Archive for August, 2007

Sparrows Are Birds Too

Sparrows Are Birds Too
A veréb is madár
1968, colour, 79 mins

  • Director: György Hintsch
  • Writers: Balázs Farkas, István Kállai
  • Camera: István Hildebrand
  • Editing: Sándor Zákonyi
  • Design: Béla Zeichan
  • Music: Attila Dobos
  • Cast: László Kabos (Zoltán/Sándor Holló); Ádám Szirtes (manager); Ildikó Piros (Blondie); Ilona Medveczky (Helén); Ferenc Kállai (co-worker); László Csurka (hotel manager); Hilda Gobbi (interpreter)

If I had to recommend one 1960s Hungarian comedy, it would almost certainly be Péter Bacsó’s brilliant The Witness (A tanú, 1969), one of only two films that were singled out by Tibor Fischer’s notoriously splenetic rant (in The Guardian, 7 October 2006) as exceptions to the general rule that Hungarian films were immensely tedious. Its scintillating anti-Stalinist satire cut so close to the bone that it was banned until the early 1980s, but has since become an indelible part of Hungarian popular culture.

But those who’ve enjoyed Bacsó’s film and fancy something in a similar vein could do a lot worse than sample György Hintsch’s Sparrows Are Birds Too, made the previous year. Although much of it is gently amusing rather than side-splittingly hilarious (at least to someone entirely dependent on the subtitles), it shares a similar cheekiness in its constant mockery of certain aspects of Hungarian life, especially vis-à-vis its capitalist counterparts. Right from the start, fun is poked at the difficulties encountered by Hungarians in leaving their country (Sándor Holló cunningly joins an Austria-versus-Hungary cycle race just before a legitimate border crossing, and from there emigrates to California), and it goes on to derive humour from the absurdities of socialist bureaucracy, the desire for hard currency over the soft local variety, and the special treatment meted out to foreign VIPs at the expense of the locals (an entire conference of academics has to share a hotel room in order to free up two luxury suites for what the hotel considers to be a better class of guest).

In the most telling scene, a striptease is constantly interrupted by a burly maitre d’, announcing that certain groups of people are not entitled to see any more - first, the Hungarians (naturally), then the Czechs, Russians and East Germans, until only the Americans are left. Even more tellingly, the guests are defined by their currency rather than their nationality - indeed, this set-piece is known as the Hard Currency Striptease.

The plot is a series of variations on that age-old theme of mistaken identity based around Sándor having an identical twin brother, Zoltán (both played by László Kabos, a kind of ginger Hungarian Woody Allen). The latter is a humble factory worker and part-time inventor, who fails to attract much interest in his revolutionary cleaning device, to the consternation of his implausibly attractive girlfriend Szöszi (Ildikó Piros), whose name translates literally as ‘Blondie’. When Sándor returns to his native country for the first time in fifteen years as a successful businessman, he naturally reunites himself with Zoltán - who opportunistically steals his coveted US passport and whisks Blondie off for a lavish weekend at his brother’s expense. (She is under the impression that he is Sándor, having decided that the latter is far more dynamic and exciting).

Most of this is extremely silly, and any doubts that this is essentially a slapstick farce are eliminated when someone crashes through a hotel room door, leaving a neatly cut-out hole matching his shape. But Kabos copes well with his dual role (and a surprising amount of split-screen trickery to make both brothers appear on screen at once), even though it’s not always obvious which brother is which at any given moment. Other nifty set-pieces include a tour of a hotel where assorted flunkeys are frantically rolling up the red carpet behind the distinguished visitors, rushing up the back stairs and unrolling it on the upper floor just in time, or anti-capitalist billboards being replaced by far more US-friendly ones in a matter of seconds. There’s also a surprising amount of near-the-knuckle eroticism, including topless female nudity on more than one occasion and two scenes that come perilously close to going further, with only a feather boa protecting the actress’s modesty. No classic, then, but fun in parts.

DVD Distribution: Mokép (Hungary), PAL, region 2

Picture: Mostly excellent, sourced from a very well preserved print whose only small problem consists of faint blue vertical streaks at around the 41-minute mark. Otherwise, this was fine - if anything, it’s a bit too sharp at times, as it’s occasionally possible to spot the very faint join in the middle of the split-screen special effects needed to let Lászlo Kabos act opposite himself. The picture is framed at what I presume is the original 4:3 (there’s no compositional suggestion that it should be anything else), and slightly windowboxed on all sides, presumably to compensate for television overscan.

Sound: This is the original mono, and sounded fine - no better than I’d expect for a nearly 40-year-old film, but certainly no worse.

Subtitles: Generally more than adequate, with very few typos - though there’s one slightly misleading one where the hotel manager refers to “old guests” when the context makes it clear that he means “odd”.

