The Polish film “Operation Hyacinth” is set between 1985 and 1987, when the titular secret police act was enacted. Police are tasked with tracking known or presumed homosexuals, entering them into a database and often forcing them to sign confessions or leave others. Extortion and violence are tools commonly used by officers and officials. During the operation, more than 11,000 people were registered in this database.
Knowing this information will clarify a plot point or two, but you can enter this Netflix release blindly and you won’t get lost. Director Piotr Domalewski and screenwriter Marcin Ciastoń used the operation as a backdrop to police procedures involving a gay male serial killer and an undercover cop to solve the case. Along the way, our protagonist begins to wonder if he identifies too much with his temporary role as a gay man. It sounds a bit like “Exploring,” but in reality, it’s closer to ’80s detective films and ’70s paranoid thrillers. Cinematographer Piotr Sobociński Jr. bathes characters and locations in a distinctive neo-noir aesthetic while the story twists in a direction that catches audiences off guard about who they can trust.
Officer Robert (Tomasz Ziętek) is a rising star in his office, still a bit green but coming from a well-respected police family line, including his father, Edward (Marek Kalita). Robert is engaged to a fellow officer, Halinka (Adrianna Chlebicka), who oversees an evidence locker. He and his colleagues were part of Operation Hyacinth, raiding public restrooms and clubs to round up gay men. It’s clear that no one involved in this maneuver has much—or any—reverence for homosexuals, whom they call “water hyacinth” in the same way “sissy” is the insulting flower used here in America. These reclusive men were then savagely interrogated in claustrophobic scenes in which they begged not to be exposed.
When a series of murders occur with the same type of fatal injuries, police think they have a serial killer on the loose. The officials demanded that this case be resolved immediately. When a suspect Robert brought in had a confession beaten out of him before later committing suicide in his cell, the police closed the case. Robert is in line for a promotion, his father is eager to help push him but something is not right with him. The resolution is too neat. Plus, there is no evidence, incriminating or otherwise. “We got a confession,” said one officer, but given how badly the suspect was beaten, it was unreliable.
With some leeway, Robert was allowed to go undercover to satisfy his own suspicions. Disguised as a man on the prowl, he meets Arek (Hubert Milkowski), a confident and courageous young man who complains about Hyacinth’s attacks and has a supernatural talent for evading capture. Given that he knew some of the victims, Robert decided to use him as an informant. Arek turns out to be a good choice for information, but he’s the flirty type who sees his new friend a bit depressed. “You can’t be afraid of everything,” he told Robert, “especially not freedom.” To loosen it up, or maybe just to test the availability of water, Arek kissed the unprepared Robert. It barely pecks, but has a bigger impact.
“Operation Hyacinth” deals with Robert’s latent homosexual desires in the usual way, but the film also uses them to add an extra layer of tension to already tense police procedures. There is a scary scene with a suspicious and angry Edward, who suspects his son may be dishonest. Danger is closer at home and at work than on the street, especially when evidence in a murder case provides a wider, more sinister, and conspiratorial web. There are strong men with powerful secrets, and as Robert gets closer to the truth, he becomes increasingly threatened and obsessed. Zietek does an excellent job with action scenes and difficult moments of emotional and sexual confusion, and Milkowski provides a free and loose counter for him to fight.
Had this been made in the 1940s, it would fit into the same genre as “Detour” or “The Maltese Falcon.” It has the line of hopeless nihilism that is characteristic of the best noirs. Ciastoń’s script, which won the Polish Film Festival’s Best Screenplay award, weaves an interesting and complex web of anger, suspense and romance while simultaneously impeaching the Hyacinth system and its participants. There is much to be said about the harsh costs of bullying that social homophobia poses. As a result, the resolution of this film is far from neat or closed, but it can still be satisfactory.