Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 1
 Issue 3 
1 Oct
2001

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Karlovy Vary film festival posterKARLOVY VARY
Concern for the devil
Polish film at the 36th Karlovy Vary film festival

Polish cinema has long been marked by tendencies such as "moral concern" and an interest in the "devil of history." Andrew James Horton looks at five recent Polish films that continue this tradition.


This year's Karlovy Vary contained some weighty films, dwelling in bleak and soul-searching themes. The competition line-up, for example, looked so formidable that the festival daily newsletter asked two jury members how they thought they would cope. Krzysztof Zanussi, jury chair and giant of kino moralnego niepokoju ("the cinema of moral concern," a trend in Polish cinema between the mid-1970s and the imposition of martial law in the country in 1981), replied when asked about the number of gloomy films that "there's not much to laugh about in this world, so the ratio of drama and comedy seems fair to me." Labina Mitevska, the Macedonian actress with an international career, confirmed Zanussi's remarks by commenting that "We live in a world that is one big social drama, and we definitely shouldn't avoid this type [ie gloomy] of films."

With such comments coming from the jury, would this mood be reflected in the final awards ceremony? Could the predominance of social critique and existential enquiry turn Karlovy Vary into a festival moralnego niepokoju?

The festival certainly contained a number of Polish films that attempted to look deeply into the moral state of the nation, using both contemporary and historical themes. Perhaps this is rather surprising, given that in the 1990s it was frequently noted that central European film had failed to critique life under democracy with the same efficacy with which it dissected life under Communism. In this respect, the gloominess of Polish film could be cause for rejoicing, indicating a return to the film-making ethos that made figures such as Andrzej Wajda and Zanussi the toast of Cannes in the early 1980s.

Social fatalism

Naturally, the prime representitive of any country's film production could be considered to be the director who has a film in competition. This year, for Poland it was Robert Gliński with his film Cześć Tereska (Hi, Tereska, 2000), receiving its world premiere at the festival.

Cześć Tereska (Hi, Tereska, 2000)
Quiet girl making a strong screen impression
The eponymous heroine is a teenage girl born to a poor no-hoper family who live in a tower block all too typical of Communist-era building plans. Although a rather geeky and taciturn girl, Tereska has high-flown dreams and the scribblings in her notebooks hint at an active and creative mind. Not only does she want to become a fashion designer, she also seems to have some talent in it. But at school she soon becomes disillusioned with the strictly functional approach to design and, not being able to let her inventiveness run loose, finds pleasure in the company of a slightly older girl, Renata. This slippery friend (who, it later emerges, steals from Tereska) introduces her to a world of boys, fags, booze and petty crime.

Her hopeless situation soon leads her into a downward spiral, being raped, framing an innocent man for assault and killing a crippled security guard with whom she has traded flirting favours for being able to stub out cigarettes out on his numbed legs or permission smash them with an iron bar.

Gliński has a directing career that stretches back many years and includes a total of eight films with him at the helm, Cześć Tereska included. Of these I've only had the privilege to see two others and both are interesting to compare with Cześć Tereska, in that both focus on the experiences of the young and how the innocence of their lives is compromised by wider historical circumstances.

The devil of history

His 1992 feature Wszystko, co najważniejsze (All That Really Matters) focusses on a family of Lvov Poles who find themselves outside their country with the post-Second World War shift in borders. In showing their plight, the film mixes sickly sentimentality with graphic scenes of state-approved torture and humiliation reminiscent of Ryszard Bugajski's Przesłuchanie (The Interrogation, 1982). Although told from the point of view of an adult, Ola Wat, it is her son who is the pivotal character in the film, persuading the family that having each other is "all that really matters."