Extras: Extras are Hungarian-language only, and consist of filmographies for the director and star. These contain four buried trailers, all unsubtitled.


Posted on 30th August 2007
Under: Reviews, Hungary, György Hintsch | No Comments »

Wajda’s Revenge

I’d been meaning to watch The Revenge (Zemsta, 2002) for ages - it’s Andrzej Wajda’s last completed feature prior to this year’s Katyń - and after other plans fell through last night I gave it a go. It’s a mixed bag: on the one hand, it’s hugely entertaining seeing two great directors clearly letting their hair down and having a ball (Roman Polański being the other - he’s playing the lead role), and as a farcical costume romp it worked very well.

The basic situation, sourced from Alexander Fredro’s 1834 play (previously filmed by Antoni Bohdziewicz in 1956) is that two halves of the same crumbling castle are occupied by deadly rivals Cześnik Raptusiewicz (Janusz Gajos) and Rejent Milczeka (Andrzej Seweryn). As is often the way with costume farces, Cześnik’s niece Klara (Agata Buzek) and Rejent’s son Wacław (Rafał Królikowski) are madly in love with each other, but have to meet clandestinely to avoid enraging their elders - and Cześnik is similarly enamoured of the Widow Hanna (Katarzyna Figura). And when the Rejent finds out, he resolves to marry Wacław off to Hanna to upset everybody’s plans. Unfortunately, there’s a wild card in the form of Papkin (Polański), a dwarfish braggart who manages to create the impression that his influence and charisma are far greater than they actually are, and is consequently hired to carry out tasks that prove way beyond his abilities.

So far so genuinely amusing (Polański in particular seems to be having a whale of a time, as does an almost unrecognisable Daniel Olbrychski as Cześnik’s idiot manservant Dyndalski), but English-speaking viewers have a major stumbling-block with Vanguard Cinema’s DVD (R1 NTSC). There’s nothing wrong with the transfer (anamorphic picture, Dolby 5.1 surround), but the English subtitles only seem to translate for content rather than style - and while my ear for Polish is all but nonexistent, it was clear even to me that a lot of wordplay was simply being passed over. For starters, the dialogue is in verse, and while I appreciate that English verse translations pose a major challenge, it has been attempted in the past, most famously in the Anthony Burgess-sourced subtitles for Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac and also the Russian Cinema Council’s edition of Alexander Ptushko’s Pushkin-derived The Tale of Tsar Saltan. As it stands, though, the effect is not unlike watching a Shakespeare comedy with all the puns and poetry removed, thus depriving me of what Polish critics claim is a major part of the play’s appeal.

Janina Falkowska has written about the film in much more cultural and contextual detail for Kinokultura, and passages like this one:

The dialogue is delivered brilliantly by the exceptional cast carefully gathered by Wajda for the film, making the complex script dazzle with humor and wit; the words written almost two centuries ago by Alexander Fredro nonetheless stand out as a warning to present generations of Poles. Even the exquisite players of secondary roles, such as Daniel Olbrychski (Dyndalski), provide a veritable firecracker of verbal attacks and counterattacks filled with political and sexual innuendo.

…show the kind of thing that I missed.

Posted on 23rd August 2007
Under: Reviews, Poland, Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polański | No Comments »

Hungarian horrors

To say that the films of the young (b. 1974) Hungarian director György Pálfi are an acquired taste is no more than a statement of the obvious, but it’s already clear from Hukkle (2002) and Taxidermia (2006) that he’s potentially one of the most distinctive voices to emerge from European cinema in a great many years.

I was lucky enough to see Hukkle without any advance warning - my editor handed over a VHS tape and suggested that it might be my sort of thing. It was. Like most viewers, I found it highly disconcerting at first, but once I’d grasped the principle that it essentially extended the concept of Microcosmos and similar natural history documentaries to encompass the human occupants of a small village, I took to it immediately. On the one hand, the notion that human beings have no greater significance in the wider scheme of things than ants, snakes, frogs and cats is deeply pessimistic and cynical (though, as Taxidermia amply demonstrates, wholly consistent with Pálfi’s apparent worldview), but on the other, it’s no more than the simple truth.

There is no significant spoken dialogue at all, and subtitles are only needed right at the very end, when two thematically relevant songs are performed at a wedding. Even the central narrative strand, in which the women of the village appear to be bumping off their menfolk through poisoning (the poisons, of course, being extracted exclusively from the local flora) seems merely a part of the overall texture - though it ties in with an overriding theme about the essential uselessness of the male sex. In particular, a cut from a close-up of a pig’s swaying, grotesquely swollen testicles to a bowling ball speaks volumes in a fraction of a second.

