Year-End Sub Promo Film Comment Film Society of Lincoln Center

Rep Diary: Scorsese’s Masterpieces of Polish Cinema

By Max Nelson on February 04, 2014

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Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” runs Feb. 5-16 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

In 1946, twenty-year-old Andrzej Wajda enrolled as a painting student in the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts. At the time, Poland was a shattered nation: its borders had been dramatically re-drawn in the wake of the Second World War, its artistic output dammed, its buildings leveled, and an inconceivable one-fifth of its population—including many of its prewar cultural luminaries—murdered. The country was about to enter seven years of strict Stalinist rule, during which it would exist politically as little more than a Soviet satellite state. In the arts, socialist realism would become nearly ubiquitous.

For Wajda and many of his fellow artists-in-waiting, something was missing. “We had seen the smoking chimneys of the crematoriums,” he later recalled, “the arrests, the street roundups, the Warsaw uprising—and our teachers were like Cézanne, who, when he was asked what he did when the Russians advanced on Paris, answered: ‘I painted some landscape studies.’” There was, Wajda granted, something defiant about painting landscape studies during wartime—but the postwar years called for a different kind of rebellion. In 1949, Wajda abandoned the fine arts and entered the Łódź Film and Theatre School. “We thought that we should paint in a different way,” he would later say of his class at the Academy. For Wajda and a generation’s worth of young filmmakers, that “different way” was cinema.  

A Short Film About Killing

A Short Film About Killing

Of the nine filmmakers including in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” series, curated and organized by Martin Scorsese’s venerated Film Foundation, Wajda is one of only two who could conceivably be considered a marquee name among American audiences. (The other is Krzysztof Kieslowski, represented here by the harrowing A Short Film About Killing—expanded from an entry in his 10-part “Decalogue” series—and his midcareer masterpiece Blind Chance.) The rest of the featured directors range far and wide, both in style and content. Here one finds, among others, Andrzej Munk, who injected a grave, rueful sense of humor into his evocations of Poland’s recent wartime past; Janusz Morgenstern, a former assistant director to Wajda who went on to a half-century-plus directing career of his own; and Wojciech Has, best known in the States for his kaleidoscopic, space-twisting adaptations of Jan Potocki and Bruno Schulz. Two directors, Wajda excepted, have been given what amount to mini-retrospectives: Krzysztof Zanussi, whose scathing, tonally schizophrenic 1976 drama Camouflage, about the rivalry between an idealistic young linguistics professor and his Mephistophelean mentor, opens the festival; and Jerzy Kawalerowicz, a leading light of Fifties and Sixties Polish cinema equally adept at claustrophobic noir (Night Train) and formally dazzling art-house allegory (Mother Joan of the Angels).

The series is limited in scope—selections range from 1957 to 1987, with the lion’s share drawn from the late Fifties, early Sixties, and Seventies—which makes it all the more remarkable that the films included diverge so radically in their interests and means. There are, of course, omissions, some gutsy (beloved early films from Polanski and Kieslowski are ignored in favor of less familiar fare), others understandable (Andrzej Żuławski and Walerian Borowczyk, I imagine, lost the festival’s midnight-movie slots to Has), and a few perplexing (Jerzy Skolimowski’s pre-emigration work is mysteriously absent, as is Ryszard Bugajski’s long-banned, politically explosive Interrogation and anything by Poland’s best-known female filmmaker Agnieszka Holland). By and large, though, it’s a revelatory program, proof that vital, imaginative art can—and frequently does—flourish even in oppressive climates.

Night Train

Night Train

In the early Fifties, when Soviet control of Poland was at its peak, the climate was likely too oppressive for much art to flourish; before it could return to its prewar cultural standard, the country needed a thaw. In October of 1956, it had one. Stalin had died three years earlier, and the Soviet Union’s influence over Poland was starting to slacken. The situation took a decisive turn when, after a series of violent worker’s revolts, Władysław Gomułka was named First Secretary of the national Communist party and set in motion a range of reforms. The period of liberalization that followed was brief—Gomułka’s rule soon became no less oppressive than his Soviet predecessors—but critical.

