The Plagues of Breslau review – gory but intelligent detective thriller

The Plagues of Breslau is a Polish serial killer detective thriller, new to Netflix in April 2020. Breslau is modern-day Wroclaw, a regional city in Poland where a local detective, Helena Rus (Malgorzata Kozuchowska), is called to a murdered corpse in a public space: a man stitched into a cowhide with the word ‘degenerate’ seared into his lower abdomen. Helena and her partner have to race against the clock to capture a serial killer who, emulating a plague of retributive killings in Breslau (Wroclaw’s historical name), is stitching up further public executions at 6pm each day, in an attempt to rid Wroclaw of what the killer sees as its filth.

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It’s dark, brutal and, most disturbingly, real. Real in ways that make Saw and Silence of the Lambs/Hannibal seem camp and juvenile. In fact the best way to describe it would be TV Hannibal without the psycho-mumbo-jumbo. That first body isn’t spectacular like one in Hannibal would be, and the camera doesn’t revel in it as Hannibal’s would, but the unflinching disregard of the camera for such mortality somehow makes it more gruesome.

On the gore front, there are a couple instances where the film employs gore effects that prove a little too obviously CG. This is a shame, given that the excellent horror dialogue and acting performances already paint a horrifying picture in the audience’s minds. In this way The Plagues of Breslau contradicts a famous filmmaking maxim… sometimes telling is more effective than showing.

Thankfully, the CG gore doesn’t detract from the film’s disturbing sense of reality. It inhabits a real world were the detective protagonists are not superhumanly invulnerable but humanly fragile – with a [spoiler] main-cast fatality within the first half-hour of the film.

Into this brutal world comes our no-nonsense protagonist Helena, a woman of fearsome mystique. The near-first line about her occurs when her partner arrests a man who had just insulted Helena. He protests and asks why he is being arrested, to which her partner responds: ‘she’s menstruating, and you called her a c*nt.’ Moments later she gives bystanders a countdown from 10 to step away from the corpse. That they do as instructed invests her with awesome power. Yet there is another side to the detective who chews gum during the first grisly autopsy – when she gets home, she is wracked with tears. The pressures of living in an unfeeling, unrelenting world are a pervasive theme in The Plagues of Breslau.

Courtesy of Showmax

Like Joker it’s a film with surprising empathy for the traditional villain. Its characters, good or ill, are shown straining under the brutality of a capitalist society ruled by deprivation and exploitation. Much like Joker, the killings are to an extraordinary degree justified to the audience. And much like Joker again, it’s a fascinatingly smart film sitting atop gory pulp fiction, exploring the “social murder” of those left behind by society and which implicitly questions black-and-white morality.

To call it pulp fiction is not to degrade it. That element of the film is brilliantly executed plotting and intrigue. Like Memento, it’s a film which benefits from a second watch, as circumstances which seemed a bit “hm” on the first watch become “AH” once the viewer has all the information.

The whole thing is painted with great cinematography and interestingly, bright, hot colours and populated spaces are used as indicators of danger, rather than the typical use of dark, cold tones and deserted areas. This is a masterful inversion of thriller/horror fare – making the familiar unsafe – and creates great tension as the clock strides towards 6pm. At that point the film taps into something truly fantastic in its epic portrayal of mass hysteria, the animalistic instincts which threaten to take over when the normal rules of society are brutally tugged like a rug from under us.

The Plagues of Breslau is out on Netflix now.

George Davies

Theatre and film critic from a socialist perspective. Expect reviews with a cultural-materialist or Marxist angle. Join a union. x