Hukkle was disproportionately successful for a first feature, especially from an unknown Hungarian first-timer, and Pálfi duly managed to raise a substantially bigger budget for his second, Taxidermia. This time, homo sapiens is centre-stage and the dialogue is wall-to-wall (one of the first scenes has a hapless orderly reciting an insanely lengthy list of duties to his commanding officer), but the sourly dyspeptic view of humanity remains consistent. It comprises three stories, set in the 1940s, the 1960s and the present day, the protagonist of each being father to the next.

There seems little doubt that the film was deliberately made to be as provocative and taboo-breaking as possible, with particular attention paid to graphic depictions of assorted bodily functions. In the first story, we have graphic masturbation, ejaculation (fire as well as semen) and copulation (with a thankfully dead pig as well as a live woman), the second dwells on speed-eating and equally copious vomiting (I said in my Sight & Sound review that the characters here made Monty Python’s notorious Mr Creosote look genteel), while the third is concerned with the body’s complete breakdown, either through terminal obesity or self-administered taxidermy. I originally reviewed the film off a timecoded DVD screener, but seeing it on the big screen with a small but vocal audience added a whole new dimension - I have this mental image of Pálfi staging loads of preview screenings and timing the gross-out moments to match the audience response.

The production values are matched by a more ambitious thematic approach. Each of the central characters - the WWII orderly Vendel Morosgoványi (Csaba Csene), the champion speed-eater Kálmán Balatony (Gergely Trócsányi, later Gábor Máté) and the taxidermist Lajos Balatony (Marc Bischoff) is driven by overriding obsession, whether with sex (Vendel), gluttony (Kálmán) or professional perfectionism (Lajos, who is adept enough to stuff a human embryo). All three have disastrous personal relationships: Vendel is reduced to voyeurism and fantasising (even about Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl), Kálmán’s marriage seems purely one of convenience (his wife cheats on him on their wedding day, then leaves him because she had a more lucrative offer from America), and Lajos’s only human contact other than his father and his clients seems to be with bored sales assistants in the supermarket - who have clearly written him off as a weirdo in advance, on account of the vast amount of food he purchases for the now immobile Kálmán.

Pálfi’s technical virtuosity, already well established in Hukkle, takes full advantage of the bigger budget, show-stoppers being a series of 360˚ tracking shots over a bathtub (as opposed to around it) to illustrate its multiple functions, a child’s pop-up storybook seamlessly turning into an actual set with live actors, CGI-aided vomiting and the all too physical special effects of the final sequence. They’re also better integrated into the overall conception than some of Hukkle’s conceits, which I felt occasionally betrayed a desire to show off (for instance, a Tex Avery-inspired transition where the film jumps its sprockets and the camera pulls back to reveal a bead curtain made up of film strips).

Hukkle has had quite a few English-friendly DVD editions. Despite my endorsement on the box (of the film, not the disc), the worst appears to be Soda Pictures’ UK edition (region 2 PAL), reviewed by DVD Times here. Soda can’t be blamed for some BBFC snippage (non-negotiable cuts concerning animal cruelty), and they do at least offer an anamorphic picture, but the sound is plain stereo and there are no extras. The US (Home Vision Entertainment, R1 NTSC) and Hungarian (Mokép, R2 PAL) discs are far superior - the extras are virtually identical, but the Hungarian edges ahead for its inclusion of a DTS 5.1 soundtrack. Here’s an overview:

Picture: Pretty much flawless: anamorphic, framed at 1.85:1, with virtually no visible blemishes on the print and none on the transfer. Given the director and cinematographer’s personal involvement with this release, I think it’s safe to assume it represents exactly what they wanted.

Sound: This was apparently the first Hungarian film to be mixed in 5.1 surround sound from the start, and the DVD duly serves up two surround options, in Dolby Digital and DTS. I selected the latter, and it sounded fabulous, quite literally adding a whole new dimension to a film that I’d only previously watched on VHS. Surrounds are used discreetly but fairly continuously, while the subwoofer supplies some equally subtle but very effective Lynchian rumblings, especially when underground, underwater or (paradoxically) surveying the landscape from up in the clouds. As with the picture, I can’t see how this presentation could be significantly improved upon.

Subtitles: The main feature has (and needs) virtually no subtitles, but the song lyrics at the end come across convincingly enough. All the extras also have subtitles, and while they clearly weren’t written or typeset by native English speakers (there are numerous typos and other grammatical infelicities), this is never at the expense of comprehension.

Extras: There are several extras, starting with a highly technical commentary from György Pálfi and cinematographer Gergely Pohárnok that goes into extreme detail about how they achieved particular shots (and reveals that the pig’s name was Jimmy), but offers next to no food for interpretative thought. I suspect this was entirely deliberate. Equally vague are the “making-of” documentary (more of a free-form video diary) and the other video extras, though it’s fun to see outtakes that didn’t make it into the final cut - notably a timelapse shot of a decomposing cat that could have seen service in Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts.

