Written by Karen Han
Director : Ireneusz Dobrowolski; Writers: Stephen Cooper, Ireneusz Dobrowolski
Cast: Glenn Bray, George DiCaprio, Charles Schneider, Stanislav Szukalski
A title like Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski suggests a breadth and depth that’s difficult to live up to, which makes it all the more remarkable that this Netflix documentary by Irek Dobrowolski manages to deliver. In addition to painting a comprehensive (and startlingly intimate) portrait of the Polish artist Stanislav Szukalski, who died in 1987, the film wrestles with questions about whether and how art can be separated from the artist.
The bulk of Struggle is built upon a series of interviews with Szukalski, filmed in the 1980s by the collector Glenn Bray. Bray had come across a book of Szukalski’s sculptures and paintings and, by happy coincidence, discovered that the artist actually lived nearby. As they became acquainted, it became clear that Szukalski’s situation at the time— living anonymously in California — obscured the fame he had achieved in his youth, as well as his view of himself as something of a genius.
But with the good came the bad, including evidence of past bigotry and anti-Semitism. Some protest—as Szukalski himself does—that he reformed. Others, including his one-time friend George DiCaprio (who with his son, Leonardo, is a producer on the film), came to find his past actions unforgivable.
The interviews are largely with those who would still count Szukalski as a friend, but Dobrowolski’s opinions on his subject aren’t obvious, even if he is helping to rescue the artist from oblivion. (Szukalski’s works were mostly destroyed in World War II.) Still, for Bray, George DiCaprio and others who knew Szukalski in his final years, their struggle with his past is deeply personal. They effectively become subjects themselves, grappling with how he ought to be remembered. The viewer is left to decide. NYT