The Getaway King (Najmro: Kocha, kradnie, szanuje)

Poland (2021) Dir. Mateusz Rakowicz

Venerating criminals is an odd trait human beings possess but it does happen. This is not a case of deifying murders and paedophiles but petty thieves who are products of their environment and take on the establishment, quite often winning. In Poland, such a man existed – Zdzisław Najmrodzki.

Poland 1988 and communist rule has seen shops empty, basic supplies low, and people struggling yet despite this, one man seems to doing all right for himself, prolific criminal Zdzisław Najmrodzki (Dawid Ogrodnik). Nicknamed “The Getaway King”, Najmrodzki became both famous and popular with the public after escaping from the authorities 29 times over a 15-year period, but never hurting anybody.

Forming a small group of thieves, Najmrodzki mainly robs stores that deal in American goods and accept US dollars only, then sell them on to the people. The police are onto him, with dogged Lt Barski (Robert Więckiewicz) making it his personal mission to bring Najmrodzki down once and for all. When Najmrodzki meets cinema receptionist Teresa (Masza Wągrocka) who wants him to go straight but can love change him?

I’m not sure how well know Najmrodzki is outside of Poland, so it is important to note that The Getaway King is not a biopic so do expect this to educate the uninitiated about this unusual Polish folk hero. Director Mateusz Rakowicz takes a light, stylish approach to this film, often feeling like a modern music video, allowing for creative and dramatic licence to be taken with the details, obvious even to neophytes like myself.

The danger is painting a romanticised picture of Najmrodzki which is very much the case here – a charismatic, sharply dressed, quick thinking, well organised man, Najmrodzki is posited as the hero in this tale despite being on the wrong side of the law. The comedic tone makes this palatable to the point of believing Najmrodzki might have been a noble criminal yet his real life past is a much darker, which isn’t addressed here.

His selling of stolen goods to ordinary folk is not just profitable but also political, since he stole items not under ownership, summing it up by declaring, “If that state can’t provide, I have to”. As noble as this is, Najmrodzki first imprisonment aged 20 was for beating a police officer – he escaped from the train during transfer to another prison, beginning his streak of daring and successful breakouts.  

Rakowicz cleverly opens this film with one such escape – based on a genuine incident – revealing later on how it was pulled off. Simple but effective and very audacious. The jokey tone not only makes light of Najmrodzki’s actions but also makes the police look like a bunch of slow-witted champs, except for Barski, although even he couldn’t contain Najmrodzki and was an unwitting foil in one of his barefaced abscondments.

Meeting Teresa doesn’t mark the beginning of a change in Najmrodzki – that comes later – since he was trying to sway her to hand over some movie posters for free; they were part of his operation to cover the hole his team had cut in the shop window and obscure their thieving activities. Don’t ask me if this was inspired by or predating Stephen King’s similar idea for The Shawshank Redemption.

Najmrodzki’s group are an eclectic bunch – overly ambitious young man Antos (Jakub Gierszał), mild mannered Teplic (Andrzej Andrzejewski) and punkish girl Młoda (Sandra Drzymalska) – with additional aid from Mira (Dorota Kolak), Najmrodzki’s mother, who has a younger hippy lover. They generally work well together and follow whatever lead Najmrodzki sets, but over time, Antos starts to find the clean criminal life a bit dull and wants to get real.

And so marks a huge tonal shift in the third act and conflict for Najmrodzki after getting away with so much for so long. In many ways, it is not unfair to have expected the whole film to be this dark and edgy given the criminal theme once this new direction takes hold. Yet, the interesting aspect of this is how it runs concurrently with Najmrodzki rehabilitating himself in prison for Teresa’s sake, and for once, he needs to be out to deal with this new threat.

Yet, for all of this excitement, we learn nothing about Najmrodzki himself, and as far as being based on his real life escapades, it may as well be a fictionalised drama instead. We can still enjoy this as an anti-hero crime caper though, and the lengths Najmrodzki will go in order to escape are imaginative, audacious, and oddly admirable, the caveat is not knowing where the lines between reality and fiction overlap.

Bathed in an oversaturated orange-teal veneer to give this more of a 70s look than a 80s one, the presentation tens to be too modern for the period setting and won’t suit all tastes. That said the editing is highly impressive, giving the visuals the kick they need and make the whole thing look slick and vibrant, accompanied by a soundtrack too modern for the period but provides an energy boost.

Dawid Ogrodnik seems to be having too much fun as Najmrodzki, which coupled with his 70s porn moustache often helps drag this portrayal of him towards caricature, but it can’t be denied he has the charisma to pull of the role. Robert Więckiewicz is a great counteract as Barski, playing it straight against Ogrodnik’s lively turn, as does Masza Wągrocka as Teresa, whose attraction to Najmrodzki need explaining to add depth to her character.

Knowing who Najmrodzki was probably helps put The Getaway King into some sort of perspective for native viewers, whilst the rest of us can enjoy this on a superficial level as a distorted Robin Hood takes on Communism and becomes a folk hero in doing so. Najmrodzki died in car crash driving a stolen BMW (of course) in 1995; Rakowicz offers a different ending which in this context makes sense. Hero or villain? You decide.

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