Starring: Thomasz Zietek, Hubert Milkowski, Marek Kalita, Adrianna Chlebicka
Director: Piotr Domalewski
In 1980, William Friedkin’s Cruising would become the most notorious and controversial LGBT+ movie ever made. Following an undercover policeman investigating murders within the gay community, it saw its lead beginning to question his own sexuality with dramatic - but homophobic - results. Now, Operation Hyacinth treads exactly the same territory, but this set time in 1980s Communist Poland and without homophobes behind the camera as well as in front.
Robert (Zietek) is in the Polish militia, where his father (Kalita) is pushing him to climb the ranks. When given the task of solving the murder of a gay man killed while cruising, he realises that his superiors don’t want the truth, just a conviction. But when the police decide that the case is closed, he continues to investigate with the help of Arek (Milkowski), a man he met undercover. His relationship with his fiancé (Chlebicka) begins to suffer as he plunges deeper down the rabbit hole of the case and his connection with Arek develops.
Communist Warsaw is bleak and moody, with the long nights and snowy streets adding noir-esque tension to the smoke-filled rooms and brown-heavy palate. The ultra-machismo culture of the police is drenched with corruption, where the priority is power, not justice. Dark, concrete and dirty, the militia’s world is far darker than the supposed underworld they’re investigating. Arek’s friends are warm and welcoming, living truthful lives albeit behind closed doors. It’s not hard to see why Robert is tempted by the freedom they introduce him to.
The titular “Operation Hyacinth” refers to the secret police operation in which the Polish secret police tried to compile files about as many gay men as they could in order to use them as blackmail later. This forms the backdrop of the film, where a murder doesn’t fit with the authorities’ narrative. While the first ninety minutes of the film neatly mirrors the plot of Cruising almost identically, its final act heads firmly into territory more like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy through pulse-racing double-crosses as corruption is exposed at the top.
For Robert, the lives these men he’s investigating lead represent a freedom that he has never experienced, having grown up in a household fully invested in the Communist regime. And that oppressiveness drenches every frame. Though the film is a little slow at times, the stale nicotine-stained misery of the normalcy pedalled as “lawful” is bleak enough to make you root for the triumph of individuality. In whatever form that comes.
UK Release: Out now to watch on Netflix.