As for Taxidermia, it’s just been released in Britain on a disc from Tartan (Region 2 PAL) that sounds pretty bare-bones, so I’m waiting to see what the Hungarians come out with before splashing out (an unfortunate metaphor under the circumstances, but I’ll leave it in). It’s also out in France on France Télévisions (also Region 2 PAL), but only with French subtitles.


Posted on 22nd August 2007
Under: Reviews, Hungary, György Pálfi | 1 Comment »

Polish Documentaries: People on the Road (1960)

Ludzie w drodze
1960, black and white, 10 mins

  • Director: Kazimierz Karabasz
  • Camera: Stanisław Niedbalski
  • Sound: Halina Paszkowska
  • Editing: Lidia Zonn
  • Music: Jerzy Wojciechowski
  • Production Co-ordinator: Ryszard Żerański
  • Production Company: Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (Documentary Film Studio)

A companion-piece to Kazimierz Karabasz’ The Musicians, and made at roughly the same time, People on the Road takes a similar approach to circus folk. Both films look at what happens between performances - in The Musicians’ case, it’s a band rehearsal, while People on the Road takes us from the dismantling of the circus paraphernalia to the start of a new show in a different town. In both cases, there is no commentary and very little dialogue, none of it important (so the poorly-synced subtitles in the only current DVD edition are less of a problem than they might otherwise be) - both the camera and viewer are observers rather than critics.

The opening montage echoes that of The Musicians, in that it shows people at the end of a working day, the soundtrack consisting entirely of clanking, hammering and the thrum of internal combustion engines as everything from the large metal ‘Cyrk’ sign to the marquee to the seating is carefully disassembled and laid out piece by piece in the circus trucks. When they’ve finished, and a motley procession drives past the camera, we hear a mournful harmonica solo that will play throughout most of the remainder of the film. The performers of the Cyrk Miś (literally ‘Bear Circus’) - men, women, children, monkeys, cats and other species - either sleep en route, or lie in the juddering trucks under the flickering lights, watching the animals playing with each other or the toys dangling from the roofs.

The next day, work starts early in the middle of a large field. A trainer climbs into the cage with three muzzled bears. The men band together to erect the marquee, pushing the supporting poles into place. Makeshift kitchens and bathrooms are constructed in the open air. A monkey licks the juices off a slice of lemon. The horses are tethered on a long enough leash to allow them to run around. High-wire and trapeze artists, acrobats and unicyclists, gingerly rehearse their acts. Around all this, family life maintains a semblance of normality: mothers wash clothes and hang them on the line as children play, or pop into the marquee to gawp at the performers, getting a sneak preview before the audience proper arrives. Crowds gather, and wait in anticipation. And then the start of the performance is announced, the audience applauds, the music strikes up… and the film ends.

As that précis suggests, this is a film that thrives and indeed relies on small but inexplicably telling details - in much the same way that The Musicians did, but on a larger scale. The absence of any meaningful dialogue or narration means that all we know about these people is what their gestures tell us, but these are often highly evocative - a fleeting sidelong glance between two performers reveals a whole lexicon of information. PWA’s booklet quotes Karabasz: “What we learned, which until then had been an important but abstract postulate, was the need for discretion. We also began to understand the seemingly obvious value of patience when observing human behaviour”. Accordingly, Karabasz and his regular cinematographer Stanisław Niedbalski often shot through telephoto lenses, to avoid distracting the performers - the resulting flattening of perspective occasionally creating the alarming impression that the trapeze artist is about to collide with the unicyclist.

Three sequences run longer than average. In the first, an acrobat dresses himself, smoking a cigarette throughout, while balancing on his head - which he does with such quiet serenity and seeming obliviousness of the world around him that it’s easy to share Karabasz’ rapt fascination. The second extended sequence involves a montage of children’s faces as they wait for the performance to begin: it’s a study in anticipation and growing excitement as they peer over rails to try to get the best vantage point. And finally, there’s the elaborate sequence of pre-performance preparation, as make-up is applied, costumes adjusted and limbs stretched and flexed: we’ve already had a private view, but now they have to face a paying public, and the anxiety on the faces of some of these seasoned professionals is palpable. With barely a word of dialogue (and none of it important), Karabasz gives us a vivid glimpse of the lives of these people, and by the end we understand better why they choose to live such a nomadic and eccentric existence.

The transfer on PWA’s DVD Polish School of the Documentary: Kazimierz Karabasz (Region 0 PAL) is generally fine in terms of picture and sound, but marred - as with their presentation of The Musicians - by subtitles that appear several seconds too late. However, the film is perfectly comprehensible if they’re switched off altogether, which may be the best bet.’s overview of Karabasz’ career mentions People on the Road briefly.

