The Way Back: Polish Pierogi Casserole

Year Released: 2010
Directed by: Peter Weir
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan
(PG-13, 132 min.)

"Something there is that doesn’t love a wall." Robert Frost

If you can survive the freezing wind, the Russian criminal gangs running the barracks are ready to stab you for your threadbare sweater, and then there’re the mines, great sulfurous pits where every breath is a taste of fire. Those Cyrillic letters on the archway above the Siberian prison camp might as well say, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

Yet abandoning hope is the last thing that young Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Pole falsely accused of espionage, will do. His will is not yet broken, nor his spirit of kindness. Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) a rail thin American knows better. As Janusz stoops to share his soup with another, Smith warns him, “Kindness will kill you here.”

Janusz isn’t willing to wait for a slow death in the camp, where young men stumble in malnutrition’s night blindness while others tumble into the snow, their last feeble breaths sucked out of them by the cold. He will leave while he still has the strength, and what better time than in a night blizzard. “Don’t you see? It’s perfect,” he tells the six others who break through the wire with him. “They’ll never track us in this.”

Of course the young Pole is wise in the ways of the woods, and his expertise helps them through the ravages of the storm. They cut the bark from trees and construct primitive snow masks courtesy of their sole knife contributed by the brutal Russian criminal Valka (Colin Farrell). After seeing the other uses he has made of that instrument -- that little unpleasantness with the sweater mentioned earlier – one does wonder if this knife is worth the danger brought along by its owner. 

Yet we in the audience are certainly glad for Valka’s inclusion, as he is one of the most intriguing characters on the trek. He has the instinctual cunning of a criminal who reads men as his business. Of the Latvian preacher he says. “He prays too much for an innocent man.” Among his body full of tattoos – almost as many as those sported by the locals here in Austin, Texas – one is prominent. It is a dual portrait of his idols, Lenin and Stalin, looming large on his chest. It is easy to understand that his fellow escapees think he probably regrets this indelible ink almost as much as any other guy after a breakup, but a little thing like the Siberian work camp doesn’t deflate Valka’s adoration for his heroes. In fact, when the group finally reaches the Siberian railroad, with Mongolia and hoped for freedom on the other side, Valka cannot leave his mother Russian and stays behind. 

Unfortunately for the crew, now including the young waif Irena (Saoirse Ronan), an escapee from a women’s camp, Mongolia is also under the yoke of communism. So they are forced to continue south through the desert. National Geographic, one of the producers of the film, is probably responsible for the accuracy and sheer beauty of the cinematography, which includes locations in the deserts of Morocco, the mountains of India, as well as scenes filmed in Mexico, Australia, and Bulgaria.

We feel the sheer panic as a sand storm descends upon them, an event that actually happened during filming, although the one captured on camera was ushered in by fans, since it was too dangerous to actually film the real thing. The unrelenting sun is even more cruel than Siberia’s cold, and the group is so worn down by hunger that they run after and not from a slithering poisonous snake. As someone who has tasted her fair share of Texas rattlesnake, I loved the line after they roasted the beast: “It tastes like chicken,” that clichéd phrase we’ve all heard. “Yeah, a big, black poisonous chicken with no legs.”

The interaction between the characters is well done also. We avoid the typical stereotypes one often finds in this genre, although I kept expecting them to appear. Even with the lone Irena among the all male band, Valka included, there is not even a hint of sexual exploitation. The obligatory lecherous lout usually cast in these situations does not appear, and that seems to disappoint some viewers who can’t accept his absence. One answer is that the men have only enough energy to put one foot in front of the other; another that resonates more with me is that they are actually gentle souls with the exception of Valka, who follows their lead.

In fact, Irena’s presence actually brings out the men’s better natures. She talks to each man in turn and they tell her details of their lives they had walled off from each other. They can reveal their vulnerability with her, and she shares their stories, flitting along the line of nomads like a bee pollinating desert blooms. There is an especially poignant scene with Mr. Smith, as he insists on being called the whole time. Initially he had objected to Irena joining their group, insisting that she would only slow them down. Later, Irena sits down next to his bruised and swollen feet, washing them gently with a rag she dips in a stream of water. It is almost the recreation of that famous painting showing Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Christ.

This film, inspired by true events some 70 years ago, is not just set in an earlier era. It echoes that era as well. As simple as the sweep of desert sands, as eternal as man’s longing to be free.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

As the camp escapees struggle across their 4000-mile trek to freedom, that long walk from Siberia to India, they subsist on fish and the occasional wild beast they find wallowed in mud or downed by wolves. And they are starving enough to fight and win the grisly remains from those predators. Much of the time, however, they can only dream of real food. They even recite favorite recipes by heart, like refugees from a ladies’ coffee klatch. A favorite is Rosemary Chicken, which coincidentally was featured in Atonement, the film that brought Saoirse Ronan (Irena) an Oscar nomination for best actress in 2008.

Make sure to try out that recipe, and try this great Polish side dish to go with it. Our Pierogi Casserole is like a Polish lasagna with potatoes, sour cream, cheddar cheese and bacon in the layers. I’ve put on a few pounds just thinking about it.

Polish Pierogi Casserole 

Ingredients

  • 5 potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1/2 pound bacon, diced
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 (16 ounce) package lasagna noodles
  • 2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 (8 ounce) container sour cream
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  2. Place the potatoes in a large pot with water to cover over high heat. Bring to a boil and cook until the potatoes are tender. Remove from heat, drain, then combine with the milk and 6 tablespoons of butter, mash and set aside.
  3. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Saute the bacon, onion and garlic in the butter for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the bacon is fully cooked.
  4. Cook the lasagna noodles according to package directions and cool under running water.
  5. Place 1/2 of the mashed potatoes into the bottom of a 9x13 inch baking dish. Top this with 1/3 of the cheese, followed by a layer of lasagna noodles. Repeat this with the remaining potatoes, another 1/3 of the cheese and a layer of noodles. Then arrange the bacon, onion and garlic over the noodles, then another layer of noodles, and finally top all with the remaining cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Serve with sour cream and chopped fresh chives.

Recipe Source: allrecipes.com