Saturday, May 02, 2009


Richard Solarz & Fredrik von Krusenstjerna | 2008 | 95 mins | Sweden

It's springtime and documentaries are in the air again. I kicked off my Hot Docs experience this year with Necrobusiness, a doc with very compelling and grizzly premise. Everyone knows that the funeral business is a racket designed to make bereaved people part with as much money as possible during a time when they're neither capable of thinking straight nor interested in bargaining. Still, the high cost of coffins is nothing compared to the horrific reality of Poland's death industry.

Investigative journalist Monika Sieradzka begins her journey in the mid-sized city of Lódz, Poland, where she's trying to get an interview with a prominent funeral director, Witold Skrzydlewski, after an attempt is made on his life. The man accused of trying to kill him is a local medical examiner named Tomalski who appears to have at one point been a business associate of his victim's.

As Sieradzka digs deeper into the tangle of partnerships between Skrzydlewski, Tomalski and a third man, Sumera (a dodgy florist with secret agent-esque delusions) she uncovers that what at first seemed like a straightforward feud between an odd triad of business partners is a disturbing city-wide conspiracy of murder and betrayal. Sieradzka narrates the film in the first person, which works to frame the unwieldy goings-on, but she ends up being a much too central figure in a story that's really not about her.

The film shifts between murder mystery and courtroom drama as we watch Tomalski's trial mushroom into a massive case involving a dozen defendants. Ambulance dispatchers confess to delaying service and paramedics confess to "letting patients die" in order to rack up a body count for Skrzydlewski's massive funeral monopoly in exchange for gifts and bribes. Murder, corruption and profiteering are only the tip of the iceberg in this truly bizarre tale.

The story is so horrifying and the characters such caricatures of "shady businessmen" that one almost forgets it's a documentary. Even the initial setup (a funeral director, a florist and a pathologist get into an argument...) seems like the start of a joke. Necrobusiness certainly has some hilarious moments, but it feels wrong to laugh at a film about people whose death certificates were being filled out by attending physicians while they were still struggling for air in the back of an ambulance. With greedy men like these you'll need to take out a cash advance or two to bury a loved one. What is the world coming to? Worth seeing (as a cautionary tale about not making the mistake of dying in Poland).

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