Posted on 21st August 2007
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Kazimierz Karabasz | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: The Musicians (1960)

1960, black and white, 9 mins

  • Director: Kazimierz Karabasz
  • Production Manager: Andrzej Liwnicz
  • Camera: Stanisław Niedbalski
  • Sound: Halina Paszkowska
  • Sound Editing: Lidia Zonn
  • Music: The Warsaw Orchestra of Tramway Workers
  • Production Company: Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (Documentary Film Studio)

When Sight & Sound magazine ran the fifth of its decennial critics’ Top Ten polls of what was alleged to be the best films ever made, they extended the invitation to filmmakers for the first time. As one of the leading arthouse cinema lights at the time (1992) Krzystof Kieślowski’s list came under especial scrutiny, not least because nestling amongst the expected favourites (Bresson, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Welles, Ken Loach) was an obscure nine-minute non-fiction short by Kazimierz Karabasz, one of Kieślowski’s teachers at the Łódź Film School and an acknowledged major influence on his whole filmic philosophy.

Watching The Musicians with no prior knowledge of the historical and cultural context, it’s initially difficult to see what the fuss was about (in addition to Kieślowski’s praise, it’s long been regarded as one of the milestones of the Polish documentary movement). It’s certainly a very engaging piece, in which a group of factory workers band together (literally) in the form of an after-hours wind and brass orchestra, but that’s practically the entire narrative content. Fans of Czech cinema will notice affinities between this troupe and the various ensembles in mid-1960s films by Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer (whose Intimate Lighting was also on Kieślowski’s list), not least the fact that they’re made up entirely of middle-aged to elderly men. But there is no commentary, and very little spoken content, so we’re told next to nothing about why they spend their leisure hours making music.

Then again, we don’t need to be, as the sheer joy of what they’re doing is obvious from the film itself. The high-contrast opening shots in the tram workshop have a hint of archetypal Socialist Realism about them, but they’re too brief to make any didactic point: they merely establish that these men are not professional musicians and are all performing voluntarily. According to Mikołaj Jazdon’s notes in the PWA set, the elaborately-moustachioed conductor has “a melodic Vilnius accent”, and his native country has a longstanding tradition of amateur music-making.

But the film’s importance rests not so much in its subject as in its style and technique. Cinematographer Stanisław Niedbalski, who had worked regularly with Karabasz since the latter’s professional debut, dispensed with conventional side lighting in favour of lighting from above, which gave the camera much more freedom in terms of positioning and movement, as there was much less chance of accidentally including one of the lights. Aside from the aesthetic benefits (many of the men are bald, and so catch the light beautifully), it also meant that Karabasz and Niedbalski were in a better position to capture the kind of fleeting moments that abound in ensemble situations like this.

Stylistically, the film begins with mostly static, carefully framed shots, initially of the men in the workshop. These are accompanied exclusively by the sound of industrial noises, broken by the whistle denoting the end of their shift, after which a single onscreen title sets the scene: “This is a film about people who have given up many an evening. At one time the ‘Brassers’ were a vast army of amateur zealots. Today, they are the last Mohicans”. We then see the same men setting up their instruments and music stands in the rehearsal space. The background sound changes to a blend of inaudible conversation, overlaid with a melodic clarinet phrase. Music is handed out, pored over and discussed. Brass instruments join the woodwind, and the cacophony gets increasingly loud until the conductor dons his glasses and taps his stand for silence. The film is already nearly half over, a fact that in itself emphasises that Karabasz is not interested in imposing an artificial narrative structure on his material: he’s already drawn eloquent parallels between the men in the workshop and the rehearsal room and the similar dedication they apply to each task.

The rehearsal proper begins with a French horn duet, and is almost immediately interrupted by the conductor. After a few tweaks to the volume and synchronisation, they start again, getting only a few bars further before the conductor complains that they’re out of tune. More adjustments, with tuba player Zygmunt’s staccato phrasing coming in for particular attention. Finally, the musicians get to play uninterrupted, and Niedbalski’s camera discovers a new-found freedom, gliding from player to player, pausing to dwell on close-ups of pursed lips over mouthpieces and fingers over keys. As the tempo increases, the camera stops moving and the cutting speeds up. But just as the music is about to reach a climax, Karabasz cuts to a slow pan around the deserted tram workshop, the music becoming muffled and distant. This unexpectedly low-key ending, at precisely the point where one would normally expect some kind of triumphalism (or at the very least an affirmative commentary making some kind of social or political point), underscores the film’s key theme: these men aren’t playing music for fame or fortune, they’re doing it for love. What more needs to be said?

