The availability of a wide range of films on streaming channels is no guarantee they will find an audience. Netflix might offer an eclectic array of TV shows and movies from around the world, but how many Americans know that they’re streaming a dozen films by the great bi Egyptian director Youssef Chahine? As both its programming and recommendations are driven by formulaic algorithms, a movie like the Polish thriller “Operation Hyacinth” gets buried under the weekly round of serial killer docu-series, “The Great British Bake-off” spinoffs and imitations, and splashy celebrity profiles. Its modest but very real virtues, which include a glimpse into gay life in the final years of Eastern European communism, don’t translate into hype.
Piotr Domalewski’s film looks back at a real-life Polish police exercise in surveilling and blackmailing gay men (in Polish slang, the “hyacinths” of the title) which ran from 1985 to 1987. Robert (Tomasz Ziętek) is a young cop whose father also serves on the force. He’s planning to marry a fellow cop, Halinka (Adrianna Chlebicka.) (In a telling scene, her mother complains when the bedsprings make noise while they have sex at her apartment.) He and his partner spend their time arresting gay men as part of Operation Hyacinth. At the same time, the police discover a series of murders of men, suggesting that a serial killer is on the loose. The killer’s targets are part of the gay scene. Robert finds a suspect, who gets beaten bloody by his partner in jail and then dies by suicide. Robert’s superiors are all too willing to pin the murders on him, rather than investigating any further, but he’s determined to keep searching. He also comes to realize his own attraction to men.
The look of “Operation Hyacinth” isn’t especially innovative. Communist Eastern Europe has rarely been filmed to look inviting, and the dark look of Piotr Sobociński, Jr.’s cinematography is very familiar from David Fincher films and prestige TV. In every location, the lighting tends to look the same. But Domalewski and Sobocinski are talented enough that the darkness does carry over from style into mood. Paradoxically, the film’s grimness is enhanced by its hints of wintry warmth. The color brown keeps popping up in costumes and sets, while lamps glow onscreen.
The inspiration of William Friedkin’s “Cruising” lurks behind “Operation Hyacinth.” Legendary for being protested by gay men at the time of its release, its reputation has undergone a generational transformation and reclamation, with gay cinephiles under 40 tending to see merit in it. But while “Operation Hyacinth” won’t please audiences angered by a downbeat tone and images of suicide, it’s made from an explicitly pro-gay perspective. “Cruising” sees something dangerous in the sexual experimentation Al Pacino’s character goes through, but Robert sleeps with a man on screen and views it as a rewarding experience.
“Operation Hyacinth” succumbs to formula at times. The idea of a police investigation which gets blocked because it threatens to implicate someone powerful is a standard plot device. The film’s glimpses of gay socializing in ‘80s Poland, with sex parties buried even further underground, is tantalizing enough to make one wish the film had shown more of it. But Marcin Ciaston’s script is sturdy enough to carry the film along suspensefully.
“Operation Hyacinth” also draws on the paranoia of many ‘70s thrillers. The story spirals out to encircle more and more of its characters, with no happy ending in sight. Robert’s job turns him into a sympathetic observer of the LGBTQ community, then a participant in it, far more interested in solving the mystery than his superiors are all along. His partner lets the slurs and fists fly. (Like “Cruising,” “Operation Hyacinth” portrays most cops as homophobic scumbags.) The ambiguous ending does not offer any easy way for Robert to continue exploring his sexuality.
All period pieces show something about the time they were actually made. Why would a Polish filmmaker go back to this period? Well, Poland has become one of the most homophobic countries in Europe. Five Polish provinces and dozens of towns have proclaimed themselves to be free of “LGBTQ ideology,” though some have been reversed. President Andrzej Duda based his campaign this year on aggressive bigotry. Operation Hyacinth itself may have ended in 1987, but the mentality behind it still rules Poland. The film is a warning that the country is still treading water, in deadly seas.
OPERATION HYACINTH | Directed by Pitor Domalewski | In Polish with English subtitles | Netflix