On Hitler's Highway (2002)

Run Time - 81 min.  |   Countries - France   |  
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Review by Michael Buening

Hitler's Highway is shot entirely from director Lech Kowalski's point of view as he drives along the "oldest highway in Poland," which was built to ferry Nazi supplies to the Soviet Union. What begins as an exploration of the sixty-year old human and physical scars of World War II quickly takes on grander elegiac scope. The highway was built along a path used by invading armies throughout history. The people who Kowalski interviews along the side of the road--produce sellers, gypsies, drunken manual workers, and prostitutes--are the detritus that have always littered the European roads of conquest. At times the camera brings these bit actors to the fore to tell their life stories. Occasionally the camera is just a new form of exploitation. When Kowalski wakes up a homeless drunk sleeping in the weeds, a stoned roadside worker tries to calm the startled man down by laughing, "It's just a camera." "No, that's a gun," he shouts.

Along the highway are constant reminders of the tools with which the nearby populace has been oppressed: a work camp, Auschwitz, Soviet military bases, and the highway itself, which was built on the backs of peasants. Even when given a voice the words of these people are drowned out by the roar of diesel trucks. The ending, at the opening of a new stretch of the road, shows that this history will continue. While the film is sympathetic towards its subjects, it is helpless to effect any change and at times coldly unaffected given its grand historical outlook, an issue Kowalski struggles with through his voice over narration. The only salve is that at least brutal man-made institutions will be trumped by nature's long-term indifference. While gazing at a crumbling highway overpass Kowalski muses, "there's something calming--what man has built can be destroyed." Balancing the personal and profound with mastery, Hitler's Highway is a complex and provocative essay on the politics of the downtrodden from an often overlooked director.