Befitting its reputation, The Musicians has been released on several different DVDs, including (at least) the French, British, American and Australian editions of The Double Life of Véronique. Visually, the transfers included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: Kazimierz Karabasz (Region 0 PAL) and Artificial Eye’s The Double Life of Véronique (Region 2 PAL) are probably sourced from the same print (minor damage appears to match) but not from the same transfer, as the PWA picture is slightly cropped at the left-hand side, while the Artificial Eye is slightly cropped at the right. However, the PWA transfer is badly marred by English subtitles that are several seconds out of sync, while the Artificial Eye’s subtitles are perfectly timed. I haven’t seen Criterion’s The Double Life of Véronique (Region 1 NTSC), but given that the package is virtually identical to Artificial Eye’s offering, it’s probably safe to assume that both originated from MK2 in Paris and are therefore functionally identical. (The subtitle issue, though annoying, is not crippling - the film has very little spoken content, and hardly any that’s especially important). As for online commentary,’s overview of Karabasz’ career briefly discusses The Musicians.

Posted on 20th August 2007
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Kazimierz Karabasz | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: Day In Day Out (1955)

Jak co dzień…
1955, black and white, 12 mins

  • Director: Kazimierz Karabasz
  • Writer: Kazimierz Karabasz
  • Camera: Zbigniew Karpowicz
  • Assistants: Władysław Ślesicki, Nikola Todorow, Karol Dąbrowski
  • Production Company: Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Filmowa (Łódź Film School)

Made as a Łódź Film School project, Day In Day Out, Kazimierz Karabasz’ lyrical portrait of the daily morning journey of Warsaw’s suburban commuters, has hardly dated at all: my fellow Londoners will find themselves nodding in recognition on numerous occasions, even if hanging onto the sides of moving carriages is frowned on these days (at least in Europe).

The film begins with a montage of scenes in the suburbs just after sunrise, with only a few people already active. But this trickle turns to a flood as the camera approaches the station - little more than a platform-free building. A steam train pulls out so slowly at first that one man jumps off and runs to a carriage further back to get a better grip. Meanwhile, other commuters prefer to cycle or cram themselves onto what look like former army trucks or treacherous-looking buses. (”Time for some morning exercise”, chuckles the commentator as a few run after it). The accompanying music, whose jaunty rhythms recall Rossini’s William Tell Overture, is in fact the third movement from Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony.

The vehicle of choice (90% of commuters, apparently) seems to be the electric train, for good reason: it’s by far the fastest and most efficient system of transport, needing only sixty seconds at each stop. At this point, the focus of the film changes from the commuter to the workers behind the scenes, with Karabasz emphasising how much work is required to ensure this sometimes misleading appearance of seamless efficiency. As the commentary puts it: if you’re minded to complain about a 10-minute delay, you have these people to thank for ensuring that it was that brief. Delightfully old-fashioned mechanical phones allow communication up and down the line, vital in case anything goes wrong. “As a passenger you have no idea what a rascal you are travelling on”, says the commentator, before highlighting the 603 train as being particularly troublesome.

I haven’t seen Where The Devil Says Goodnight (Gdzie diabeł mówi dobranoc, 1956), Karabasz’s first professional documentary (UPDATE: I have now), but it’s worth noting that it was included in one of the NFT’s Free Cinema programmes (the fourth, dedicated to Polish cinema, screened from 3-6 September 1958). On the evidence of the earlier film, there’s a clear affinity between what both Karabasz and his British counterparts were doing in creating genuinely poetic treatments of material that might be banal or didactic in other hands.

Mikołaj Jazdon comments in the booklet accompanying PWA’s DVD release that “it is astounding that not a trace of the all-prevailing Socialist Realism can be found in his theme, approach, commentary or filming methods”, and it also stands apart from trends in many mainstream British documentaries of the time. I recently watched a brace of National Coal Board newsreels from the late 1940s and 1950s whose raw material is sometimes not dissimilar to Karabasz’s, but the commentator is determined to shoehorn everything into an explicitly pro-NCB propagandist line - and Karabasz could easily have turned his film in to a paean of praise for the Polish railway system merely by changing one or two sentences. That he didn’t gives some hint of the direction his career would take, though later films drop the commentary altogether.

Included on Polish Audiovisual Publishers’ two-disc survey Polish School of the Documentary: Kazimierz Karabasz (Region 0 PAL), the print is in surprisingly good condition considering its age and status as a film-school project, and the subtitles seem comprehensive enough. They’re also in sync, which sadly isn’t always the case on this release. offers a good English-language overview of Karabasz’ career, though the piece doesn’t mention this film.

Posted on 19th August 2007
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Kazimierz Karabasz | No Comments »

Symmetrical Corpses

I’ve just watched two Polish films from 2003 back to back. The first, The Body (Ciało), was the first film by the directing duo of Tomasz Konecki and Andrzej Saramonowicz, whose follow-up Testosterone (Testosteron, 2007) I watched last week. In general, the earlier film is superior: much tighter at 94 minutes, funnier and better structured, though still hopelessly indebted to Quentin Tarantino - here, the narrative broken up into out-of-sequence stories is a direct lift from Pulp Fiction, and in case that wasn’t obvious they also throw in a truly shameless scene in which two criminals pass the time by (over-)analysing ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’. But there’s a lot else to enjoy here in this tale of a corpse that keeps popping up where it’s least expected (or wanted) thanks to a series of farcical misunderstandings involving Siamese twins (protected from the law by virtue of the fact that only one is a criminal), a schoolgirl assassin and a police sergeant obsessed with varieties of pasta. The DVD is on the SPI International Polska label, and is fine, offering a good anamorphic transfer with idiomatic English subtitles. Extras are in Polish.

The other film was Symmetry (Symetria), the directing debut of Konrad Niewolski, most of which is set in a six-man remand cell whose inhabitants are awaiting the outcome of their trial. In the case of twentysomething Łukasz (Arkadiusz Detmer), he firmly believes he will be acquitted on the grounds of mistaken identity, but he took a fellow inmate’s advice to get banged up with hardcore career criminals on the grounds that there’s more genuine honour amongst them than elsewhere in the prison.  Little in the film is especially groundbreaking (it’s part of a long line that includes Scum, The Shawshank Redemption, Escape From Alcatraz, and many others) but Niewolski’s cool, controlled staging and excellent performances keep it watchable to the final scene, whose inevitability doesn’t make it any less tragic. This DVD is also on SPI International Polska, though the transfer this time is non-anamorphic (but otherwise fine). I also felt a bit short-changed by the subtitles - they do a fine job of rendering convincing-looking prison slang, but there were several passages where I felt I was only given a précis rather than a full translation.

Posted on 18th August 2007
Under: Poland, Andrzej Saramonowicz, Tomasz Konecki, Konrad Niewolski | No Comments »

Polish précis

A huge workload means I can’t do much more than brief jottings on a handful of Polish films that I’ve seen recently, but here goes:

War of the Worlds: Next Century (Wojna światów - następne stulecie, d. Piotr Szulkin, 1981)

The sly opening dedication to H.G.Wells and Orson Welles works on at least two levels: as an acknowledgement of the men who respectively wrote and adapted the original ‘The War of the Worlds’, and as a warning not to take anything in the film at face value. Sure enough, in addition to constructing a memorably sour Orwellian vision of a near-future Poland after a visit by Martians (it’s unlikely the references to invasion and occupation would have been lost on its original audience), Szulkin also examines how the media are complicit in both its presentation and in behind-the-scenes string-pulling, and his view of the population-lulling effect of “reality television” (which is even called that at one point) is worryingly prescient. Fittingly, the protagonist Iron Idem (Roman Wilhelmi) is a television anchorman who first realises that something might be awry is when he’s given an entirely new script to read mere seconds before he goes on air.

O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilisation (O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji, d. Piotr Szulkin, 1985)

While the previous film was set in a just about recognisable near future, here civilisation has collapsed completely, with a gaggle of survivors of an unspecified catastrophe waiting for their own Godot in the form of a mysterious Ark that will take them to a far better place. Government apparatchik Soft (Jerzy Stuhr) knows that it’s all a propagandist lie concocted to stave off absolute despair – but is startled to find his normally sane colleagues taking it seriously. Szulkin’s film certainly doesn’t lack ideas, and his realisation of a crumbling civilisation is highly convincing (especially given a clearly limited budget), but this did less for me than the other two: the satirical elements of the others are muted in favour of a setting and narrative that’s a little too familiar to Western eyes.

Ga-ga: Glory to the Heroes (Ga, Ga - Chwała bohaterom, d. Piotr Szulkin, 1986)

The third Szulkin dystopia seems to begin where its predecessors left off, as its unnamed protagonist (Daniel Olbrychski) is blasted from a prison ship onto a supposedly uncharted planet. Instead, he finds a conveniently Polish-speaking world full of people who worship him as a hero and offer him all manner of blandishments, including sexual ones. But he is rightly sceptical: he’s actually being groomed to play the leading role in a hi-tech variant of the crucifixions on Mount Golgotha. This is much closer to blackly comic farce than its predecessors, laced with generous splashings of gore in set-pieces reminiscent of the early work of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. Olbrychski plays it admirably straight, while a grotesque Jerzy Stuhr has a whale of a time as a sinister cultural attaché.

(A far more comprehensive English-language study of these three features can be found in Ewa Mazierska’s essay Polish Cinematic Dystopias)

King Ubu (Ubu król, d. Piotr Szulkin, 2003)

I haven’t read Alfred Jarry’s play since my teens, so can’t recall too many specifics, but Szulkin’s adaptation certainly catches its blend of the childishly scatological and the politically pointed. The play was also set in Poland, so it’s entirely fitting that its themes have been grafted onto a present-day Poland in imminent danger of complete collapse as its various institutions struggle to retain their authority in the face of Ubu’s arbitrary cruelty. The caricature is often extremely broad, and performances are borderline demented, but that’s true to Jarry too. This wouldn’t be my first recommendation for someone new to Szulkin, but it’s good to see him back to making features after a break of over a decade.