It’s hard to imagine a film like Munk’s 1957 Eroica being made at any other time: a caustic, absurdist portrait of war-torn Poland divided into two unrelated stories, the first a broad comedy concerning a bumbling would-be resistance fighter cuckolded by a Hungarian lieutenant; the second a sober, bitterly ironic story of divided loyalties and misplaced faith set in a POW camp. Munk was a key member of what has since been dubbed (a little unimaginatively) the Polish School, and Eroica’s formal ingenuity, earthy sense of humor, and keen-eyed political satire would all become hallmarks of the movement. You could argue that the school’s name is more significant than it sounds: there’s a sense in which directors like Wajda, Kawalerowicz, and Munk, after years of watching Polish artists submitting to the Soviet Realist tradition, were trying to develop a distinctly Polish cinematic sensibility, rooted in the country’s particular needs and concerns.

Mother Joan of the Angels

Mother Joan of the Angels

It’s often said that the Polish School began in 1955, when Wajda released his enormously influential debut film A Generation (the first of what would become a trilogy devoted to Poland’s violent recent history). Equally important, though, was the film industry’s shift that same year to a system based around discrete production units—the most prominent of which, Kadr, was responsible for many of the period’s masterpieces. (See enough of the Film Foundation’s selections, and you’ll have the stop-start rhythms of the unit’s typewritten logo permanently stamped in your memory.) Kadr was managed by Kawalerowicz, whose Mother Joan of the Angels in 1960 was one of the Polish School’s major triumphs: a feverish anti-fairy-tale centered around a convent of (apparently) demon-possessed nuns and the virginal, self-flagellating priest who shows up to exorcise their beautiful Mother Superior.

Kawalerowicz restricts the film’s action to the fortress-like convent, the open field surrounding it—an empty expanse radiating out from a charred, portentous stake—and the area’s makeshift tavern-cum-stable, which makes for a bawdy, secular counterpoint to the spiritual warfare afoot next door. Over the course of the film, that spiritual battle gets re-cast—courtesy of cinematographer Jerzy Wójcik, who also shot Eroica and Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds—as a literal battle between light and shadow: in one shot, a parade of white-habited nuns march in single file from a dark passageway into a patch of blindingly bright sun. In some respects, the film’s thematic landscape is as stripped-down as its physical setting; it’s fascinating to see Kawalerowicz reducing his narrative to a set of well-trod oppositions (sacred vs. profane, spirit vs. flesh, Christians vs. Jews), then giving the movie’s formal structure—its dizzying camera setups and continuity-defying cuts—the job of complicating, challenging and expanding those oppositions. The movie is constantly veering from meticulous third-person detachment to handheld first-person immersion to jarring second-person accusation, and these shifts in perspective lead to equally extreme ambiguities of tone: at any given point, you could take Mother Joan as either a sober reflection on the power of men to bind and abuse women’s bodies, or a campy, baroque slice of Gothic horror. And yet the film’s haunting, unshakable quality comes, I think, from its refusal to provide a comforting alternative to the two equally destructive ways of life it depicts. The wayward nun, the ascetic priest, and the drunken barfly all, in the end, suffer from the same, equally intractable sort of loneliness—and the only two characters with the wisdom to escape it end the film in an early grave.

Saragossa Manuscript

The Saragossa Manuscript

This particular brand of storytelling—short on consolation, rich in irony, heavy on negative moral judgments but stingy with positive moral prescriptions—is a kind of postwar Polish specialty. It’s present in much of the output of the Polish School’s short-lived golden age, which came to a premature end in the second half of 1960. It was at that point that the Polish United Worker’s Party, still under Gomułka’s leadership, started to tighten its hold on the film industry. As new waves blossomed in France, Japan, Brazil and Czechoslovakia, Poland’s cinema receded—for the most part—into the shadows. (There are, tellingly, only three films released between 1961 and 1971 in the Film Foundation retrospective: Kawalerowicz’s Egyptian historical epic Pharaoh, Tadeusz Konwicki’s Jump, and Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript, a literary adaptation—albeit one of the stranger literary adaptations ever made.) For the rest of Gomułka’s rule, the national film industry functioned primarily as a government organ and an outlet for state-sponsored national mythologizing—with a handful of key exceptions (chief among them Skolimowski’s Barrier and Polanski’s Knife in the Water).  

