There is a searing existential ache at the core of the documentary The Balcony Movie that director Pawel Lozinski, massage it as he does, can’t possibly, in his singularity, assuage. Perhaps no one can. Realizing this, the Polish director, with his unassumingly powerful film, subtly and sympathetically allows for the ache to make itself known, buffeting it where he can through minute but impactful actions or an attentive ear. In bearing witness to one of the most ubiquitous acts known to humankind — the courage it takes to simply exist — Lozinski, with his gentle observations, reveals the perennial wound of existence we all bear, lashed onto us by a simultaneous search for meaning and an inability to find it.
Each of our billions of difficulties in finding meaning in life is something every viewer might take away from this documentary, which is paradoxical considering Lozinski’s aim, which is fairly simple. With a single camera and a boom mic directed downwards from his balcony in Warsaw, focused on a patch of sidewalk abutting a busy street, Lozinski asks random passersby — old neighbors, friends, strangers — to take a pause from their day and answer one simple question: What is the meaning of life?
The film takes place over the course of a singular year and as the seasons change, the passersby become familiar – they grow, or they stay the same. Some days, people return to the camera if they realize they have come upon an answer for Lozinski. Sometimes it takes people a few days before they open up. Sometimes people return at the dead of night as the snow falls, when Lozinski is asleep, and leave confessionals for him to find later. People tell Lozinski’s camera of their regrets, accomplishments, secrets, triumphs, and horrors. There is an immensity and vibrancy that is captured within this film, due entirely to Lozinski’s strident optimism and apparently firm belief that everyone has a story to share, that anyone at all can be the protagonist of any, of every tale. In observing Lozinski’s observance, we are reminded of the weight each of us carries even as we perform the minutest of actions, and that there perhaps never comes a point in life when anything is settled once and for all. Life is always in flux, for better or for worse — at every step, happiness is always possible, but so is heartbreak, The Balcony seems to show.
There are two passersby whom I shall never forget after watching this film. They take up mere moments in the film, but their presence carries the weight of not so much the immensity of life, but a kind of friction, of a kind of difficulty in being that Lozinski, armed with his camera and straightforward optimism (he is almost naive and childlike in the blunt manner with which he interviews his subjects, asking simple questions of “why” and “how” that crack open the wealth of people’s lives), coaxes to the foreground with an almost poetic candor.
One of these passersby comes in about a third of the way through the film. Lozinski’s camera homes in on a woman across the street carefully picking her way through the freshly-fallen snow, pulling a trolley bag alongside her. She is bundled up and looks warm. She seems shy because of her downward gaze, because of her eyes that surreptitiously flutter toward us. Her eyes flighty as feathers are curious, bright. Lozinski calls over to her, saying he is looking for a hero for his film. She laughs, says she couldn’t possibly be the hero, she lacks self-confidence. “This could help you to gain some,” Lozinski retorts from behind the camera. “I can try,” she says, walking over. “Don’t be surprised if I leave,” she adds. When she is closer, Lozinsky asks her who she is. She responds immediately, saying she is uncomfortable with a knowing laugh. “I’m not too precisely defined,” she adds. “I do various things, but I don’t know if I’m this or that. What or who.”
“Who do you consider yourself most to be,” Lozinski asks.
“A person I have not fully become yet,” she says after a brief pause. “I am almost that person.” And when Lozinski asks her for her name, she says, “I do have a name.” But she doesn’t offer it up, not for a while. Lozinski offers her his first name and she smiles and looks down, as if holding an argument within her mind. Finally she says, “And I am Agnieszka.” When he asks her to tell him her dreams, Agnieszka says that she can’t answer this, not so matter-of-factly. “I guess you have no difficulty communicating, right?” she observes. Lozinski’s question is too direct for her, and she isn’t able to offer a simple answer, she simply won’t. When Lozinski asks her if he is pestering her, she says something that is the reason why I cannot ever forget Agnieszka.
“I’m pleased I had the courage to speak to you at all,” Agnieszka says. She says she didn’t think she would be able to cope with the stress of the spontaneous interaction, but she surprised herself. “But what will come of it now,” Agnieszka wonders of the interaction, she looks away and covers her eyes with her gloved hands because it seems she knows Lozinski won’t be able to give her a sufficient enough answer. Lozinski cuts to another scene. We don’t meet Agnieszka again until quite near the film’s end, she is walking by as she was earlier, but she doesn’t come nearer, she simply smiles with her shy, shining eyes, she waves a curt wave, and continues on her way.