(All four of the Szulkin films are available on DVD with English subtitles on the SPI International Polska label. Transfers range from acceptable to excellent, but extras - including extensive interviews with Szulkin - are unsubtitled.)

We’re All Christs (Wszyscy jesteśmy Chrystusami, d. Marek Koterski, 2006)

What’s good: as a study of alcoholism and its disastrous effect on a man’s relationship with his wife and son, this is the most horrifically convincing of its type since Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, and is made doubly disturbing by wholly credible performances. What’s bad: the hysterically overwrought and bludgeoningly unsubtle Catholic imagery makes Ken Russell look restrained, and makes otherwise very strong material look faintly ridiculous. (Caveat: the review DVD froze fifteen minutes from the end, so I don’t know if the conclusion justified the earlier excesses).

Testosterone (Testosteron, d. Andrzej Saramowicz, Tomasz Konecki, 2007)

Adapted from a successful stage play in which seven men survey the wreckage of a wedding and try to work out what went wrong, this neatly conceals its theatrical origins via a series of witty flashbacks and nifty conceptual conceits, but is hampered by an excessive two-hour running time, observations about gender roles that devote too much time to stating the blindingly obvious, and at least one of the directors’ abiding obsession with the work of Quentin Tarantino in general and Reservoir Dogs in particular. But strong performances and dialogue just about keep it afloat. (I’ll be reviewing this in more detail in the next Sight & Sound).

Posted on 10th August 2007
Under: Poland, Piotr Szulkin, Andrzej Saramonowicz, Tomasz Konecki, Marek Koterski | 1 Comment »

Jiří Menzel on DVD

Going from private e-mail, last week’s Kieślowski DVD survey seemed to have gone down pretty well - so here’s a similar overview of Jiří Menzel’s output. Unlike the situation with Kieślowski, if you aren’t familiar with the Czech DVD market you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s next to nothing available besides the inevitable Closely Observed/Watched Trains, but in fact most of his major films are out in English-subtitled editions that are at least watchable - even if some leave a bit to be desired on the transfer and presentation front.

So, without further ado:

1965 - The Death of Mr Baltasar (Smrt pana Baltazara, IMDB)

  • Included in Facets’ Pearls of the Deep, Region 0 NTSC
  • Included in Bontonfilm’s Perličky na dně, Region 0 PAL

    (The Facets DVD is an artefact-ridden disaster with poorly-synchronised and non-removable subtitles. Sadly, though superior in all other respects, the Bontonfilm edition only has Czech hard-of-hearing subtitles. DVD Freak compares the two.)

1966 - Closely Observed/Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, 89 mins, IMDB)

1968 - Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto, 74 mins, IMDB)

  • Centrum českého videa, Region 0 PAL (English subtitles)
  • Facets, Region 0 NTSC (review: DVD Savant)

1968 - Crime in the Music Hall (Zločin v šantánu, 83 mins, IMDB)

  • Centrum českého videa, Region 0 PAL (Czech HOH subtitles only)

1969 - Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti, 91 mins, IMDB)

  • Centrum českého videa, Region 0 PAL (English subtitles)

1976 - Seclusion Near A Forest (Na samotě u lesa, 95 mins, IMDB)

  • Centrum českého videa, Region 0 PAL (English subtitles)

1978 - Those Wonderful Movie Cranks (Báječní muži s klikou, 85 mins, IMDB)

  • Centrum českého videa, Region 0 PAL (Czech HOH subtitles only)

1980 - Cutting It Short (Postřižiny, 93 mins, IMDB)

  • Centrum českého videa, Region 0 PAL (English subtitles)

1983 - Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek, 83 mins, IMDB)

  • Centrum českého videa, Region 0 PAL (English subtitles)

1985 - My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková, 100 mins, IMDB)

  • Centrum českého videa, Region 0 PAL (English subtitles)

1989 - The Last of the Good Old Days (Konec starých časů, 93 mins, IMDB)

  • Centrum českého videa, Region 0 PAL (Czech HOH subtitles only)

2002 - One Moment (IMDB)

  • Included in Ten Minutes Older: The Cello, Blue Dolphin, Region 0 PAL (review: DVD Times

2006 - I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále, 120 mins, IMDB)

  • Centrum českého videa, Region 0 PAL (Czech HOH subtitles only)

As ever, additions and corrections are most appreciated.

Posted on 2nd August 2007
Under: Czechoslovakia, Czech Republic, Jiří Menzel, DVD Surveys | 6 Comments »

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