Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This Soviet-bloc espionage film recounts the true-life exploits of a Polish spy in WW2. His adventures aren't very exciting despite the fact that he is constantly slipping away from the Nazis and single-handedly pulling off astoundingly successful sabotage raids. Agent nr 1 is called Agent #1 in some handouts and just plain Agent 1 on this disc's box cover.
Handsome Karol Strasburger is Jerzy Szajnowicz-Iwanow (Ivanov in the subtitles), a dauntless young man with a Polish, Russian and Greek background. When Warsaw falls he somehow smuggles himself into Greece, contacts the English and tries to join the Allied Carpathian Brigade, a volunteer force of anti-Fascist fighters from occupied countries. But Jerzy's papers are not in order, so the regular Army keeps him sidelined. He waits in a refugee camp until the British secret service contacts him. With his language skills, Jerzy is the perfect candidate to lead a group of spies and saboteurs in Greece. He'll just have to be careful while traveling under an assumed name, as his mother is still alive and living in Salonika.
A few minutes later Jerzy is ashore in Greece, organizing his spy ring. A friend in a monastery offers clandestine aid while other contacts arrange safe houses in and around Athens. The rest of the film is a series of standard fifth-column exploits. Jerzy sends messages back on a secret radio, and blows up the radio-detector trucks sent by the Germans. He organizes mass sabotage and appears to carry most of it out himself, destroying fuel-oil farms and Axis shipping waiting close to shore. Jerzy's favorite trick is to personally swim out to a ship with a large demolition mine strapped to his body, attach it, and then swim away.
Naturally, the German forces put on the pressure and Jerzy's team of spies is soon whittled down to just a few, including his new girlfriend Gabriela (Monika Solubianka). Jerzy has been caught once and escaped but the Germans eventually recapture him, along with Gabriela and another loyal friend. They might trade Jerzy to the British for a German general, but what about his girlfriend? Even with help inside the prison, escape doesn't seem to be in the cards.
What might read like an exciting spy caper really isn't, for several reasons. The script just lays the action out in a linear fashion, generating little tension as Jerzy pulls off one miracle of sabotage after another. It seems ridiculously easy for Jerzy to simply run into an oil field, leave bombs no bigger than pocketbooks and run out again. When he's caught (an old friend turns out to be a double-agent) Jerzy is beaten terribly but manages to escape. It may be the fault of the English subtitles, but there seem to be no deeper themes or subplots -- Jerzy just soldiers through, showing his handsome face to the camera at all times.
That might not be bad except that Agent nr 1 is filmed in a style that can be best described as headache-inducing. Most scenes use a telephoto zoom lens, panning rapidly across backgrounds. Only occasionally does the camera stand still or settle on a scene wider than a medium shot. There are also many hand-held point-of-view shots of people running, several of which dash through the Acropolis or some other Greek ruin. Large scenes are splintered into details seen through a long lens. The North African training camp, for instance, is pictured mostly with isolated images of rifle barrels with bayonets, or marching feet. Entire major skirmishes between groups of armed men go by in rushed montages of blurry details. It's very annoying.
When Jerzy's pyrotechnics explode we're treated to held takes on unconvincing miniatures. One little mousetrap-sized charge blows a truck sky high, and one land mine appears to sink an entire fleet of cargo ships.. Winning the war isn't this easy in a Donald Duck cartoon.
A group of able actors struggles within a fragmented shooting style that makes it difficult to keep faces and names straight. The British want Jerzy pulled out because he's too well known to continue, but he presses on just the same. If most other details are confusing, it's because we have a hard time understanding what anyone else is doing in the picture.
Facets Video's DVD of Polart's Agent nr 1 is a rather good 1998 transfer of this 1972 release. Although listed as a theatrical feature, it looks more like a television movie, especially the way the credits are arranged. The claustrophobic framing is very slightly letterboxed, and may be cropped from 1:66. The burned-in English subtitles are erratic in spelling and syntax. The title was reviewed from a DVD-R that may not reflect the look of the final disc -- promotional materials list cast biographies and poster art as extras, but they don't appear on the review disc.
Finding information on director Zbigniew Kuzminksi and the other filmmakers behind Agent nr 1 is a frustrating exercise. Writer Aleksander Scibor-Rylski is also credited with the scripts for the Andrzej Wajda's Solidarity films Man of Marble and Man of Iron. Facets tells us that star Karol Strasburger is the host of a popular Polish TV game show called Familiada.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Agent nr 1 rates:
Supplements: none; the final disc is supposed to have bios and some poster art.
Packaging: ? none provided
Reviewed: May 28, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson