screen gems

A great, gay thriller? It’s about time…and one of the best movies of the year

Operation Hyacinth

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The DL: Operation Hyacinth

In general, real-life terrors tend to scare us a lot more than fictional demons and curses. Today’s Screen Gems selection demonstrates as much.

Operation Hyacinth, the new Polish film streaming on Netflix in the US, takes inspiration from the real-life Polish government initiative of the same name. During the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis, the Polish government decided to crack down on homosexual activity in the name of public health. In reality, the officers in charge of the operation used it as a means to gather information on the nation’s queer population, and use it for blackmail purposes.

This fictional story follows a detective named Robert (Tomasz Zietek), an up-and-coming officer with a beautiful fiance. While raiding a public toilet known as a gay cruising ground, he meets Arek (Hubert Milkowski), a young, gay student used to evading police raids. Taken in by Arek’s warmth and self-confidence, Robert decides not to arrest him, but instead to use him as an informant. Around the same time, police discover the body of another gay man stabbed to death in a local park. Robert’s superiors beat another gay man into confessing to the murder, but Robert can’t stand the thought of a killer on the loose. When another gay man turns up murdered, Robert stumbles onto video and photographs of a gay sex party in which both men appear…along with Arek. The investigation forces Robert to dive even further into the Polish gay underground, where he finds his attraction to Arek ever-growing.

Director Piotr Domalewski shoots the film in shadowy browns and greys, conveying both the bleakness of Soviet Bloc Poland and the shadowy nature of Robert’s job. Domalewski also populates the film with lots of mirror and window imagery, underling Robert’s own sexuality crisis…and the idea that everywhere, someone could be watching. Zietek plays Robert as a man terrified of his case, but compulsively drawn further into a dangerous world. We have a feeling that this is the movie William Friedkin set out to make with Cruising–a taut thriller about a man ever-fascinated by gay sexuality and culture…maybe because he finds it a turn-on.

Even if the real-life initiative never existed, Operation Hyacinth would succeed as an engrossing thriller. As a piece of queer history, the movie also looms as a terrifying chapter, and one with particular resonance. Director Domalewski ends the film on an ambiguous note, probably by design. Though Operation Hyacinth concluded in 1987, LGBTQ people are still hunted in a similar fashion around Eastern Europe and Africa today. The United States, the United Kingdom, and other western nations also have their own histories of hunting the queers (see also: the Lavender Scare). We suspect Domalewski knows as much, and wants his audience to know too: if it happened before, it could happen again.

This is one of the best films of 2021.

Streams on Netflix.

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