Gliński's fiction debut, the mini-feature Niedzielne igraszki (Sunday Pranks, 1983), is actually a far more accomplished film than Wszystko, co najważniejsze. It centres on a courtyard which still shows the scars of the Second World War, with the action taking place in 1953, shortly after Stalin's death. Using child actors almost exclusively and having only the most delicate of plot frameworks, the film records the cruelty, innocence and perpetually changing loyalties of childhood games. It's a remarkable piece of social realism (as opposed to Socialist Realism) and the film succeeds in capturing the sense of historical menace of the period and the timeless nature of children at play, which is exquisitely and attentively observed.

The film ends with one child's parents being arrested by the secret police as a direct result of the pranks and arrangements being made for the hapless son to be sent off to a home. It's a dark streak that clearly re-emerges in Cześć Tereska, and the two films have much in common. Gliński's interest in what Wszystko co najwazniesze terms "the devil of history" has subsided, but Cześć Tereska is still mindful of how outside realities—the socio-economic landscape of post-Communist Poland—destroys lives.

The general mood after the press screening of Cześć Tereska indicated that the film had been well received among the assorted scribes present. The assorted juries of the festival were also evidently impressed and the film picked up the Special Jury Prize, the FIPRESCI prize and the Don Quixote Prize, awarded by the Federation of Film Societies. Certainly, Gliński's directing is masterful and he coaxes strong performances out of his young actors—Alexandra Gietner in the title role has a particularly remarkable screen presence. But somehow I failed to warm to the film. It's a rather despairing piece of fatalism that seems to totally discount the possibility of free will. We do empathise with Tereska, but in his haste to pile up misfortune after misfortune on the poor girl, Gliński signs up for a brand of social predeterminism that distances us from her fate. The result is a rather cold film that shares many of the observational strengths of Niedzielne igraszki but lacks its charm and humanism.

Multiculturalism under scrutiny

Gliński may have chosen a contemporary subject, but many directors are still drawn to putting the devil of history on screen. The Second World War remains a favourite, but central European directors are now using it to positively explore the region's Jewish heritage. For example, here's a plot that may seem familiar:

A young couple who can't have children take in a Jew on the run during the Second World War, and a love triangle is soon formed which threatens to split the marriage. The presence of the Jew is known to a local Nazi who has designs on the wife and tries to use his knowledge of their extra guest to his advantage. Things are complicated further with the arrival of a child, something that draws attention given that the couple are known to be infertile.

Jan Jakub Kolski's Daleko od okna (Keep Away from the Window, 2000)
Two jealous and competing "mothers"
Yes, of course, the film can only be Jan Hřebejk's Oscar-nominated Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall, 2000) playing in the Czech section of Karlovy Vary. Or can it? The plot is also a description of Jan Jakub Kolski's Daleko od okna (Keep Away from the Window, 2000). In the Polish film, however, the Jew being hidden, Regina, is female and the baby, Helusia, is hers, whereas in Musíme si pomáhat the concentration camp escapee is male and the husband who puts him up is impotent. In addition, the films have rather different endings. Regina, unable to face her host family—and particularly the barren, obsessed Barbara—excluding her from being a parent to her child, runs away (in Musíme si pomáhat the love child is a more harmonious addition to the household). Helusia is raised unaware that Barbara is not her real mother and only years later discovers the truth, which inspires her to set out to find out Regina in Germany.

An unfortunate coincidence

Despite the film's differences from the more famous Musíme si pomáhat, Daleko od okna is clearly a film which will be overshadowed. Being able to cash in on its Oscar nominee status, Musíme si pomáhat will undoubtedly be able to get distribution deals that Daleko od okna can only dream of (Musíme si pomáhat has been on release in the United States and is also available on video and DVD). One can only feel sorry for Kolski, who, one would assume, made his film in complete ignorance that another very similar project was in preparation just across the border.

Yet, if Musíme si pomáhat is more successful, it's not totally without justice. Kolski tangentially raises some interesting issues about Poland coming face to face with its Jewish past, symbolically represented through the final meeting of Helusia and Regina, yet Daleko od okna has nothing as philosophically substantial to offer as Musíme si pomáhat's exploration of the ethics of collaboration and resistance, and the murky overlap between the two.

