The Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski was living in London and renovating his house in the fall of 1981, when the communist government instituted martial law in response to the burgeoning Solidarity Movement; that winter, he shot Moonlighting, about a Polish construction crew—led by Jeremy Irons, speaking flawless Polish—renovating a London house during the Solidarity crackdown, in and around his own home. The film plays at the Museum of the Moving Image this Saturday and Sunday as part of their Skolimowski retro.
Usually the Skolimowski anti-hero belongs to no world but the room he’s in, and no time but the present: his actions, at best poses and at worst survival strategies, play as deflections from any coherent personality, and the movies themselves treat workaday routine as a state-manufactured carnival. Skolimowski’s movies are “abstract”—with their heaving rhythms of footsteps and panting, with their faces out of fog and snow—only in their precision: the navigation of a character through a setpiece trudging after a single goal, or better, trudging as long as he can to avoid any confrontation at all. His movies are typically quest narratives that go nowhere.
In Moonlighting, Skolimowski finds a practical setting for his anonymous nomads and purgatorial routine: a house under construction in London, 1981, while, over the radio, communism is suppressing workers rights in the illegal building crew’s native Poland. Jeremy Irons, “in a performance worthy of Chaplin” (Dave Kehr), plays victim and victimizer, cheating an impossible grocery bill to reserve money for his wife back home, and bullying his grunting chorus of workers to forsake sleep for their families. Irons isolates his workers from the news of Solidarity less as a symbol of worldwide exploitation than one of its living figures: it’s easy enough to infer from his decision what the consequences would be of informing illegal workers that an independent labor union has started taking hold of their country. So Moonlighting itself isn’t a metaphor of the Polish crisis as it is its product; nearly filmed in a double real-time as communist Poland instituted martial law against unions, and the house itself is built, it’s one of the few movie to show workers working, the same anonymous routine, and one of the few movies to show history passing in the microscopic changes of plaster, plumbing, and floorboards. Again a Skolimowski hero clings to not changing, being nobody, until everything changes and he’s forced into a role. As a milestone in material realism, Moonlighting is in some ways Skolimowski’s most abstract movie.