Film Review: Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski

Film Review: Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski

The Polish artist Stanislav Szukalski, as seen in the documentary “Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski,” directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski © Netflix

The Polish artist Stanislav Szukalski, as seen in the documentary “Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski,” directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski © Netflix

By Erik Nielsen

His vision was of deep, lyrical spirit. His mind and ideas were his own, influenced only by his own curiosity. He cursed at the critics and did away with art institutes. As he refused to bend. One of the lost geniuses of his time, the rediscovery of Stanislav Szuklaski formed from the aspirations of other artists to reach his own level of intellectual curiosity. Presenting you with all views; those who loved him and those who hated him. The documentary Struggle gives equal footing to the successes and failures that come with Szuklaski’s passionate search for meaning.

Well into his late-70’s at the time, Szuklaski collided with adamant book-collector Glenn Bray,  one of the main narrators of the documentary, after finding Szuklaski’s work in a used bookstore, Bray learned Szuklaski was living in the same neighborhood. This spark may have added years to the sculptor’s life. The two had a strong, genuine connection and their “father-son” relationship gives brevity to the intense, god-like persona Stanislav imbues upon the audience. Bray filmed and entertained all theories Stan had, including one the pinpoints the first human to Easter Island. While the footage shows Bray’s clear lionization of Szuklaski, the documentary itself takes a more restrained approach to the artist. Divided into chapters, the film’s separation provides a chronological timeline intercut with brief interludes and meditation on the intricacies and engravings of his most important sculptures.

However, as the filmmaker's interview admirers of Szuklaski, that admiration is challenged as they learn more about the artist’s early life. Many that knew Szuklaski only knew of his life after 1971, not of the anti-Semitic papers he had published during his time in Poland. Although only ten copies were self-published, the images linked with the ideas have now become icons in Polish far-right movements celebrating nationalism and xenophobia.

George DiCaprio, a central character of the film and father of Leo, said he wouldn’t have been friends with him had he known about Szuklaski’s past. Yet, the film ultimately leaves it up to the audience to decide how they feel.

He was forgotten, but should he have been? He spent two days under the rubble of his own sculpture after the Nazis tore through and bombed Poland. He lost all his works and had to flee back to the States. The near-death experience and witnessing to such atrocity changed the way he felt, like a phoenix reborn. But, in the blink of an eye, in the random confluence of events that are history, his works were gone and in essence, so was he.

It’s hard not to romanticize the artist's struggle and his ultimate quest for free expression. He created his own language, which he never abandoned. He taught himself all he knew about sculpting and told the art institutes to fuck off. He was the punk rock artist we had before we knew what punk was. There was even an opportunity for him to be a part of Hollywood because of his friendship with screenwriter Anthony Becht, but he left in pursuit of his own work.

His name had not been what he wanted it to be in the US. It was his home country which offered him the acclaim he so deserved. He did not stop at sculpting but sought to craft a new vision for the world and created architectural ideas that spoke of a new direction. He had an idea (that is ever so timely) to build a towering bridge that connected Texas to Mexico. He saw the United States as a place of hope and thought that if we were able to bridge the two countries together, it would be a major accomplishment for the world and an act of global harmony.

If anything, this documentary is an ode to freedom, individuality, and our right to search for meaning. Struggle is a must-watch for everyone, especially those who are brave enough to attempt to live off of what they create.

You can watch a trailer for the film here and is now streaming on Netflix.

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