this when he discovers his own tail. Perhaps my favourite sequence in the film is one in which, attempting to confront his stalker, the mysterious photographer strikes Robert on the head with his camera. In a police state, capturing images is a weapon. There is likewise a preponderance of reflections in the film. Puddles, mirrors, and two-way mirrors constantly throw Robert back onto himself. He sees the structure of control played out in front of his eyes. When a political official is recorded engaging in homosexual activity, the whole apparatus will be mobilised to protect him while disposing of the witnesses. The image, the objective power structure must be maintained.

This is a notably nocturnal film, which adds weight to the paranoia. The sense is of social actors prowling the night as citizens sleep. That there is any expressivity in the cinematographic image is a testament to Piotr Soboci?ski, best known for lensing two instalments of Krzysztof Kie?lowski’s Dekalog and his Three Colours: Red. The film is striking. Where less competent period films fetishise an idea of how an era looked, Operation Hyacinth attains its setting by employing lighting and camera techniques familiar to the period in question. Soboci?ski, who worked on one of the defining Polish projects of the late ‘80s, invokes the atmosphere of the time by photographing the film in a way that’s recognisably his. This is infinitely more effective than the fancy dress approach to period productions.

Operation Hyacinth does what it sets out to achieve. Its understated tone and technical competence succeed where a moralising, bombastic production would fail. The depictions of sexuality are frank, though not particularly explicit. I found myself wishing for something more subversive than what is delivered, but the depiction of two men having sex in a Polish film distributed by Netflix is noteworthy.

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Operation Hyacinth is now streaming on Netflix.