I typically derive an ample amount of ardor and pleasurable self-indulgence from road trip flicks, especially those featuring anxiety-driven murders like Pasquale Festa Campanile’s Hitch-Hike (1977), Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986), and Victor Salva’s The Nature of the Beast (1985), but that was before I saw punk documentarian Lech Kowalski’s video diary On Hitler’s Highway (2002), an entry in the Polish-American filmmaker's 'The Fabulous Art of Surviving' documentary trilogy. As an auteur best known for capturing the erratically spiraling lives of sub-rock-stars and their compulsive soul-destroying addictions in films like D.O.A. (1980) and Born To Lose: The Last Rock and Roll Movie (1999), I expected a certain gritty realism to Kowalski’s On Hitler’s Highway, but little did I know the documentary would be a dauntless modern day testimony to apocalyptic philosopher Oswald Spengler’s foreboding prophecies. Being a son of Poland himself, On Hitler’s Highway is ultimately a highly personal documentary for Kowalski as expressed by his oversensitive, if strangely laid back, approach to the documentary and its unspectacular yet tragic subjects. In the film, Kowalski somewhat aimlessly (but quite auspiciously in terms of material) cruises Poland’s oldest highway; a road constructed under the orders of Adolf Hitler himself, where, apparently, under the asphalt (according to local folklore) lie the bodies of many Polish slave workers who had fallen building it. The highway was built in a historically relevant area of Poland where Napoleon invaded Russia, Muslims invaded Europe and attempted to convert Europeans to Islam via bloodthirsty Jihad, and what was once an eastward extension of the Third Reich, yet one would not expect such a grand history while viewing Kowalski’s personal journey through this most Western Slavic nation. On his humble and mostly humorless journey, Kowalski encounters aesthetically-displeasing Muslim prostitutes, jubilant ghetto-dwelling gypsies, and poor indigenous Poles who dream of Uncle Adolf’s revengeful return and Poland’s complete destruction so as to forever relieve their daily pain. As far as video ethnographies go, On Hitler’s Highway is a tolerably amateurish pseudo-anthropological work, but it is also an authentically humanistic piece that surely drives home the collective hopelessness of the post-communist Polish plight like never before.
Apparently, in Poland, teens and young adults care a whole lot more about trendy discos, partying in abandoned underground bunkers, and playing jokes at the expense of elders than the ill-famed domestic history of Auschwitz concentration camp, as expressed by various youth in On Hitler’s Highway. Naturally, the Turkish, Bulgarian, and Polish prostitutes featured in the documentary care more about how many customers will give them the old ‘in-and-out’ than Hitler’s infamous legacy. The only truly holocaust-obsessed individual featured in On Hitler’s Highway is a disgruntled and scornful elderly survivor with a refined distaste for sauerkraut who righteously claims that concentration camp victims were, “suffocated, NOT GASSED.” Considering that most of the individuals featured in the documentary have a hard time providing food for their children, let alone themselves, the Holocaust is of little, if any, relevance to their lives. In fact, it becomes quite apparent in On Hitler’s Highway that, ironically, Uncle Dolph’s vintage superhighway is one of the very few things these Poles have to look forward to and be proud of as many of these individuals, who live in an indefinite state of stark squalor, call rapidly dilapidating ghettos their damned homes. Without big H’s freeway, many of these individuals would have no place to peddle their middle-finger flaunting lawn gnomes, nor their long expired and thoroughly abused flesh as these unofficial and unstable trades provide them with their only means for an income and a 'livelihood.' Needless to say, it seems the Polish populous of On Hitler’s Highway has yet to recover from about a half a century of communist repression and emotional debasement, thus Hitler’s partial dismantling of Poland is nothing short of irrelevant to these thoroughly disenfranchised folk. As someone who personally lives in an area flooded with young, ex-communist Slavic ‘students’ and ‘quest workers’, I can personally vouch for the complete and utter desperation of these less than blessed individuals. Many of these Slavs uncomplainingly accept being illegally underpaid (as they are also illegally employed) and taken advantage of just so they can continuously stay and marginally prosper in the United States. The saddest part is that aside from paying for the necessities of food and board, many of these Slavic immigrants blow their slavishly earned cash on trendy American consumer products like iPhones and Michael Jackson cds, and have no qualms about abandoning their ancient identities. I remember one particularly comical incident when a young Russian man (who fit the ideal National Socialist physique of being tall, muscular, blond, and having blue yes) matter-of-factually proclaimed to me that Michael Jackson was the King of Pop as if I was totally ignorant of such a popular American sentiment. Compared to the men and women featured in On Hitler’s Highway, the young Slavs I know – who are apparently comprised of the ‘cream of crop’ (e.g. sons and daughters of businessmen and military leaders) from their prospective nations – live like virtual prince and princesses in the United States.
Forget about irresponsible junky AIDS victim Gringo from Kowalski’s infamous Troma-distributed work Story of a Junkie (1987), the real-life cast of On Hitler’s Highway is infinitely more forsaken and forlorn as their circumstances are mainly the result of an unfortunate birthright and not of their own making. In fact, many of the nearly starving and somewhat emaciated individuals featured in the documentary are eastern immigrants who moved to Poland in the hope of making a better life for their families and themselves, but such crucial ambitions seem to have acquired nil results for these cursed lost souls. On Hitler’s Highway is the sort of film that should be screened at various American universities as it destroys the totally mythical illusions of collective ‘white privilege’ and other wretched liberal abstractions assembled by sneering ethnomasochistic members of the truly privileged white bourgeois, as the poorest of American Negroes live in less dire and much plusher, warmer, and most importantly, more stylin’ living conditions than most of the individuals featured in the documentary. On Hitler’s Highway is anything but a pleasurable cinematic affair, but to say it is a work without cultural nor socio-political merit would be gross neglect. Both aesthetically and thematically repellant, On Hitler’s Highway is an undeniably potent work with a humbling power that does not rely on petty and contrived sentimentalism like a typical Hollywood production, but upon the mere words and images of uncharismatic and impoverished individuals whose most imperative concerns are finding clean enough water to drank and enough food to eat just so they can survive another day. Indeed, On Hitler's Highway is a fine testament to the fabulous art of surviving, but you will probably want to take a shower in bleach and watch a totally fantasy driven work like Tim Burton's Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) in an attempt to clean away the 'metaphysical grime' that this eerie and aweless testimony of human tribulation permeates. Still, whether intentional or not (and it is not), On Hitler's Highway does have its moments of genuine humorous human absurdity as few screenwriters could dream up a real-life scene of illegally squatting Ukrainian homeless men serving tea to seemingly unscrupulous Polish cops at a deserted Nuclear airbase. On Hitler's Highway is the sort of film fellow eccentric realist filmmaker Werner Herzog would have made during his more zealous youth as it is a totally selfless work that could have only been made by an individual without an inkling of monetary gain nor critical acclaim in mind. On Hitler's Highway may feature one of the most dismal virtual road trips that one will have the grand displeasure of taking, but you will posolutely never forgotten it.