Moreover, Kolski fans may well be disappointed with the film in that the director seems to be gradually moving away from the magic realism that made his name in films such as Jancio Wodnik (Johnny Waterman / Johnny the Aquarius, 1993). All that remains in this film are stylised animated interludes that draw on the husband Jan's profession as a painter.

Irrelevant to the present?

Filip Bajon's Przedwiośnie (The Spring to Come, 2001)
An epic look at history
Historical epics are all the rage now in Poland, after the success of a string of epic literary adaptations which have shattered previous box office records, notably Jerzy Hoffman's Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword, 1999) and Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz (1999). The latest one to cash in on the craze is Filip Bajon's Przedwiośnie (The Spring to Come, 2001), which received its international premiere at Karlovy Vary. Based on Stefan Żeromski's novel, the film applies a high-gloss treatment to a plot that takes us from Baku to Warsaw and attempts to analyse the nature of revolution and whether abrupt political change can ever be maintained according to the heady, high-minded ideals which drove it.

Due to the hectic programming schedule, I was only able to see the first half an hour of this 146-minute film, but what I saw was enough to convince me that Wojtek Kość, writing for Central Europe Review shortly after the film's domestic release, had a good point:

Maybe the times when Przedwiośnie—a film which examines the meaning of revolution and political change—could well illustrate Poland's conditions at the onset of great changes are already over? For Andrzej Wajda, for example, it should have been made immediately after [the] Round Table in 1989, when the feeling of novelty filled the air. Now, when everything has calmed down and people are more concerned with their daily routines than with pondering the revolution, Przedwiośnie's timing seems inappropriate. [1]
Absolute independence

With so much history in Polish film, you might wonder if there aren't some Poles getting sick of it all. And, indeed, 27-year-old Grzegorz Lipiec believes just that, and his Że życie ma sens (That Life Makes Sense, 2001) is just about as far removed from the works of Hoffman, Wajda and Bajon as you can get. The first indication to festival-goers that this might be a rather different film was its placement in the Forum of Independents section, rather than the more traditional home of Polish films, the East of the West section.

Ze zycie ma sens (That Life Makes Sense, 2001)
Drugs, lies and videotape in western Poland
Shot on VHS for a budget of around USD 1000, Że życie ma sens was never intended to be shown to a wide audience. It is in fact the 11th film produced by the Sky Piastowskie amateur film group, who are based in the western Polish town Zielona Góra. It is, however, the first one to have attracted the attention of distributors and been transferred onto 35mm film for domestic release.

The film focuses with absolute candour on the theme of drugs, with the use of non-professional actors and improvised dialogue giving the film an almost documentary feel to it, aided by the fact that the film deals with a story that is close to the everyday reality of the film's makers: a group of young people shooting an amateur film to stave off the boredom of life in a provincial Polish town.

As the festival catalogue notes, the film is "raw and unpolished," a euphemism in this case for the film not being totally successful. Although the acting is remarkable, the choice of subject matter commendable and the film successful on a scene-by-scene level, Że życie ma sens doesn't quite hold together in total and Lipiec has far less control over the overall story than he has over individual sequences. When I watched the film at a public screening, a significant proportion of the audience didn't feel they could watch it to the end (although to be fair to the film, it was screened in possibly the most uncomfortable venue of the festival).

Despite this weakness, Że życie ma sens is an incredible achievement, and it is easy to believe the information reported in the festival daily that "Stars of Polish cinema have come to Lipiec and offered their services for free." It will be interesting to see whether Lipiec can use the talent, fame and perhaps money that could be available to him on his next film, especially given the weaknesses of Że życie ma sens. Lead actor Krzysztof Czarkowski, however, was rather down-beat about the possibility of having more money for their next film when he spoke to the festival daily: "It would be nice if the camera battery didn't keep on dying."