Then Gomułka’s rule ended. In 1970, after a series of disastrous worker’s strikes, he was succeeded by Edward Gierek, who would remain in power for the rest of the decade. A happier time was soon underway for the film industry, with Kadr renewing operations and a new stock of directors, actors and cinematographers coming to prominence. During this period, Has was able to make his second adaptation of a Polish literary classic, this time turning to a work with a considerably darker history. The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973), shot in dense, heavily contrasting colors by Witold Sobocinski and awash in visual clutter, was based on the great last work of the Jewish fiction writer Bruno Schulz, whose death at the hands of a Gestapo officer in 1942 has given a morbid tinge to his literary reception ever since. Schulz’s sometimes fantastical stories, which often speak of intensely private kinds of loss—loss of family, of childhood, of home and imagination—have come to speak just as strongly, if unintentionally, about historical, national, and cultural loss, and Has’s film, seen in this light, becomes a kind of duet between the individual memories of Schulz’s narrator and the collective memory of a community mourning, among other things, the premature loss of Schulz himself. (Long segments of the film take place in a lively, bustling prewar Jewish neighborhood.) This was a bit much for the party authorities; for ten years, Has was effectively barred from making another film. 

The Hour Glass Sanatorium

The Hour Glass Sanatorium

The Seventies were a remarkably productive decade for Wajda: he made eight films between 1970 and 1979, including Man of Marble, the first installment in his decades-spanning trilogy of films set, respectively, before, during, and after the 1980 birth of Solidarity. (Man of Iron, the second entry, is one of the Film Foundation’s opening night selections, though it would arguably make more sense at the end of the series; it says explicitly and urgently what many of these films only express by analogy, allegory or metaphor.) For Janusz Morgenstern, a filmmaker who came of age in the early Sixties, this second thaw signaled a decline in productivity—but it also gave him the freedom to make the sensitive, quietly devastating To Kill This Love, a portrait of a young, penny-pinched urban couple under pressure from within and without. The economic pressure from without is, one senses, a trickle-down effect of the party’s lack of concern for the urban working class, but Morgenstern, with the exception of some regrettably on-the-nose allegorical interludes, never lets his heroes—primarily his self-absorbed, thoroughly confused male protagonist—entirely off the hook for the film’s sad stream of betrayals and disappointments. It’s a movie made with deep intelligence and respect, and one of the Film Foundation program’s secret highlights.

The most important Polish filmmaker to emerge in the early Seventies was arguably Krzysztof Zanussi, who graduated from the Łódź Film Academy in 1966 after flirting with careers in physics and philosophy. One gets the sense that, for Zanussi, those two disciplines continued to have a certain mystique; they were tantalizing what-ifs, roads untaken, and closed-off parallel lives—not unlike the three possible futures that unfold one after the other in Kieslowski’s Blind Chance. They hang especially heavily over Zanussi’s third feature, The Illumination, a fragmented time-lapse record of a young physics student’s passage into adulthood. Life, in this film, flits by inconclusively, reduced to a series of standalone flashes and brief illuminations. The young man drifts through his college education, his military service, a painful early love affair, a shy courtship, a tense marriage, and, finally, fatherhood as if each were just another episode in a dream from which he expects to wake; his life, pace Virginia Woolf, is in fact “a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged.” If the parts do, in the end, cohere into a luminous whole, it’s thanks to a pair of factors: Zanussi’s skill at tracing a coherent narrative through all these splintered, discontinuous scenes, and DP Edward Kłosiński’s ability to give each shot at once the worn-out luster of a home movie and the quicksilver glint of an immediate sensation. In a generation of Polish films that are, for the most part, too practical-minded, skeptical, and independent to submit to epiphanies, The Illumination might be the entry most open to the prospect of genuine revelation. 

