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What's Streaming: 'Struggle, Poland's greatest living artist'

Sometimes it takes a documentary to open your eyes to great historical figures somehow lost to the march of time. Figures such as Nikola Tesla or Wernher von Braun, whose influence is so widely and profoundly intertwined with our advancements, somehow fall into obscurity. You don’t often find these people listed in the volumes of required textbooks from high school or even higher education.

Netflix, along with Leo DiCaprio, has produced a documentary film of one such person, an artistic visionary who rivals artists like Salvador Dali seemingly ahead of their time. “Struggle” is the life story of the enigmatic sculptor who Poland once claimed as its greatest living artist who eventually became an average citizen in Los Angeles.

In the early ‘80s, Glenn Bray is a local artist who walks into a bookstore one day. He notices a poster on the wall titled “Copernicus” with the most elaborate signature and asks the store owner about the poster. She replies, “Oh, that’s from a weird little man who lives just around the corner.” Bray takes it upon himself to investigate further as the artwork was fantastic in nature, conjuring mythical entities of ancient proportions.

He looks up the name Stanislaw Szukalski in the phone book, figuring there would be few with such a name listed, and finds an address. He takes a chance, goes to his home and rings the doorbell. What he finds is a diminutive elderly man with the personality of Santa Claus but with a wiry build. Bray and Szukalski become friends quickly, and Bray learns the man considers himself to be the expert authority on everything, literally. Hours of conversations go by on any number of subjects, on which Szukalski provides an inordinate amount of information, opinion and conjecture.

Over the next several years, Bray and a small group of his friends record taped interviews of Szukalski to capture the man and his work in hopes of helping him become better known to today’s art community. No one had ever heard of him before. Over the course of the interviews it becomes apparent that this is an artist of exceptional skill that at one time, prior to World War II, was considered not just a peer of the greats but a bit of a punk rocker in style. He was a virtual prodigy who captured the imagination of Poland despite not actually living in Poland, even though he was Polish by birth.

His work captured the Polish legends of myth and married them to the current political climate of the time. So why is his work so obscure? It was lost to the ravages of war when Hitler invaded Poland, destroying his studio and all his work. Szukalski escaped to America with his wife and two suitcases, settling into the suburbs of Los Angeles, never to climb to his previous renown.

But this is just so little of the story. How he becomes an artist, how he learns his craft, how he imagines his work before he even begins, his execution, his style — all are told and are completely unique to himself. You will ask yourself how such a man could ever go unnoticed and the answer will surprise you.

The only work comparable to his style is something akin to H.R. Giger (creator of the now famous “Alien” movie costume). But even Giger pales in the comparison. And, as with Giger, Szukalski comes with his own controversy. Charges of bigotry and anti-Semitism cloud his past. Though Bray and his friends struggle to understand, Szukalski hopes for redemption and wrestles with regret.

The film is a deeply intimate look at a prolific artist many would struggle to call sane, and if you make it to the end of the documentary (which is highly recommended), you will struggle yourself with questions and answers, leaving you to wonder about the nature of humans, the power of art and the man called Poland’s greatest living artist.

To reach Brian Fitz-Gerald email him at bfitz-gerald@rosebudmedia.com.

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