Master of moral concern

One man who is unlikely to have difficulty getting the resources he needs to make a film is Krzysztof Zanussi, who, as previously mentioned, was chair of the main jury of this year's festival. Yet, his latest film Życie jako śmiertelna choroba przenoszona drogą płciową (Life a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease, 2000), on show in a special tribute section, is very modest.

The film opens by looking at the life of St Bernard, with the dialogue in French (which got festival-goers looking anxiously at their tickets and programmes to make sure they were in the right venue). This turns out to be a film within a film, however, when the action is interrupted by an accident. At hand to treat the injured is both a young medical student, Marek, and an old and cynical doctor, Tomasz. The conversation between the two reveals that both have an interest in the meaning of faith.

Krzysztof Zanussi's Zycie jako smiertelna choroba przenoszona droga plciowa (Life a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease, 2000)
Tomasz: Searching for faith at death's door
Tomasz's hunt for this meaning is given all the more urgency when he discovers he has terminal cancer. As he approaches death, he finds a strange liberation. He gives his flat to Marek and his girlfriend, finds himself incapable of taking his own life to ease the severe pain and is visited at night by a silent St Bernard. As well as donating his flat to Marek, Tomasz gives him the courage to confront death in its medical form, and the film ends with Marek making the first incision of an autopsy on his deceased doctor friend.

Zanussi's early work from the late 1960s and 1970s explored the soul-searching of young men, usually scientists, as they tried to grapple with themselves and the world around them and find a place for themselves in life. Życie jako śmiertelna choroba continues these metaphysical journeys, although with a protagonist whose age is closer to that of the 62-year-old director. Whereas films such Illuminacja (Illumination, 1973) and Constans (The Constance Factor, 1980) are very much open-ended (indeed both films finish abruptly in ways that deliberately present the viewer with another set of questions to answer), Życie jako śmiertelna choroba is a more narrow film. Zanussi is a devout Catholic (he has filmed the Pope's official biography and acts as his special cultural advisor), and while you can watch his early films and not know the way Zanussi has answered his own existential quests, Życie jako śmiertelna choroba is distinctly a piece of Catholic proselytising.

However, if you can accept that the film chooses a limited philosophical framework, it is an absorbing and thought-provoking film. My fellow viewers at the screening I attended seemed to be clearly affected by the film's reflective nature, and the film's eschewal of the formal devices and vertiginous photography that gives, say, Constans bite means that the film is stripped back to its screenplay, written by Zanussi himself. In an age that worships directing talent as the most supreme in the film world, it is refreshing to see a director who chooses to express himself primarily through a strongly written, well-constructed script.

Ironically, Zanussi's film was, perhaps, one of those that had the least connections with the film-making ethos of the classic era of Polish film-making under Communism in that it veers more towards finding answers rather than asking questions. However, the stern eyes of directors such as Lipiec and Gliński (as well as other Polish directors not represented at Karlovy Vary this year: for example, Krzysztof Krauze or Ursula Urbaniak) seem to be inaugurating a renewed period of "moral examination of Polish life and modern Polish history"—exactly the definition that author Frank Turaj uses to define the first period of kino moralnego niepokoju.[2] The only question that remains to be answered is if this second phase of deep moral enquiry into Polish life and the devil of history will develop into one as full and as aesthetically and intellectually successful as its predecessor.

Andrew James Horton

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Also of interest
About the author

Andrew James HortonAndrew James Horton is Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye and Culture Editor of Central Europe Review. He also writes on central European culture for other journals and edited the e-book The Celluloid Tinderbox: Yugoslav screen reflections of a turbulent decade.

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Footnotes

1. Wojtek Kość, "Lacking the courage of Lenin: Filip Bajon's Przedwiośnie," Central Europe Review, Vol 3 (2001), No 14.

2. Frank Turaj, "Poland: The Cinema of Moral Concern," in Post New Wave Cinema in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, ed Daniel J Goulding, Indiana, 1989, p 143.

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