Illumination

Illumination

For Poland, the turn of the decade was accompanied by a different kind of revelation. In August 1980, thousands of workers took up a mass strike at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa; the following month, with Wałęsa as their chairman, they created the country’s first independent labor union. For the next year, the Solidarity movement accumulated followers, influence and force. In 1982, it was forced to move underground—nearly a year after the communist party, under increasing Soviet pressure, had declared martial law. That, anticlimactically, is where the story of the Film Foundation’s series ends. Only one selection, Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (87), dates from after ’82, but it wasn’t until 1989 that Polish citizens witnessed the legal rebirth of Solidarity—and with it, the country’s first free elections in nearly half a century. It might seem like an odd move on the part of the series’ curators to stop their account on the brink of such a decisive revolution; on the other hand, it’s fitting that a tribute to a national cinema so dependent on narrative and moral ambiguity should end with a kind of ellipsis.

Is there a distinctly Polish cinematic sensibility? From the titles included in the Film Foundation’s series, one theme emerges consistently, if not universally: the tension between the individual, with his or her distinct set of memories, loves, preferences and projects, and the demands—both moral and practical—of the wider social world. If Poland’s cinematic output has traditionally been defined, at least in part, by its constant efforts to distance itself from the soviet realist tradition, which has always advocated for the individual’s unconditional submission to some state-approved greater good, we might expect the country’s directors to swing hard in the opposite direction, to make radically interior films in which the individual’s sole right and duty is to preserve, at all costs, his or her individuality. The facts are more complicated. In these films, it’s not always clear how much the heroes owe to themselves and how much they owe to others, how far they ought to let themselves be directed by social forces beyond their control, to what extent they can assert their own individuality, and to what extent they should. One possible explanation for Wajda’s special prominence in Polish cinema—aside from his immense talent, intellect, and sensitivity, which get some filmmakers much farther than others—is the attention he gives these questions, not only as moral conundrums but as practical, immediate realities. 

Ashes and Diamonds

Ashes and Diamonds

Ashes and Diamonds, which Wajda made in 1958, is the classic example: a square-jawed, rakish Home Army assassin tasked with taking out a high-ranking Communist official holes up in the same hotel as his target, meets a gorgeous barmaid downstairs, talks her into his room, and ends up falling head over heels in love—thus placing his mission, and his status as a defender of his country, in jeopardy. The setup—what happens when a person’s political obligations come into direct conflict with his duty towards those he loves?—is essentially tragic; there are no happy endings available here. Like Victoria in The Red Shoes, a brilliant dancer torn between creative and romantic fulfillment, the hero of Ashes and Diamonds self-destructs. And as in that Powell and Pressburger film, his self-destruction is treated as the only dignified, suitably tragic solution to an intractable problem.

Two years later, Wajda made Innocent Sorcerers, his first film set in what was then modern-day Poland. In the movie’s opening minutes, a young, handsome, white-haired jazz drummer meets a cute girl at a bar after one of his shows (that’s a fussy, nervous Roman Polanski on upright bass) and conspires with a friend to take her home. In his apartment, they act out an elaborate pas de deux, each taking turns dodging the other’s advances. (The whole encounter is set to an omnipresent, anxious jazz soundtrack by Polanski’s future go-to composer Krzysztof Komeda.) By morning, he’s realized, almost in spite of himself, that he loves her—but when he steps out of his apartment, he returns to an empty room. After a futile search, he finds her waiting for him at home, to his surprise, and ours. She makes what seems like her final exit, he pretends to be asleep, and—having gotten to the edge of the stairs—she retraces her steps back to his room, sidles in and shuts the door. It’s easy to see how Innocent Sorcerers could, at the time, have struck audiences as a little too smooth, soft or slight. In retrospect, however, with its intricate series of setbacks, deceptions, feints, and advances, it plays like a prescient, touching metaphor for Poland’s slow crawl towards independence, in part because it promises what Ashes and Diamonds seemed to disavow: a happy ending. 

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