The second passerby important to me is Robert. At the film’s start, we meet Robert right after he is released from jail and is working toward stability in a vastly changed society. Robert readily answers Lozinski’s questions, and we meet him frequently throughout the film as he and Lozinski become natural friends. At one point, Lozinski throws down a shirt so that Robert might have something nice to wear to a job interview. Over the course of the year, Robert achieves a kind of stable life, he has a job, is making money, but he still has difficulty finding a stable room and board because of his past, and it’s tough, for various bureaucratic reasons, for him to save up enough money. On a cold winter night near the film’s end, Robert walks up to Lozinski’s camera, which seems to be filming even as Lozinski is apparently asleep. Robert comes calling to Lozinski, and when he doesn’t answer — it’s late at night — Robert leaves him a little message.
“You have no idea how I envy you, for the situation you’re in,” Robert says to the camera as if it were Lozinski, trusting that Lozinski will get the message. “You’re loved, you’ve got warmth, you’ve got a home, a family, a dog. Stability in life.” This is the last time we see Robert. What follows this scene in the dark is the bloom of spring, a vivacious woman who frequently stopped to talk to Lozinski comes back with her new baby, and we see hopeful signs of life persisting, which close out the film.
The reason why I mention Agnieszka and Robert is because they speak to a kind of existential difficulty, a prickly paradox, that is so precious as to be liminal, existing as a tumbling feeling we hold within us but can’t seem to articulate, because there simply aren’t the words for it in any language. It’s the paradox of knowing there is a right way to be, but also knowing one is not being in the “right” way because one doesn’t know what the “right” way looks like, and alongside this there is an ambiently attendant but less glamorous realization that the first two statements are more an ever-morphing fear than matter-of-fact knowledge, a realization that leads to the even more fearful thought that there is nothing at all, no rules, no logic or romantic or linear meaning. Agniesszka and Robert convey the whole of being with their few words.
I applaud Lozinski for having captured this paradox on film with respect and integrity. Agnieszka and Robert certainly are signifiers of a kind of persistence, but they are also real people, not lofty symbols. They remind me of me, and they may remind you of yourself. But most importantly, they show us that we’re not alone in feeling the things we do feel. I am proud of Agnieszka for having the courage to speak to Lozinski’s camera, because she allowed me to feel that I’m not alone in finding social interactions difficult, that we’re not alone in finding it difficult to define ourselves. I am grateful to Robert for giving voice to a kind envy, it’s something that surges through me often but that I feel is verboten to articulate. Agnieszka and Robert speak to the immense courage that is contained not only in this film, in the passersby who took a breath and answered Lozinski’s questions, but also the courage it takes to persist despite everything, despite moments of hopelessness, despite the pain.
The Balcony is a document of so many beautiful, flawed, afraid, sad, hopeful, grieving, fraying minds; it captures that endlessly moving, dancing, ebbing-and-flowing, fiery aspect of humanness with tremendous respect and self-aware fallibility on the part of the documentarian, who becomes as much a part of the project as his subjects.
How does a person move on from this movie, how does a person carry the weight of all these stories? In addition to the courage, there is an immense sense of hopelessness creeping throughout, even as the film attempts to grasp at happiness and hope through images of rebirth (babies, puppies, seasonal change) and comforting staidness (the property on which Lozinski lives continues to be attended to by the caretaker, we see familiar faces persisting). But despite all the persistence, there is still a sense that these people continue to walk around with the heaviness that they have voiced to Lozinski’s lens. The hopelessness is palpable in this movie because we, as viewers, realize that hurt doesn’t go away even after it’s been voiced. That one woman is still thinking about killing herself, that one man is still mourning his boyfriend, Agnieszka perhaps still finds it difficult to define herself, Robert might still be fretful and envious.
The brilliance of this movie is also the paradox of this movie, even as it contains the paradox of existence: nothing monumental has happened by its end, and yet we gain a wealth of emotion and meaning, and so something monumental has happened. The heartbreak of this movie is that nothing monumental has happened, so the painfulness of the emotion and meaning continues to be carried by the passersby, by us. But even as hopeless and circuitous and paradoxical as this all sounds, there is a glimmer of promise at the core of the film’s various paradoxes: the promise that, though difficult and often disheartening, the search will continue. Lozinski teaches us that we are resilient, that we possess a well of courage that beams through every one of our pores each day that we wake up and take on the labor of existence. I think the genius of this film is that it, in one breath, realizes that both sides of the frame, the subject and the viewer, contain a multitude that is impossible to not want to witness. Lozinski’s The Balcony Movie is a revelatory achievement, and I hope you might watch it to share the burden of existence.