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The Political Weight and Forgotten Creativity of Postwar Polish Film

by Michael Blum on February 7, 2014

Krzysztof Zanussi, still from "Illumination" (1973) (all stills by the author for Hyperallergic)

Krzysztof Zanussi, still from “Illumination” (1973) (all stills by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Very few in the film industry can profess to have had a 2013 as manifold as Martin Scorsese’s. The veteran filmmaker both coached Leonardo DiCaprio into scores of coked-out high-fives and, miles away from Hollywood and $100 million dollar budgets, organized the preservation and distribution of several neglected gems of international cinema in the US (via Criterion) and the UK (via Masters of Cinema).

In a similar vein to these latter efforts, Scorsese has recently organized a series, Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, comprised of 21 pristine digital restorations of Polish films released between 1957 and 1987. The series had its premiere on February 5 at Lincoln Center in New York and will travel to over 30 destinations across North America in the coming months.

Among the 21 films are tragedies (some tame, others brutal), costume dramas, colorful epics, war films, philosophical sketches of alienated life, films cataloguing emergent social milieux, and experimental pieces working in both the political-allegorical mode as well as more liberated or even inebriated registers — in this respect approaching the art and style of the chimerical Polish poster movement.

Wojciech Has, still from “The Hourglass Sanatorium” (1973) (courtesy Martin Scorsese Presents) (click to enlarge)

Wojciech Has, still from “The Hourglass Sanatorium” (1973) (courtesy Martin Scorsese Presents) (click to enlarge)

As diverse as the films are, a common imprint marks many of them, at times relentlessly, at times indirectly. This imprint is the stamp of a unique historicity, a political dimension that invites the films to be read parallel to the archive of wounds and subjugations that Poland suffered throughout the course of the long 20th century.

This imprint affects even the temporal delineation of the series, which begins in 1957, no arbitrary year with respect to postwar Polish history. The date indicates the advent of what could be considered properly Polish film production, as opposed to films that derived almost entirely from the imposed rhetoric — triumphant and monolithic — of Soviet socialist realism. Allegiance to this aesthetic was nothing short of compulsory in a postwar Poland occupied and administrated by Soviet power and its intransigent political system.

Andrzej Wajda, still from "Man of Iron" (1981)

Andrzej Wajda, still from “Man of Iron” (1981)

This changed, however, in October 1956. Following the persistent work of Polish dissident groups and a series of fortuitous events — starting with the death of Stalin in 1952 and perhaps concluding with the release from captivity and election to power of Władysław Gomułka, a champion of reform and Polish sovereignty — the vice-like grip of Stalinist doctrine on Poland began to ease. This era of liberalization had serious implications for the country’s artistic production.

Andzrej Munk’s Eroica (1957), the earliest work showing in the series, offers an almost uncouth retrospection on some of Poland’s experiences in WWII but represents them in a wholly novel way, definitely transgressive of Soviet filmic paradigms. Munk boldly eschewed not only the conventional logic of tragedy that prominently employs pathos and somber mourning, but also the heroic mode of socialist realism, which monotonously extolled a Soviet liberation of Europe and the subsequent foundation of a worker’s utopia. Instead, Eroica unfurls ironically, presenting farcical human error alongside a kind of sober existential portrayal of society at degree zero, stripped of so many of its modest necessities, its propriety, and its normalizing rhythms like undisturbed sleep. Munk’s characters are flamboyant drunks given wartime responsibilities that test their temperance and intellectuals who are crushed and undone by the monotony of life in POW camps. Eroica is not without an alleviating humor, yet remains deftly sensitive to the seriousness of what’s being represented.

Andrzej Munk, still from "Eroica" (1957) (click to enlarge)

Andrzej Munk, still from “Eroica” (1957) (click to enlarge)

Munk’s film as well as the rest of his oeuvre (which was cut short by his tragic death in 1961, at 40 years old) — was so significant because it marked Poland’s creative appropriation of its own history in its own national idiom, rather than in that of its occupiers.

Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) plays with a similar problem of the (im)possibility of Polish self-determination. The film, which is one of Scorsese’s favorites, opens at the end of WWII, the moment when it became clear that liberation from the Nazis meant only the installation of another foreign regime, not independence, as hoped for. A tightly packed narrative following Polish resistance fighters — former heroes who proceed with their operations in a new political regime (which is reciprocally hostile to them) — the film plays in an equivocal zone that withholds any nationalistic pronouncements; instead, it opts to animate what Foucault, commenting upon his tenure in Warsaw in 1958, called Poland’s “historical sadness.” This sadness is oriented towards the future as much as towards the past: the film concludes with a fitful, stuttering ambiguity, signaling a torn horizon for Polish nationhood.

Less realist films in the series engage with topics of dispossession and repression in more tangential or poetic ways. In Tadeusz Konwicki’s The Last Day of Summer (1958), two strangers encounter one another on a deserted beach and improvise a kind of absurd relationship, at turns hostile and deeply affectionate, over the course of an hour. The two are presented as being nearly bereft of past and future, without burden or hope, and rehearse their chance meeting with a gradually deepening love, all while a fighter jet circles overhead, its whirl punctuating their day at the beach like a weary death knell.

Andrzej Wajda, still from "Innocent Sorcerers" (1960)

Andrzej Wajda, still from “Innocent Sorcerers” (1960)

Other films like Innocent Sorcerers (1960) and Illumination (1970) sidestep direct or figural engagement with issues of trauma and nation. Innocent Sorcerers, also by Wajda, is mainly staged around an all-night encounter between two eminently modern lovers. Their smart, meta-dialogical back and forth is prototypical of a lot of the flirty chicanery that made the French nouvelle vague famous — and this is no coincidence: the screenplay was co-written by Jerzy Skolimowski, a darling of Godard et al at the Cahiers du cinéma and a very talented director in his own right (the absence of his work in the Polish series is probably the most conspicuous omittance).

Scorsese, who was recently awarded an honorary degree from the Polish National Film School in Łódź, has done a great service in seeing to the restoration and proper subtitling of the films in this series. It’s exciting to see more and more international offerings — formerly consigned to obscurity with bootleg recordings circulated among intensely cinephilic crypto-communities — see the light in so carefully an attended and polished way. Polish cinema is ripe for a revival and reinvigoration of interest, especially seeing how lightly trodden it is compared those of the European countries (French, German) to its west. Poland’s films are surprising. At times they can be — by circumstance and often in fascinating ways — weighed down by history to a formidable extent. But they can also rise above this influence, and dance about in an orgy of color and vertiginous freedom.

Masters of Polish Cinema continues at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (165 West 65th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through February 16.

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