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The Pawnshop review – humour and humanity in Poland’s massive second hand shop | Film


The Pawnshop review – humour and humanity in Poland’s massive second hand shop | Film


Everyone is down on their luck in the biggest used-goods store in Silesia, but director Łukasz Kowalski finds beauty in many small acts of kindness

Surreptitiously funny and slyly tragic in equal measures, this Polish documentary, a debut for director Łukasz Kowalski, records the daily business of the biggest second hand shop in Silesia. Unfortunately, this establishment doesn’t do all that much business. When they’re not bickering over money and how little of it there is to distribute in wages, Wiesiek and Jola, the fractious couple who run the joint, are often to be found staring glumly off into space and smoking constantly. Smoke, fire and flame are quite the motif here. A nearby factory spouts fire into the sky all night long. When there’s a problem with the building’s hot water, a cowboy plumber arrives to fix it with his trusty propane torch, an implement of destruction that accidentally melts electrical wires and nearly sets alight the lush fox fur coat Jola is constantly swaddled in.

Despite Wiesiek and Jola’s combustible relationship, it soon becomes clear that they’re a pair of softies under their stony-faced expressions. Wiesiek tries to channel Lovejoy-esque antique-dealer swagger, but he has none of the innate hardness required to really make a go of the business. Ultimately, he’s more interested in throwing a summer fair to promote the shop, with kielbasa cookouts and a fashion show emceed by Jola – who talks up other fur coats modelled by assistants Roxana and Aga. These assistants are no less compelling, with their own freight of troubled relationships. Separated from her ex and young child, Roxana starts a little romance with a male colleague at work, a sweet guy who has a way with a spray-paint can, but it hits a bump when it is revealed he’s be going off to prison for six months. Aga, with her movie-star looks (she could play Greta Garbo convincingly) counsels Roxana to do anything to get her kid back. She knows what it’s like to live with abusive alcoholics; you mustn’t let them win.

Everyone has a hard-luck story here, especially the customers who come in to sell what little they have and end up getting given free winter coats by golden-hearted Jola, or bowls of soup if they agree to sweep snow off the porch. But it is obvious these little acts of kindness aren’t the reason the business is failing; this is one of the forgotten industrial zones of Europe, a town full of Soviet-era housing, municipal trees and low-level poverty. Kowalski very carefully handles the tone so that while he clearly sees the humour in the situations he records – like the scene where Roxana and Aga inventory the shop’s supply of second hand sex books, reading out each title in a deadpan drone – he never patronises or belittles his subjects. The crisp running time and adroit editing make this even more snackable.

• The Pawnshop is on True Story from 12 July

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